By Micah D. Halpern
Israeli-based Micah D. Halpern, is an educator, theologian and historian. He lectures frequently, both in the United States and Israel, on issues relating to intellectual history, popular culture, religious studies, the Holocaust and inter-religious communication. He is the founding director of the Jerusalem Center for European Study
Women have emerged as central figures in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. The role these women play is an issue of uneasy curiosity for me.
Each of the sides in this conflict has utilized women in ways that are unique to the culture from which they spring and ways that are unique to any conflict. True, the United States sent women soldiers along with men to the shores of Muslim territory during the Gulf War and one female helicopter pilot was even taken a prisoner of war, but for the most part - against their say - they were kept hidden from the public eye. In this conflict, they are front and center.
On the Palestinian side, the obvious example is the female suicide bomber. A trend has begun. The female willing to blow herself into smithereens has entered with a blast. The Palestinian woman dressed in a bomb belt considers herself a fighter, a martyr for the cause. Israeli women in this conflict are also dressed in uniform, the uniform of the Israeli Defense Forces, the IDF, defending their nation. For the Palestinians it is a self-motivated desire to further the cause, for the Israelis it is a public relations tool.
Let's begin with the Palestinians. The number of young women who have joined the ranks of suicide bombers has grown exponentially over the past few months. What was a sensation has become more the norm. What was an object of speculation and disbelief has become the expected. Some of these suicide murderers are young and single, relatives of other male suicide bombers.
And then there are the mothers. Women who choose to sacrifice themselves, who know they will die, and leave their children, who, because of their deaths will also become heroes. They are the children of a shahida, the grammatical feminine of a shahid - a martyr and a somewhat problematic term in Arabic and for the Arab male ego and psyche.
It is far beyond my powers of comprehension. How can a mother kill herself? How can a mother kill herself, especially in a society where men do not raise children, the traditional Muslim Arab society? They hope for total solace with Allah in heaven, total peace, not 70 virgins like their male counterparts. Is that enough, is that what it takes?
The most traditional and male oriented of the terrorist groups have rejected women as suicide bombers. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have both come out with clear, unequivocal pronouncements declaring that women are not welcome in their ranks. This is man's work. The support of women and girls is welcome, but not their presence. Females are not to be allowed into the inner circle, the inner sanctum of the future shahid. They are not to participate in a mission, they say. A woman's place is not in battle.
Fatah, on the other hand, is more welcoming to women. Less religious in orientation and ideology than Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, the Al Aqsa Brigade and the Tanzim have accepted women, allowing them to go out and blow up.
Actually, several of the women - those who killed themselves and those who were caught along the way and interrogated - acknowledged that they first approached Islamic Jihad and then Hamas, only ending up in the ranks of a Fatah operation after being rejected from the other more extremist and Muslim groups.
The non-religious Muslim groups jumped at the opportunity to use this new secret weapon. They knew all to well how much easier it would be to get a woman into a crowded location. They costumed them as pregnant women to allow for even greater ease of movement and less invasive security checks. Israel security has never really, effectively, tackled the issue of how to search a religious, Muslim woman. A pregnant, religious, Muslim, woman inevitably raised less of a flag for Israel's security forces. Until now.
As for Israel, Israel has placed women directly in the war zone. The military war zone and the media war zone. For Israel, women are the Trojan Horse - springing forth against the Muslims and their traditional view of women.
Most of the briefings about Operation Defensive Shield were given by the head of a military intelligence branch of the army that interprets field operations. Colonel Eisen. Colonel Miri Eisen. Ms. Eisen. Yes, she happens to be the head of a military intelligence branch, but the operative term here is - she.
In the past the IDF always used spokesmen, emphasis on the men, to brief and to go on the record with statements and reports. And most intelligence briefings were strictly off the record.
Why, then, did the IDF push Miri Eisen to the center of the parade ground?
To get in their face. The Arab world, the Palestinian leadership, monitors the Israeli press and Israeli press representatives very closely. There she was, in charge and in control, coming down strong on the Palestinians - and CNN and CBS and BBC were all watching.
The Israelis took it even further. Not only was Col. Eisen in the studio, but she was also out in the field. Gone was the well-pressed, two-tone, dress uniform. There she was, in a field near Jenin, in fatigues with maps in hand and a small M-16 slung over her shoulder.
What message is Israel sending? Israel is playing the sexist card to the Muslim world.
There's more. As the Jenin operation was winding down a group of women serving as members of a tank unit were filmed - with their tanks and their rifles, patrolling the outskirts of Jenin. Once again, a clear message.
And then there was press coverage of initiation marches by women entering into the Engineer Corps and the Border patrol, two elite army corps. Given any other year these ceremonies would have received minimal coverage in the Israeli press. This year the women were interviewed, dirty and sweaty and tired after a 40-mile hike talking about their contribution to the defense of Israel.
The message here - Israel is free and democratic.