Hadifa sold all her engagement jewellery to buy the battered AK-47 that she lovingly cradled as she talked about preparing for “part two” of the war with Israel. Her fiancé didn’t mind the extravagant purchase, she said, giggling: he is her battalion commander.
A 26-year-old student from Gaza City, Hadifa wears the black niqab and monochrome bandana of her battalion, the Nasser Salahuddin Brigades. She is part of a growing movement of female fighters in the conflict-ridden territory.
The 51-day war with Israel last year, which claimed the lives of 2,100 Palestinians, 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel, was not yet over, she said, and fighting would break out again “any day” now that the Israeli elections were over.
“No proper ceasefire has been agreed, Gaza has not been rebuilt. We are prepared for fresh fighting to get our freedom,” Hadifa said.
With the re-election of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s hawkish prime minister, both male and female fighters in the area are steeling themselves for more hostilities.
The increased presence of Israeli warplanes over the 32-mile-long territory, and new movement of Israeli soldiers at the eastern borders two weeks ago, sent many of the male militants into their underground bunkers. All bases were temporarily evacuated and daytime training sessions put on hold amid fears of fresh airstrikes.
A temporary truce is in effect, but negotiations for a long-term ceasefire have ground to a halt. The Palestinians are looking for a seaport, an airport and an easing of the eight-year Israeli blockade, while Israel wants the complete disarmament of Gaza. Hamas recently dismissed a possible five-year peace deal, claiming that not enough of their demands had been met.
Palestinian women fighters have been active since the second intifada in 2000, but their numbers have swelled since the most recent Israeli offensive. All of Gaza’s fighting groups have female units, but the most efficient is the Nasser Salahuddin Brigades unit.
“There are more women than ever — we are now almost equal to the number of men. After this war we saw a huge increase of women signing up for the next fight,” said Om Adam, 40, a leathery-faced veteran fighter, and wife of a senior Salahuddin commander.
She said there were several hundred female fighters in Gaza, but no one knew the exact number because each unit worked in a secretive, 25-strong, cell-like structure. She agreed to meet The Times only after nightfall.
The women know only their comrades in their unit. Each cell is led by a female commander, who is assigned a male superior. The Salahuddin Brigade is thought to have at least 80 female combatants and hundreds of others who work in support roles.
Om Adam said that the women fighters had become increasingly important because they could move more freely, passing on weapons, food and information to the men, who might spend weeks almost entirely underground in Gaza’s intricate network of tunnels. “We act as the eyes and ears on the ground for the fighters, checking the streets before they move.”
Some were engaged in direct combat, said Om Khadija, 24, a female fighter who manned an RPG and several rocket launchers during the two months of fighting last summer. All the women recruits were trained to use and fix weapons, including sniper rifles, AK-47s, RPGs and M16s.
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