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By 8 a.m. in the Jabalya Refugee Camp in Gaza, there are already more than a dozen women lined up outside the al Ata center. They are waiting to see Naime Holoh, a woman who has spent three decades fighting for the liberation of Palestine. The center, which offers a variety of literacy and small-business training programs, promotes what Holoh sees as one of the keys to her people's future: the economic and social empowerment of their women.

Holoh bears many scars from her decades-long confrontations with Israeli authorities, the most visible of which are her blind left eye and prosthetic right hand, injuries she sustained as an armed
combatant for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Then there are the not-so-visible scars, the emotional ones, from years involved in the Sisyphean struggle for Palestinian statehood. Holoh's political involvement has followed a trajectory from armed revolutionary to impassioned pacifist, a progression that has as much to do with the freedom of women as it does with the freedom of her country.

Ironically it was in an Israeli prison, where other women prisoners taught her to read and write and where she was exposed to the works of Simone de Beauvoir and Karl Marx, that Holoh's feminism was formed. Holoh explains as we walk toward the waiting women: "It was at that time that I made the connection between the liberation of Palestine, and the liberation of women. I then came to realize that without educated women, there could be no progress. And this is where it must all start if we are to succeed."

Holoh's story begins in Jabalya, where her parents and many other Palestinians fled after being forced from their homes in 1948. She was born there in 1952. In 1969, at age 17, her best friend was killed in front of her by an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) grenade. "One moment," Holoh recalls, "she was laughing and holding her baby. The next she was lying dead in a pool of blood." Enraged by her friend's death, Holoh volunteered to work for the PLO, at first carrying secret messages on her bicycle, then carrying weapons. She soon became the first woman soldier in the PLO to engage in direct armed combat. In 1972, during a confrontation with the IDF, Holoh was seriously injured and captured by Israeli authorities. She spent the next five years in prison, where she endured regular beatings and interrogations, but where she also developed a solidarity with the other women prisoners and began crafting a feminist agenda.

When she was released, Holoh started organizing women's groups in Gaza, focusing on issues such as economic empowerment, education, health, and child care. She staged protests (often holding placards within inches of the cocked guns of Israeli soldiers) and even worked with Israeli women's groups until the Israeli government banned her from traveling to Israel and other sections of Palestine. During these years, Holoh began questioning the merits of armed struggle. "I felt that I could have a much more direct impact by focusing my attention on social and economic development issues," she says.

Despite the fact that her resistance efforts were now peaceful, she was still arrested several times, spending an additional nine years in prison. Her reputation as a fighter eventually earned her the grudging admiration of her captors. "When I was arrested in 1989," recounts Holoh, "the military governor personally escorted me to jail. When I asked him why I was being arrested, he said, 'When you organize women, you encourage the people to rise up against us. What you're doing now is more dangerous than when you were a combatant.'"

Shortly after her third jail term, Holoh became the head of the al Ata society (which grew out of a project sponsored and still partially funded by the Swedish Organization for Individual Relief), a group dedicated to the promotion of women's economic survival. And through her work with the Palestine Democratic Union, a progressive group, Holoh educates women about their political rights.

"Those who have sacrificed their lives, who have paid with blood and limb, those who have lost the most in Palestine, are women."

Above all, Holoh is a survivor. And it is her survival skills that she transmits to the women who come to her center. "Those who have sacrificed their lives," she says, "who have paid with blood and limb, those who have lost the most, are women, whose children and husbands have been killed, injured, or imprisoned. And they suffer daily."

As if on cue, Oum Rashid, a woman in her early fifties, approaches us. Her husband, she explains, is out of work—not an uncommon story in Gaza, where the unemployment rate is more than 50 percent. He had been employed as a construction worker in Israel, but when the border closed in the autumn of 2000 he lost his job. Now the family of eight has exhausted their savings. Oum Rashid has sold most of her possessions, but she still has gold earrings that have been in her family for generations. "I might have to sell them soon," she says. Instead, Holoh suggests a few sources of financial assistance, including some community benefactors—families who are willing to share what they have with the less fortunate. She also promises to intercede on Oum Rashid's behalf at the local Islamic welfare society, which along with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees and the Palestinian Authority, is one of the few sources of aid.

Holoh encourages Oum Rashid to attend a knitting workshop so she can start selling sweaters in the market. Although no one in Gaza has much money now for buying sweaters, several women in Holoh's center are still managing to support their families on their meager earnings. In an adjoining room, a woman works on the center's one knitting machine while others wait their turn. Across the hall, a group of mentally disabled young women and men are learning carpentry skills from a local tradesman, a project also initiated by Holoh. Her pottery workshop has closed because there is no money for materials. Similarly, a beauty parlor that trained women in aesthetics—which included anything from the art of manicures to the art of fitting prosthetic limbs—has shut down.

Holoh speaks patiently to the rest of the women, many of whom have simply come seeking moral support. She then retreats to a back room, where she expresses frustration with the current situation that has put women's issues "back to square one." While the status of women improved during the eighties intifada, she says, with many women playing a prominent role through resistance activities, that is no longer the case. Women's status has been diminished because the "building up of civil society," which includes education and women's issues, is "not an urgency for the Palestinian government." In addition, she says, the signing of the 1994 Oslo Accord "sold out" her people for the sake of political expediency. Social services have been usurped in favor of security forces. And increasing economic difficulties have further damaged the position of women. "Now," she says, "food is more of a priority than education." The work that Holoh has done has been dwarfed by the basic struggle for survival. "The current political situation is desperate," she says.

A few months after my meeting with Holoh, the situation has fallen ever closer to the abyss. "This is the worst it's been since 1967," she tells me by phone. "We have no sugar, flour, or rice." Many people are using what little firewood they have for fuel, and many homes are without water because Israel controls much of the supply. Hardly anyone has electricity since they can't afford to pay their utility bills. It is summer, but there is no produce: the Israeli army has destroyed thousands of olive and fruit trees.

Al Ata may close if money can't be found to pay the rent, now five months overdue. But if it does close, there will be nowhere for these women to go. The women come not only for practical help, but also, says Holoh, "Because I respect them and understand what they're going through." Holoh also acknowledges that "it's hard to liberate women in a state of siege with no functioning economy."

The difference, she says, between the current intifada and the one in the eighties is that Israel's overt bombing campaign, military and economic blockade, and border closure have caused massive unemployment. In addition, many businesses and factories that were part of Gaza's fledgling internal economy have been bombed or bulldozed, leaving their workers—many of whom were women—without jobs or income. Summing up the situation, Holoh says, "We are trapped, trapped in a giant prison."

B Hadani Ditmars is a freelance writer in Vancouver, British Columbia.