STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Their activism takes different forms. Secular women have led protests against lawlessness in Gaza. While a suicide bombing by the Islamist group Hamas was carried out by a 72-year-old grandmother. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Threatened by the specter of factional gunfire when walking to the store or taking their kids to school, a group of fed up angry women in Central Gaza City recently marched in the streets demanding change.
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WESTERVELT: At this rally, Ruba al Jamal says many women here have had enough with factional violence, lawlessness and ineptitude by what she labels the so-called Palestinian Authority.
RUBA AL JAMAL: (Through translator) We want a new government, one that is not Hamas or Fattah. A government that can secure our kids going to school, not one that keeps silent while our people are killed in front of us.
WESTERVELT: Naila Ayesh is the director of the Women's Affairs Center, the only nongovernmental agency in Gaza aimed at strengthening women through economic and educational programs. Ayesh says she has recently seen a new rise in activism from women, largely secular women, who are not part of any political faction.
NAILA AYESH: I think the Palestinian woman feel now more seriously and worry about what's going on in our society. Now most of the women, they are not in parties. These women now go out of their homes asking to be part of stopping this violence inside our society.
WESTERVELT: One of the Hamas women there was a recently widowed 72-year-old named Fatma al- Najar. Over tea in her barren, unheated apartment in the Jabaliya refugee camp, Fatma's daughter Fathiya al-Najar describes the family's reaction when her mother returned home that night.
FATHIYA AL: (Through translator) She came back from Beit Hanoun and we said, thank God you are safe. And she replied, safe? Safe from what? My people are being killed. I wish I had been killed there.
WESTERVELT: A few days later, Fatma al-Najar, who had more than 40 combined children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, became the oldest Palestinian suicide bomber. She approached an Israeli military checkpoint and blew herself up with an explosives belt around her waist. Israel lists her as another Palestinian terrorist. Her family and friends call her a martyr. Her daughter Fathiya.
AL JAMAL: (Through translator) Of course I feel very sad. No one's mother can be replaced. But I'm also very proud of what she did. There are cowards here who are looking for peace, and those people are not doing anything to stop the Israelis and their massacres. My mother martyred herself as a kind of gift to all the Palestinian prisoners and as an answer for those cowards looking for peace.
WESTERVELT: When told that her mother killed only herself that day, that the bombing lightly wounded two Israeli soldiers who've since returned to duty, Fathiya shakes her head and denies it. Then after a pause she says, quote, "Nevertheless, I bet she scared those soldiers like hell. To see an old lady sacrifice herself for her people," end quote.
AL JAMAL: (Through translator) All the women are very proud of my mother. We love life, but living under such horrible circumstances, I would want my sons to take such action, and I'd do it myself even.
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WESTERVELT: Naila Ayesh, with the Women's Affairs Center, says secular groups simply can't compete with Hamas when it comes to organizing women. The Islamists use female leaders in the women-only sections of worship halls, she says, to organize women and foster radical activists like Fatma.
AYESH: Hamas is using the mosque. This is the only place for women to go outside their homes without any prevent, let's say, from her husband or her brother or father. Hamas promises food, distributes things to them, gives them money. So these ways is helping Hamas to have, let's say, the majority in our society.
WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.
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