Documenting the struggle

A photography project on the role of Palestinian women in the nation's struggle

Palestine: Women First is a photography project on the key role of young Palestinian women in their nation’s struggle. The photos are set to be shown in an exhibit curated by Saher Saman at the Marji Gallery and Contemporary Projects in Santa Fe, USA, this summer. The women’s actions on the ground employ a perspective that runs contrary to and undermines the standard Western depictions of Arab women as passive and submissive. The photographer, Mati Milstein, who himself is both Israeli and male, says he had a unique and rare opportunity to connect and collaborate with these women. Mashallah News got a chance to speak to him and one of the activists, Diana.

Mati, who are you and why did you start photographing Palestinian women activists?

I grew up in a fairly typical American Jewish Diaspora family and spent my elementary years in a non-religious but Zionist-oriented Jewish school, until I was thrown out after fourth grade for failing to learn the Hebrew language. Oddly enough, given my total lack of interest in things Jewish, Israeli or Zionist, I moved from New Mexico to Tel Aviv in 1998 to work for a news photo agency. Since then, I have been working here as a photojournalist and reporter.

As a result of my upbringing, I had long seen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a very specific lens in terms of both its causes and its potential solutions. During my years working in Israel, I didn’t actually know any Palestinians, never mind had any Palestinian friends. Arab areas of Israel — and, even more so, of the West Bank and Gaza — were simply black, threatening places on my personal map. I lived within what one university lecturer of mine once described as a geography of fear.

It was friendships that initially began to draw me — physically — to Palestinian areas. I suddenly realised something that now seems so obvious that is sounds, in fact, quite ridiculous: Palestinians are people just like me. It is easy to belittle this seemingly basic realisation but, for Israelis or other Jews who grow up within an overpowering system of education, socialisation and nationalist propaganda, this evolution in perspective should not be taken for granted.

The more I learned about the Palestinian narrative, the more I realised how limited had been my own perspective on this conflict. The door of my consciousness now cracked open, I decided about two years ago to focus more of my professional work on Palestinian and began shooting street protests against the Israeli occupation. I wanted to know more, to see more.

It was during the course of this that I began to see the same faces over and over — Palestinian women activists, mostly operating in Ramallah, Qalandiya and the small West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. As young, liberal and independent women taking a role on the front lines and behind the scenes of protest activism against the Israeli occupation and for gender equality within their own society, they stood out starkly in the Palestinian socio-political landscape. One day, while shooting in Nabi Saleh, I simply started talking with one of the key activists and, through her, slowly met and formed connections with other activists. The project seemed almost self-evident from that point forward.

How important is it for an Israeli man to work with this issue? 

As an Israeli man, I am well aware that I stand at the opposite end of the conflict’s power dynamic from the Palestinian women whose actions I am documenting. I am an Israeli. I am a Jew. And, perhaps most important in this context, I am a man. In theory, I should be able to relate much more easily to the experiences of the Israeli male soldiers than to those of the Palestinian women activists. During the course of my work on this project, I realised that in order to successfully achieve my goals, I simply needed to keep my mouth shut and my mind open. This is what I did, and this project has granted me a new body of knowledge that has led my own personal perspectives to evolve and change dramatically.

The year has been one of protests. How has that affected your work?

The protests and revolutions across the Middle East had a clear influence on Palestinian activists in the West Bank. The climate of change across the Arab world lead to a situation, by last spring, in which a core group of feminist Palestinian women felt empowered not just to act for change vis a vis the Israeli occupation and abuses of power by the Palestinian Authority, but also for gender equality within their own society. I found it an amazing opportunity to attempt to portray the women activists I met here in as accurate and respectful a manner as possible.

During my work, I was surprised that, contrary to what I would have assumed, the fact that these activists are women granted them a certain advantage in direct verbal and physical confrontations with Israeli troops. Israeli soldiers (indeed, soldiers around the world) are trained to react to violent actions by men or by armies. When confronted by young, non-violent, vocal women, soldiers are simply at a loss; they have not been provided with the psychological or practical tools to deal with such a situation. These demonstrations of courage in often extremely violent confrontations with Israeli troops were extremely moving to witness.

How have your photos been received?

Israeli reactions to this project have been mixed and there has been no small amount of negative reaction. Typical responses to my work include: “Whose side are you on, anyway?!” or “Why are you always showing our army is such a negative light?” Some Israelis have gone so far as to query why I have so many Arab and Palestinian friends and to question my “loyalty to the state.”

On the other hand, I have received much support from the Israeli left-wing activists and from fellow photographers. I also had an interesting interaction with a friend from the Ethiopian Jewish community. Veteran Ethiopian immigrants in Israel have traditionally been very supportive of the state and its institutions, most notably the army. But this friend said that, after experiencing first-hand Israeli racism against Ethiopians and viewing my photographs of Israeli soldiers acting against Palestinian women, she will do all she can to prevent her brother from being drafted to the Israeli army. It was very important for me to see someone from the centre-right of the Israeli political map draw this connection between the racism of mainstream Israeli society against her own minority community and Israeli racism against Palestinians.

For me, this project is also part of an ongoing, long-term personal process of reevaluating long-held assumptions and seemingly sacred paradigms of enemies vs. allies, us vs. them. I am an Israeli Jew, but my enemy and the threat to my future is not the Palestinians, but rather those who hold racism, hatred, intolerance and injustice above the ideals of peace, justice, equality and reconciliation. My partners in this journey, it seems, may just as likely be Palestinian Muslims or Christians as they might be Israeli Jews.

Diana, who are you and why are you an activist?

I’m Palestinian but also half Bulgarian from my mother’s side. I’ve lived in Palestine most of my life and went to college and university there. I graduated from Birzeit University with a journalism major and a sociology minor.

I’ve been a socio-political activist for a while now in the popular resistance in Palestine against the Israeli occupation, apartheid, land confiscation, their polices in the Jordan Valley, the wall building, settlements, restrictions on freedom of movement, and for justice, dignity, freedom and — you name it. I’m also one of about 20 people who started the March 15 Movement in Ramallah, demanding an end to the Palestinian division — on all levels, not only the political one.

During the course of my work on this project, I realised that in order to successfully achieve my goals, I simply needed to keep my mouth shut and my mind open.

From where do you get your strength and inspiration?

I think it’s from the belief I have in my people, the Palestinians. From friends and fellow activists; from seeing people who suffer but continue to fight. Their strength to not give up is probably what keeps me going. And a knowledge of the injustice that is in practice in the daily life, or has been happening throughout history.

What impact have the last year’s events had on you?

The year of 2011 was in terms of activism the best one for me. The fact that after March 15, many of us came together and started working with each other was great. Personally, I think that my fight and the fight of many women around me is about feminism and women’s rights. But politics also. What happened in Tunisia and then Egypt was an inspiration on many levels. The fact that we saw a regime such at that of Mubarak fall within two weeks was a strong push for us to work harder and mobilise more people. We’ve had enough of stereotypes about how Arabs are and what they do in their lives. The fact that the whole world now is inspired by the Arab Spring is just amazing.

But one thing to keep in mind is that Palestinians have been living under occupation for 63 years and many have given a lot but lost so much. A large part of society feels hopeless so that’s our main issue when mobilising people on the ground.

In what way is justice for Palestine part of the current revolutions?

That can’t be put aside or be treated any differently. The Egyptian revolution got its peaceful and non-violent measures through the Palestinians, who have been using these methods since the 1930s. The revolutions around the world are about demanding justice. Us Palestinians have been doing that since a while back. But what’s happening in Palestine is slightly different since it’s about the Palestinian people versus Israel. March 15 was not exactly against the Palestinian Authority. It was more about uniting Palestinians, getting them full representation at the PLO, and making sure that politicians follow what people want — which unfortunately is not the case now.

What about the role played by Palestinian women activists?

Women played an essential part in leading the revolutions in the Arab world. This is not something new for us Palestinians; women have always been involved in the movements against the Israeli occupation. Even when the resistance was armed, they were part of it.

Their strength to not give up is probably what keeps me going.

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