A purse, a song, and a gun

Latifa Dirbas carries a jug of water on her head from the village of Bal’a, weaving from one mountain to the other while keeping track of the revolutionaries. Meanwhile, Umm Wedad Arouri leaves her village of Arura to Saffa, then to Birzeit, then to Ramallah, where she delivers an oral message to the rebels there. She answers their questions, describes the means of transport, and gives them supplies, telling them where the weapons are locatedBritish soldiers stop Latifa on her way, but she tells them she’s only going to fetch some coal.

Latifa and Umm Wedad were not alone in their actions. Women played a key role in supplying, informing, and financing the Palestinian Revolution. Women from villages sold their jewelry, while women in cities used their inheritance money to pay for the Revolt. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, the entire Palestinian family was affected by colonial policies. But if only historical documents are observed, one will note the marked absence of women in this period, whether it be socially, economically, or in struggle. Even so, the Palestinian narrative before the Nakba will remain incomplete without examining and understanding the role of women in the struggle against colonialism.

Although colonial regimes have often claimed to champion women’s liberation, supposedly aiming to spread “freedom and justice” to marginalized groups, even cursory scrutiny will reveal the spuriousness of such claims. Often, colonialism limited the parameters for women’s emancipation, under the pretext of respecting local society, customs, and traditions..

But Palestinian women did not need colonialism to justify their actions. They fought in their homes and in the streets. They resisted colonialism politically, economically, and ethically. And quite crucially, they played an instrumental role in guerilla warfare by supporting the male fighters—as carriers of information, keepers of secrets, and smugglers of weapons. Their role in uplifting morale only bolstered such tasks.

From mountain to mountain I will carry your weapons

After the First World War, the Palestinians suffered major economic setbacks. Palestine had served as a battleground, leading to the damage of infrastructure, the exacerbation of an already harsh famine resulting from a locust plague, and subsequently, a drop in population. The devaluation of the currency and the disruption of the economy all added to the worsening conditions.

In those circumstances, the British Mandate imposed employment laws that granted jobs to the petty bourgeois class at the expense of other classes. Education was neglected, garnering only 5% of budget allocations. At the end of 1927, the number of schools for boys was fifty-three, compared with only four schools for girls. This reflected the absence of women in colonial thinking, despite the slogans calling for their liberation. The colonial masters cynically blamed this absence on the attitudes of local society. This was the same justification the British used to grant women unspecialized jobs, claiming for instance that there were no qualified “Muslim female teachers” capable of working in rural areas. But the “efficiency” of rural women surpassed colonial expectations.

The struggle of Palestinian women in the 1920s and 1930s

Rural women shared an intimate relationship with weapons. They would take care of weapons as if they were their own children—cleaning them, maintaining them, and hiding them in the fields. When the army attacked her village, Umm Ahmad hid the gun inside her dress before burying it in a potato field. After collecting some potatoes to cover up her act, one of the English soldiers mocked her and asked: “What are you doing?” Umm Ahmad replied: “I am taking these” – she held up the potatoes- “to feed him”- and pointed at her child. “Is that it?” the soldier asked. “That’s it,” she insisted.

Women were trained in handling and firing weapons. Zakia Huleileh recounts how she was taught in operating the Sten and Tommy Guns, two English-manufactured machine guns. She found them hard to carry, but her brother would encourage and teach her: “he would place a rock as a target and tell me: shoot!”

According to Hassna Masoud, the women of Tirat Haifa and Ramin were known for carrying weapons and fighting:

“When the guards of Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad were captured, the women came out and fired at the English, to make them think that they had apprehended the wrong fighters.”

This was verified by Sabha Yacoub from Ramin.

The women played an important role in concealing weapons within their loose clothing, becoming a means of transport which fueled the logistics of the revolution. Fatima al-Khatib from Ain Bait al-Ma’ recalled how she would hide weapons in her “bosom,” or in the fireplace, where she would “pile manure over it”.

Women also played a coordinating role with the rebels to secure food supplies for besieged villages. When the British army besieged Baqa al-Gharbiyya, the soldiers rigged the bridges and roads leading to it with mines to cut supplies for villages and rebels. The women did not stand idly by when hunger threatened entire villages. They coordinated with the rebels, who raised white flags on the safe roads in order for women to reach the besieged villages safely.

Women and the High Commissioner

Tarab Abdul-Hadi, one of the pioneers of the Palestinian national movement, lived in a small house East of Jerusalem during the British Mandate. From this house began the movement of a silent convoy of cars, which passed through the city of Jerusalem, and ended with a speech in front of the High Commissioner’s headquarters. A list of demands from the demonstrators was presented to him. This took place immediately after the first women’s conference was held in October 1929, with the participation of 300 Palestinian women.

Abdul Hadi, Fayha’. “Adwar al-mar’a al-filastiniyya fi al-thalathinat 1930 – al-musahama al-siyasiyya lil mar’a al-Filastiniyya [The role of the Palestinian Woman in the Thirties, the Political Participation of the Palestinian Woman]. Al- Bira: Markaz al-Mar’a al-Filastiniyya lil-Abhath wa al-Tawthiq, 2005, p. 46.
Fleischmann, Ellen. Jerusalem Women’s Organizations During the British Mandate, 1920s-1930s. Jerusalem: Passia, 1994, p. 13.
Ibid, pp. 12-15.
Abdul Hadi, Palestinian Women, p. 84.
Ibid, p. 88.
Kabaha, Mustafa, and Nimer, Sarhan. Sijil al-Qada wa al-Thuwar wa al-Mutatau’een Lithawrat 1936-1939 [A Record of Leaders, Revolutionaries, and volunteers in the Revolution of 1936-1939]. Kufr Qare’: Dar al-Huda, 2009, p. 298.
Ibid, p. 925.
Abdul Hadi, Palestinian Women, pp. 83-85.
Khartabil, Wadi’a. “Dhikrayat wa Muthakarrat Qadura Khartabil, Bahthan ‘an al-amal wa al-Watan, Situn ‘Aman min Kifah Imra’a fi Sabil Qadiyyat Filastin [Memories and Memoirs of Qadura Khartabil, In Search of Hope and a Homeland, Sixty years of a woman’s struggle for Palestine].” Beirut: Bisan Publishing House, 1995, p. 76.
Alqam, Nabil. Tarikh al-Haraka al-Wataniyya al-Filastiniyya wa Dawr al-Mar’a Fiha [History of the Palestinian National Movement and the role of women in it]. Al-Bira: Markaz Dirasat al-Turath wa al-Mujtama’, 2005, p. 86.

Yusra al-Barbari

يسرى البربري



Yusra al-Barbari was born in the city of Gaza. Her father, Ibrahim al-Barbari, was a Gaza merchant and member of the city’s Municipal Council. Her mother was Labiba Mahmud Halawah. She had two brothers: Kamal, an attorney, and Sa‘id.

She attended the Gaza Girls Elementary School and completed her high school education at Schmidt College for Girls in Jerusalem.

She then travelled to Egypt where she enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and the Department of History of Fuad I University (later, Cairo University), where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1949. She was the first female university graduate in the Gaza Strip. She began to work on an M.A. thesis about the struggle of the Palestinian people against British occupation and the Balfour Declaration, supervised by the well-known historian Ashraf Ghurbal, but she did not complete that thesis. She was fluent in Arabic, English, and French.

Her working life began in Gaza, then under Egyptian administration, as a teacher at the Bir al-Sabi‘ Girls Elementary School; she was later appointed teacher and supervisor at the Zahra School, the only secondary school for girls in the Gaza Strip. She became inspector of social studies in girls’ schools where she developed a curriculum for female teacher training, which eventually became the Women Teachers Institute in Gaza. Following the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1967, she refused to work in any job under Israeli authority.

Ever since she was a young student, Yusra al-Barbari had taken part in demonstrations against the British Mandate, demanding the annulment of the Balfour Declaration and an end to Jewish immigration. During the years of her secondary school education in Jerusalem, she took part in numerous anti-Zionist and anti-Mandate activities. In Cairo, she participated in a massive demonstration organized by university students to protest the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. Along with other Gazan women she met the stream of Palestinian refugees coming from towns and villages occupied by Israeli forces during the 1948 war, provided them with basic services, taught refugee girls in tents, and took part in the national effort and in demonstrations protesting the scheme, advocated by Israel, to resettle the Palestinian refugees outside Palestine, in the Sinai. She participated in protests of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1956.

She was prominent in the field of sports, taking part in several Arab and international table-tennis tournaments, a sport she mastered. She worked as an administrative official in the Palestine girls’ table tennis team.

In the autumn of 1963 she joined Dr. Haydar Abd al-Shafi and Ibrahim Abu Sitta on the first Palestinian delegation to visit the United Nations and was chosen as a member of the First Palestine National Council, held in Jerusalem in May 1964, at which the Palestine Liberation Organization was established.

She played a prominent role in establishing the Women’s Union of Gaza in 1964 and was elected its president; she attached a workshop for weaving and embroidery. She led the Gaza women’s delegation to the conference which founded the General Union of Palestinian Women, held in Jerusalem in 1965.

When Israel occupied the Gaza Strip for the second time in June 1967, Yusra al-Barbari was the first person to arrive at the homes of political detainees and to offer aid to their families in the name of the Women’s Union. Because of her activities against the occupation, the Israeli authorities in 1974 prevented her from traveling for several years.

She became the executive secretary of the Gaza Red Crescent Society which was set up in 1969 and started its operations in 1972, and then a member of its board of directors. She was also a member of the Veterans’ Society and the Society for the Disabled in the Gaza Strip. In 2005, the Palestine Consultative Council of the Swiss group “League of 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize” (1000 Femmes pour le  Prix Nobel de la Paix) nominated her as one of eight Palestinian women candidates for the award. The Swiss initiative aimed to draw attention to the role played by women in all spheres of life and in bolstering peace in their societies.

Yusra al-Barbari died in Gaza and was given a solemn funeral. She was buried in the Martyrs Cemetery east of Gaza City.  Her death was officially announced by President Mahmoud Abbas and the Executive Committee of the PLO. A memorial service for her was held on 24 June 2009 at the Rashad al-Shawwa Cultural Center in Gaza city, attended by many prominent national figures. When pioneering Palestinian women were singled out to be honored at the opening of the fifth congress of the General Union of Palestinian Women on 21 May 2009, she was honored by receiving the Star of Jerusalem Medal, where the citation read: “In appreciation of her exceptional contributions and her early and distinctive participation in the national and educational struggle.”


دراغمة، عزت. “الحركة النسائية في فلسطين (1903-1990)”. القدس: مكتب ضياء للدراسات، 1991.

طوبي، أسمى. “عبير ومجد”. بيروت: مطبعة قلفاط، ط 1، 1966.

عبد الهادي، فيحاء. “يسرى إبراهيم البربري: باقية في ذاكرة الشعب الجماعية”. “الأيام” (رام الله)، 31 أيار/ مايو 2009:

الفراني، عبد الحميد جمال وعوني محمد العلوي. “أعلام النساء الفلسطينيات”. بيروت: دار العلوم العربية، 2013.

فيصل، نعمان. “أعلام من جيل الرواد من غزة هاشم منذ أواخر العهد العثماني وحتى القرن العشرين”. غزة: مكتبة اليازجي، 2010.

النحال زعرب، امتياز. “فلسطينيات: وجوه نسائية فلسطينية معاصرة”. غزة: دار المقداد للطباعة، ط1، 2013.

نصّار، إبراهيم (تحرير). “نساء من بلادي”. رام الله: طاقم شؤون المرأة، د. ت.

Abdul Hadi, Mahdi, ed. Palestinian Personalities: A Biographic Dictionary. 2nd ed., revised and updated. Jerusalem: Passia Publication, 2006.

palestinian journeys


Zulaykha al-Shihabi


زليخة الشهابي


 Death13 MAY 1992, JERUSALEM

Zulaykha al-Shihabi was born in Jerusalem. Her father was Ishaq Abd al-Qadir al-Shihabi, and her mother was Zainab al-Muhtadi. She had two brothers, Subhi and Jamil, and two sisters, Rasmiyya and Rifqa.

She was educated at the Notre Dame de Sion school. Her father (unlike most fathers at the turn of the century) insisted on sending his daughters to school to learn the sciences and languages, and Zulaykha was among the top students in her class.

From an early age she became conscious of the dangers of Zionism. She had been raised in a family with deep roots in Jerusalem, and she learned the history of her city since its earliest Arab Islamic days. She in turn conveyed to her classmates what she had heard from her parents.

She joined the nationalist struggle during the turmoil that followed the al-Buraq rebellion. She was present at the Palestine Arab Women Congress, which was held in Jerusalem in October 1929, was the first women’s political meeting at the national level, and was attended by some three hundred women, to discuss the political situation. The meeting then issued a memorandum setting out the reasons behind the rebellion and the demands of the people. She was elected as a member of the delegation that presented the memorandum to the High Commissioner. Matiel Mughannam gave a short speech in English; Tarab Abd al-Hadi gave a speech in Arabic. When the delegation returned to the meeting, a massive demonstration by women broke out, with some one hundred cars driving through the streets of Jerusalem and shouting thunderous slogans, amidst enormous popular enthusiasm.

She cofounded the Arab Women Society in Jerusalem as a follow-up to the resolutions of the 1929 meeting. Similar women societies were founded in most cities; some went by the name Arab Women’s Committees.

She worked with Milia al-Sakakini in a voluntary and free campaign to teach young girls basic reading and writing skills, and she founded al-Dawha School, which became well known for the education and health care it provided young girls.

Through the Arab Women’s Committees she played a prominent role during the General Strike and the Great Arab Revolt (1936–39). It was her idea to organize a large audience to attend the trials of rebels to raise their morale and to show the authorities that the people were behind their heroes.

She was a prominent member of the twenty-seven member delegation of Palestinian women that took part in the Eastern Women Congress in Cairo at the invitation of Huda Sha‘rawi, the Egyptian feminist leader, for the purpose of supporting the cause of Palestine. The conference convened in Cairo in October 1938 and included a very large number of Arab women who were pioneers in the social and national fields. Palestine was the focal point of that First inter-Arab women congress. Shihabi delivered her speech in the name of the Women Society of Jerusalem and spoke of the history of the problem and of British policy. When the congress came to elect deputies from each delegation, Shihabi and Wahida al-Khalidi were elected from the Palestinian delegation. At the end of the congress, she was invited to deliver a speech in the name of Palestine; she thanked everyone and ended with these words: “We return convinced that the people of Palestine are not alone as they wage their sacred struggle to save their homeland.”

Returning to Jerusalem she proceeded to implement Huda Sha‘rawi’s recommendation to unify Arab women’s activities under a single name, the Arab Women’s Union. So she announced the dissolution of the Arab Women’s Society in Jerusalem and the creation of the Palestinian Arab Women’s Union.

In heath and social welfare matters, her most notable achievement was to create, through the Women’s Union, a first-aid field committee charged with treating the wounded. She also created a clinic to treat the destitute, provide free inoculation against infectious diseases, and care for pregnant women and childcare; she also took part in securing shelters for orphans. The union defrayed the cost of educating tens of orphans in Dar al-aytam al-Islamiyya. In Jericho, she founded a winter resort for convalescence and a home for destitute women. People remember her as a woman who used to visit prisons and detention camps to encourage rather than console prisoners, carrying with her symbolic presents for political detainees to let them know that the people supported them.

She showed a special interest in sports. Under her supervision the union established a sports club with its own executive committee, its own sports program, and a large playing field. When the union held its conference on 16 July 1946, attended by a large number of Arab women from various Arab capitals, the flags of their countries were displayed on the sidelines of the playing field.

In the 1940s, she intensified the union’s activities in the cultural domain and sent out invitations to writers and artists to give lectures on scientific and national themes and to discuss cultural issues.

The secret of her success was that she did not rely solely on voluntary contributions but on productive work as well. Thus, the union from the very beginning bought several plots of land planted with vines or fruit trees and presented these plots to families of martyrs who would then care for the land and live off its produce. So too with women. The union taught them needlework and weaving in order to provide them with an income. The most notable decision was to teach young girls the art of flower making; they began to create artificial flowers. Shihabi herself would happily join them in their work and would join them also as they manufactured beauty creams. The union frequently organized charitable markets to sell its diverse products and spend the proceeds on charitable projects.

After the Nakba she redoubled her activities. Jerusalem remained her primary residence, but she frequently traveled to Amman. In 1959 she added to her other responsibilities the presidency of the Union of Charitable Societies in the Jerusalem District.

She travelled extensively, attending Arab and international women’s conferences, and visited both Britain and Russia in addition to many Arab capitals. She was an ideal representative of the Palestinian woman and the most eloquent in explaining the Palestine cause in public forums.

As an elected member of the executive of the General Union of Arab Women, she attended the meetings of the union as well as conferences devoted to women’s issues in Beirut, Cairo, and Jerusalem. She was a prominent female member of the First Palestine National Congress, from which emerged the PLO on 28 May 1964. As president of the Jerusalem women’s union she sought to popularize the idea of creating a general union of Palestinian women.

On 20 February 1965, she organized a general meeting in Jerusalem of representatives of women’s unions in Palestinian cities to prepare for a general conference to include Palestinian women both in Palestine and the diaspora and with the object of creating a broad framework to be called the General Union of Palestinian Women. As chairwoman of the preparatory committee, she oversaw the convening of the Palestinian Women’s Congress in July 1965 in Jerusalem. This was attended by 174 members, and the PLO Department of Popular Organizations contributed to the creation of the Union on the constitutional, organizational, and administrative levels. The union then came into existence.

After Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, Shihabi was one of the first figures it deported to Jordan. However, the intervention of several states and the United Nations forced Israel to allow her to return and resume her work as president of the union. She continued to work tirelessly until her death at age 89.

She died on 13 May 1992.  Her funeral prayer was held at al-Aqsa Mosque and was attended by many prominent national figures.


“الحركة الوطنية الفلسطينية: 1935- 1939. يوميات أكرم زعيتر”. بيروت: مؤسسة الدراسات الفلسطينية، 1980.

خرطبيل، وديعة قدورة. “بحثاً عن الأمل والوطن: ستون عاماً من كفاح امرأة في سبيل قضية فلسطين”.  بيروت: بيسان للنشر والتوزيع، 1995.

طوبي، أسمى. “عبير ومجد”. بيروت: مطبعة قلفاط، 1966.

Khalidi, Anbara Salam. Early Arab Feminism; The Life and Activism of Anbara Salam Khalidi. London: Pluto Press, 2013.

palestinian journeys


Leila Khaled

ليلى خالد


Leila Khaled was born in Haifa. Her father, Ali Khaled, and her mother, Jamila Lattuf, had seven girls and five boys. She and her husband, Fayiz Rashid, had two sons, Bader and Bashar.

Her family was forced to leave Haifa after the city fell to Zionist forces in April 1948, when she was barely four years old. The family settled in the Lebanese city of Tyre.

She studied at the Evangelical Union Schools in Tyre and completed her secondary education at the Sidon Girls School. 

In 1959 she joined the Arab Nationalist Movement and in 1963 she enrolled at the American University of Beirut and was elected a member of the administrative committee of the General Union of Palestinian Students in Beirut. She had to leave the university after one year because her family could not afford to pay her university fees.

Between 1963 and 1969, she worked as an English teacher in government schools in Kuwait. She had joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) as soon as it was founded in December 1967.

From 1969 to 1972, Khaled took part in foreign military operations of the PFLP, which were organized by Dr. Wadi Haddad.

On 29 August 1969 she and her comrade Salim Isawi hijacked a TWA airliner; they were imprisoned in Syria for a month and a half and then released. On 6 September 1970, she was one of the hijackers of an Israeli El Al airliner and was detained for a month in Britain when the pilot landed in London. An Argentinian comrade, Patrick Arguello, was killed aboard the plane by Israeli security guards.

Between 1973 and 1977, Leila Khaled joined the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon, working either as an official of the PFLP or as a member of the Secretariat of the General Union of Palestinian Women. She was also actively involved in the assistance to the displaced and the wounded following Israeli attacks on the Palestinian refugee camps.

She had been elected a member of the Secretariat of the Women’s Union at the second conference of that union in 1974. As a union activist, she took part in several international, regional, and local conferences and in many workshops devoted to women’s affairs; she also helped to establish (in 1978) the House of the Children of Resilience to care for children of the martyrs of Tal al-Za‘atar refugee camp north of Beirut when it fell to right-wing forces during the Lebanese civil war. This facility exists to the present day.

Between 1978 and 1980, Leila Khaled studied at the universities of Moscow and Rostov but cut short her studies when the PLO summoned all university students studying abroad to help defend the Palestinian revolution. During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, she worked (through the General Union of Palestinian Women) to find shelter for the displaced and tend to the wounded in hospitals.

In 1979, she became a member of the Palestine National Council at its fourteenth session held in Damascus; she continues to be a member of the council. In that capacity, she has been part of many Palestinian parliamentary delegations and was a member of the Arab Women Committee of the Arab Parliamentary Union.

After the exodus from Lebanon in 1982, the PFLP was reorganized, and Khaled occupied various administrative and leadership positions.

In 1986 the Palestine Women Organization was established to serve as a general framework for the PFLP, and Leila Khaled was elected first secretary. The organization worked to mobilize women to defend their rights and the rights of the Palestinian people through specially prepared programs and plans, and came to have branches in a number of Arab countries and abroad. The organization published a magazine, The Woman’s Voice, which she edited.

In 1993, she was elected a member of the Central Committee of the PFLP during its fifth national conference. In 2005 she was elected a member of the PFLP’s Political Bureau, a post she retains to the present day.

In 1992, she and her family moved to Amman, where she currently resides.

Inspired by her personal experiences of forced exile from her hometown and the suffering of her kin and nation, Leila Khaled took the struggle of Palestinian women into new and unprecedented directions.  She has made notable contributions in social, humanitarian, and political areas, in the service of her cause, and in defense of basic human rights.


Abdul Hadi, Mahdi, ed. Palestinian Personalities: A Biographic Dictionary2nd ed., revised and updated. Jerusalem: Passia Publication, 2006.

Dietl, Gulshan. “Portrait of a Revolutionary: Leila Khaled, 20 Years on.” The Middle East, no. 171 (January 1989): 59–60.

Irving, Sarah. Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation. London: Pluto Press, 2012 (translated into Arabic). 

Khaled, Leila. Women’s Liberation. Beirut: Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Information Department, 1971.

Khaled, Leila and George Hajjar. My People Shall Live: Autobiography of a Revolutionary. Toronto: NC Press, 1975.

Khaled, Leila and Rogério Ferrari. Palestine: existences-résistances. Paris: Passager Clandestin, 2008.

Snow, Peter, and David Phillips. Leilaʽs Hijack War: The True Story of 25 Days in September, 1970. London: Pan Books, 1970.

palestinian journeys


Nablus Soap Production

The production of soap is a very old tradition in the Middle East: it is based primarily on the production of olive oil. At first a domestic production, the soap industry developed in urban centers: the most famous are Aleppo in Syria, Tripoli in Lebanon, and Nablus in Palestine. Throughout the Ottoman period, big families of the urban bourgeoisie acquired the main soap factories located in the city center of Nablus. In the nineteenth century, the soap industry became the dominant economic sector of the city: owning a soap factory became a symbol of wealth, prestige, and urban belonging.

Process of Making Soap

The few Nablus soap factories that have remained operational follow more or less the same manufacturing process (except for some minor changes) that was developed two centuries ago. It is a five-step process—cooking, laying, cutting, drying, and packaging—supported by four different teams of workers.

At the ground floor of the soap factory, olive oil (the main ingredient) mixed with caustic soda and water is placed in a large bowl (halla) and “cooked” for three days. (In the first half of the twentieth century, caustic soda, imported from Alexandria and Europe, replaced the qeli, a plant turned into ashes.) Under the tank, a boiler helps the process of saponification. Once the mixture is ready, the head of the team tastes the soap or crumbles it on his hand to check its texture. Then porters carry the mixture in buckets and pour it on a designated section of the first floor (mafrash), where it dries for a day before being shaped into small cubes, stamped with the brand of the soap factory, and cut by a team of three to four trained workers. A day later, the same workers pile the pieces of soap into pyramids (tananir). The soap then dries for two to three months. Another team packages the soap, wrapping it in a paper with the brand of the soap factory. These workers pack an average of 500 to 1,000 bars of soap per hour.

In the heyday of soap production in Nablus, factories were registered companies with brand names and a printed logo on the soap wrapping paper. These brands were often symbols or names of animals; examples include muftahein (the two keys), al-jamal (the camel), al-na‘ama (the ostrich), al-najma (the star), al-baqara (the cow), al-badr (the full moon), and al-assad (the lion). Slogans were added on the packaging such as al-sabun al-Nabulsi al-mumtaz (Nablus soap extra) or al-ma‘ruf (the well-known).

Decline of Soap Production in Nablus before 1948

By 1930, Nablus soap production had experienced its first important setback. Several reasons are usually given for this decline. Egypt and Syria, which were major markets for Nablus soap (especially Egypt), imposed taxes on imported soap. Nablus soap was competing with soap production in Egypt. The label “Nabulsi” attached to the soap was not protected, and as a result, counterfeiting took place. This, coupled with the rise in the price of pure olive oil after the Great Depression of 1929, contributed to raise the price of Nablus soap, making it difficult for Nablus producers to compete with other imported soaps. In addition, Jewish mechanized industry, which also succeeded to obtain customs benefits from the British Mandate, provided local competition.

This first soap crisis reveals the effects, though indirect, of Jewish immigration in the region of Nablus, hitherto relatively protected from the consequences of the Zionist colonization. In general, the absence of a sovereign state capable of controlling borders and taxes meant that Nablus soap was unprotected, while at the same time the British Mandate granted customs benefits to the Zionists traders, and Egypt and Syria were able to impose barriers to protect their local production.

After 1948, the market of historic Palestine closed; so too did the Egyptian market. The East Bank of the Jordan River (Jordan) became the main market for Nablus soap. Soap producers were gradually forced to import olive oil from Syria and Lebanon, and secondarily from Spain and Italy.

Transformation and Final Decline of the Soap Industry

In the 1950s Hamdi Kan‘an, brother-in-law of the soap producer and trader Ahmad Shaka‘a, introduced in Nablus what was called “green soap,” a soap made from jift (solid remains of first press olives, mainly kernels) oil: it was a lower quality soap used to wash the floor and do the laundry. This was a small revolution. Indeed, the exploitation of this new, much cheaper type of oil allowed less wealthy families to rent soap factories and mass-produce household soap. During the 1970s, production of this “second class” soap (which quickly took the generic name of “Kan‘an”), developed rapidly. But it also helped some soap factory workers to become small manufacturers; they rented soap factories in the old city and started to produce soap. At this time, some soap factories tried to mechanize and “develop” the Nablus soap in its form, packaging, and ingredients. Another change (a consequence of the Israeli occupation of 1967) is that all kinds of oils started to be used.

Despite the attempts by some in the soap industry to transform production and adapt to the changing circumstances, the soap industry experienced a steady regression during the second half of the twentieth century, and the first intifada marked the final decline. Small factories producing green soap were already being marginalized by the introduction of detergents and washing machines and cheaper foreign products (like Lux and Palmolive). They could not compete, nor could they afford the new taxes imposed on the soap: their lack of capital prevented them from maintaining their production. Moreover, since the first intifada, soap production became harder to maintain, because the old city was the target of Israeli attacks, and many soap factories thus closed in the 1990s.

In summary, cheaper foreign products as well as the introduction of new consumption patterns brought about the decline of the soap industry in Nablus. Of the more than thirty soap factories in the old city of Nablus, several were damaged by the Israeli invasion of 2002 and two of them completely destroyed; most of the rest have been abandoned or put to other uses. For example, the Arafat soap factory is being developed into a cultural center for children; some producers are using perfumes and mechanization to produce new soaps to keep the tradition of soap making in Nablus alive. Since 2007 only two soap factories have remained functional in Nablus, and they belong to the Tuqan and Shaka‘a families, who keep them as a heritage. These factories export the vast majority of their production to Jordan, taking advantage of long-standing relationships with the distributors on the East Bank of the river and the importance of the Palestinian population in Jordan. From there, a small part of the production is sent to Kuwait and the Gulf.

Selected Bibliography

Bahjat, Mohammad, and Rafiq Tammimi. Wilayat Bayrut: al-qism al-janubi [The Province of Beirut: Its Southern Part]. Beirut: al-Iqbal Press, 1916.

Bontemps, Véronique. “Soap-Factories in Nablus. Palestinian Heritage (Turâth) at the Local Level.” Journal of Balkan and Near-Eastern Studies 14, no.2 (2012): 279–295.

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Endurance in the Fertile Crescent
Jericho, located in the West Bank region of the Middle East, is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet.

The Fall of Jericho from Gates of Paradise, by Lorenzo Ghiberti © Bill Ross/CORBIS
History and Environment
Jericho’s 14,000-year survival is a direct result of biological and geological advantages that explain why a settlement was established there in the first place. This essay explores the idea that the history of a place is just as much about its physical environment as it is about superior technology or government. Big historians, who are interested in the appearance and development of the first agrarian civilizations, ask probing questions: What were the geographical and biological advantages favoring certain regions that facilitated the appearance of the first towns and cities there? What role did climate play in allowing for agrarian civilizations to appear in some regions, while others remained better suited for foraging? And why is it that, while some agrarian civilizations seem to have abused their environments, and thus sowed the seeds of their own destruction, others were able to husband the advantages provided by geography and biology and successfully sustain themselves for thousands of years?
To illustrate this critical relationship between history and its environmental context, we use the city of Jericho as a case study. Jericho is the oldest city on the planet, situated today in the West Bank region of the Middle East. The location and long-term survival of the city is an excellent example of the impact of the environment on human history. The establishment of Jericho 14,000 years ago resulted from the same geographical and biological factors that led to the most significant revolution in all human history — the appearance of agriculture.

Hisham Palace in Jericho © Atlantide Phototravel/CORBIS

To remind ourselves just how revolutionary this transition was, let’s consider the situation some 15,000 years ago. Humans had by then occupied every continent on the globe except Antarctica. Every single human, wherever they lived, survived by foraging, also known as hunting and gathering. Humans had invented a wide array of foraging techniques specifically adapted to different environments, which ranged from the deserts of Australia to the Arctic ice. But the small size of most foraging bands, and the fact that few exchanges took place between them, limited the amount of collective learning that went on

But then something changed! Between 11,000 and 10,000 years ago, new lifeways and technologies associated with farming began to appear. Farming eventually gave humans access to more food and energy; consequently, humans began to multiply more rapidly and live in larger communities like villages, towns, and eventually cities. These processes led to an entirely new level of complexity in the human condition. The transition to agriculture was the first step in a cultural revolution that utterly transformed human societies and drove our species onto a path that led rapidly toward the astonishing complexity of the modern world. And one of the most significant steps in the early stages of that process was the emergence of large settlements like Uruk and Tenochtitlan — and Jericho.To explore the history of Jericho we need first to take a look at the role of climate change in encouraging humans to make this transition to farming, particularly in the Fertile Crescent. Then we need to consider the Natufian people, who were some of the first humans to adopt farming and also were the founders of the small foraging base that went on to become the city of Jericho. Next we need to ask, why there? What particular geological and biological advantages did Jericho have that not only explain why it was established where it was but also account for its longevity? We conclude with a closer look at events in Jericho, further evidence of the importance of environmental factors in the rich tapestry of human history.


The bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Palestine

On the orders of Menachem Begin, who was the head of the  Zionist gang “Irgun”, the Zionist gand “Haganah” paid 70,000 pounds to the “Etzel” gang to carry out the mission of bombing the southern section of the hotel, where the Civil Administration of the  British Mandate government was located.
The operation was carried out on July 22, 1946, in which 101 people were killed in the bombing. It was a response from the Jews to the Mandate government’s restriction of Jewish immigration to Palestine and their delay in fulfilling their promise to establish a national home for them in it. This terrorist operation was one of hundreds of operations carried out by Zionist gangs against the British, such as assassinations police leaders and bombing cafes and clubs where British families are located, to pressure them to withdraw from Palestine and declare the state of the


Samiha Khalil

سميحة خليل



Samiha Khalil was born in the town of Anabta. Her father was Yusuf al-Qabaj and her mother was Halima Tuqan. Her husband was Salama Khalil. She had four sons, Khalil, Saji, Samir, and Samih, and one daughter, Sa’ida.

She was educated at a private elementary school in Nablus for two years and completed her elementary education until the seventh grade in Tulkarm. Her parents then sent her to the Friends boarding school in Ramallah.

During the General Strike and the Great Rebellion her father was mayor of Anabta. He encouraged the wealthy inhabitants to donate foodstuff for distribution to the poor. With her own eyes she witnessed how British soldiers broke into her house and used their bayonets to slit the bales of rice and flour. When her father loudly protested that these bales were meant for the poor, he was violently pushed aside and he fell to the floor. The young girl never forgot that scene and also never forgot that the British killed five of her cousins during the Great Rebellion.

At age seventeen her parents decided that she should get married because she had completed the second secondary class. She married Salama Khalil from the town of al-Taybeh. Her husband worked as a teacher, later becoming a headmaster in schools in Qalqilya, al-Majdal, Gaza, and Ramallah. He supported her desire to complete her education once her children had grown up. She finished the curriculum of the last three years of secondary school in nine months and sat for the general secondary exam (the tawjihi) with her son Saji; she was more than forty years old when she enrolled in Beirut Arab University to study Arabic literature. The Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967 prevented her from travelling to sit for her final third-year exams, and so she was forced to abandon her university studies.

She had devoted herself to relief work with the refugees ever since the Nakba of 1948, and along with other women she collected money, clothes, and food. In fact she devoted her entire life to humanitarian relief and collecting funds for the destitute. In 1952 she founded the Arab Women’s Union in al-Bireh and served as its president. In 1965 she and other women established Jam‘iyyat in‘ash al-usra (the Family Revival Society) and remained its president until she died. She took part in founding the Bireh section of the General Union of Palestinian Women and attended the General Congress in Jerusalem in 1965 organized by that union. A year later she was elected secretary of the Executive Committee of the General Union and became a member of the Palestine National Council.

Samiha Khalil led demonstrations, the most notable of which was one against the Baghdad Pact in 1956. She was in the forefront of that massive women’s demonstration, which began in Ramallah and included students of the Female Teachers Training College and the women of al-Bireh. In Jerusalem, women and female students participated in the demonstration. The following day she led another demonstration, which brought together women from twenty-seven villages of the West Bank. She was reported to have stated at that time: “We killed the Baghdad Pact. We kept demonstrating until it expired.”

The 1967 catastrophe was a radical turning point in her life. She rushed to the aid of refugees, especially the villagers of the Latrun region whose villages Israel destroyed immediately after its occupation of the West Bank.

In 1973, she became a member of the command council of the Palestinian National Front in the West Bank, a political front that brought together Palestinian institutions and public figures drawn from the trade unions and political parties. In 1979, she was elected a member of the National Guidance Committee, which was the highest authority of the Palestinian people inside Palestine. She was the only woman on that committee.

The occupation authorities arrested her several times for interrogation and imprisoned her twice. In the early 1980s the Israelis placed her under house arrest for two and a half years and prevented her from travelling for twelve years. Despite these restrictions she managed to represent Palestine’s women in more than twenty congresses worldwide, and she delivered speeches and explained her country’s cause in international arenas. Her leadership role was best seen through her presidency of the General Union of Palestinian Women in occupied Palestine and her presidency of the Family Revival Society.

She would ask women to donate whatever jewelry or antiques they could spare. The proceeds from the sale of these together with food items, pastries, and sweets would be donated to children of martyrs. She could thus fulfill her four objectives: saving and educating children, putting mothers to work, enshrining the principles of volunteer work, and protecting heritage.

Samiha Khalil played a leading role in founding a popular Palestinian museum in Ramallah. This included wax figures and a model of the village of Sammu‘ and its battle.

The preservation of Palestinian popular culture was among her top priorities. Through her Family Revival Society, she founded the Committee for Social Research and Heritage in 1972 and became a member of the committee whose first published study in 1973 was entitled Qaryat Turmus ‘Ayya: dirasa fi-l turath al-sha‘bi [The Village of Turmus ‘Ayya: A Study of Popular Culture]The following year the committee issued a journal called al-Turath wa-l mujtama‘ [Heritage and Society].

She was an honorary member of the Union of Arab Lawyers and an honorary member of the Arab Women’s Union.

She was a firm believer in total equality between men and women. She ran for the presidential elections in 1996 opposite President Yasir Arafat. She won 12 percent of the vote, thus enshrining a democratic and enlightened tradition in Palestinian political life.

She was the recipient of several awards and medals, including the Jerusalem Medal for Culture, Arts and Literature in 1991. She thus thoroughly deserved her common sobriquet: The Oak Tree of Palestine.

Samiha Khalil lived an ascetic life since the family had no income apart from her husband’s salary. But she was a careful housewife and performed all domestic duties by herself with help from her children.

Khalil published as many popular tales as she could collect in Majallat al-turath wa-l mujtama‘. She wrote zajal poetry (which spread among her intimates) and recited it on national occasions. She wrote a book of zajal called Min al-intifada ila al-dawla [From the Intifada to the State]. She also published many political and social articles in local newspapers.

She died on 26 February 1999. Her tombstone carries this inscription: “Samiha Khalil: She fought for the freedom and independence of the Palestinian people.”


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