On Fatima Bernawi, Women's Struggle, and Black-Palestinian Solidarity
March 30 2023

When I started learning about Palestine, I was always struck by the women who featured prominently in the movement's work. The names of Leila Khaled, Hanan Ashrawi, Zahira Khamal, and others percolated the pages of my books, while I had the privilege of learning directly from others, like Fayrouz Sharqawi and Jean Zaru. However, one woman’s story struck me and has stayed with me ever since: Fatima Bernawi.

I learned about Bernawi the very first time I visited Jerusalem. Although physically absent, she was present in the stories and histories of the Afro-Palestinian community in The Old City.

Born in Jerusalem in 1939 to a Nigerian father and a Palestinian-Jordanian mother, Bernawi’s life and political perspectives were shaped by the Nakba, which she experienced at the age of nine. She went on to join the newly formed Fatah movement and nearly carried out an attack on an Israeli establishment frequented by Occupation Forces (IOF). Fatima was jailed and sentenced to life in prison, making history as the first woman to be arrested by the IOF.

She spent 10 years in prison before being released in a prisoner exchange, like most Palestinians, her time in Israeli detention did nothing but increase her resolve. She eventually worked closely with Yasser Arafat to set up the Palestinian Women’s Police in Gaza, which, by 2022, would boast of 532 officers. Residing in Egypt, Bernawi campaigned for the right to a free Palestine until she died in November of 2022. 

The impact of Bernawi’s work for the liberation of Palestine calls attention to two often underexplored groups within the Palestinian liberation movement: women and people of African descent. The centrality of women to the ongoing liberation of Palestine is one that cannot be overstated. From the days of the first Intifada, women’s collectives mobilized in support of the general strikes and boycotts of Israeli goods, engaged in front-line resistance, and served as socio-political griots, securing the histories of Palestine through the spoken word. Their contribution to the movement is invaluable. and the arc of Palestinian resistance is incomplete without it.

Whereas popular narratives — specifically Western ones — have reduced women’s struggles to two-dimensional domestic participation, Mohammed El-Kurd argues that “Palestinian women have stood at the forefronts of our resistance. Not only nursing victims of violence, but actively orchestrating popular resistance movements.” It therefore stands to reason that a true appreciation and celebration of underrepresented histories of Palestinian women like Bernawi — among others — cannot be relegated to the dusty corridors of history. They must be celebrated.

Bernwai sits in a unique overlap as a Black woman, having lived at the intersection of dual identities whose contributions have deeply impacted the movement. The contributions of Afro-Palestinians to the formation of a modern Palestinian identity are substantial. The history of Afro-Palestinians in Jerusalem traces back to the nineteenth century, when Muslims from Nigeria, Chad, Senegal, and Sudan migrated to the region after Hajj in Mecca. Others came with the Egyptian army as volunteer soldiers during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and have since established a home in the African Quarter in Jerusalem. Generations of Afro-Palestinians have been essential to the fabric of Palestinian society — resisting the colonial Zionist regime whilst simultaneously imagining and building new Palestinian futures.

Black communities beyond Palestine also have a long and storied history of solidarity with the Palestinian people. From the Black Panthers in pre-civil rights America to Nelson Mandela in Apartheid South Africa, Black freedom movements have been deeply invested in the vision of a free Palestine. Bound by their common struggles against settler colonialism, economic disenfranchisement, and gross human rights abuses, Black communities have rallied against the dispossession of the Palestinian people.

Organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — the arm for student participation during the American civil rights movement  — issued a statement in 1967 publicly denouncing the Occupation of Palestine, while activists like James Baldwin, Angela Davis, and Malcolm X troubled the conscience of a complicit society whose government funds the ongoing Occupation. This investment in the Palestinian cause speaks to the freedom-seeking tradition of the Black experience, which is intimately linked to the Palestinian call for justice from the river to the sea. This was intimated by Mandela when he declared, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

The interconnectedness of our struggles is exemplified in the infamous police training exchange programs between American police departments and the Israeli regime.  What is marketed as a bilateral skill and intelligence exchange is a brutal and dehumanizing project aimed at subjugating dissent through any means necessary, often affecting minority groups disproportionately. 

The results of these exchanges are evident: the notorious NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program was in part based on the surveillance of Palestinians in the West Bank. The sale of Skunk — a foul-smelling liquid meant to deter protestors — was purchased by the St. Louis Metropolitan police department during the 2014 Ferguson protests. And strikingly, the police chief of Memphis — the city in which Tyree Nichols was brutally murdered — underwent leadership training with the “Israel National Police” in 2013, eventually establishing an international exchange with Israeli police.

To be trained by an apartheid regime that continues to violate international law and commit gross human rights abuses defiantly is to recreate similar systems in one’s own jurisdiction. Therefore, who more than Black people — who live in the shadow of institutional violence daily, in part because of this unholy alliance — should raise our voices in support of the Palestinian cause? From Baltimore to Bethlehem, our freedoms are interlinked and non-negotiable.

The question of Palestine is one of history’s most significant moral barometers, demanding that we remain true to the ideals we espouse, lest posterity regards us with contempt.

About The Author: 

Elom Tettey-Tamaklo is a first-year Master of Theological Studies student at Harvard Divinity School focusing on religion, ethics, and politics. His interests lie at the intersection of public theology and international law, specifically in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Most recently, Elom lived and worked with UNRWA in Amman, Jordan, and hopes to continue working in the international legal space.

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