Palestinian wave of violence marked by increased female role

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Updated 06 January 2016

Palestinian wave of violence marked by increased female role

NABLUS, West Bank: When Palestinian youths began a wave of grassroots and often suicidal stabbing attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians several months ago, it wasn’t his three sons that Ramiz Hassoneh was worried about — it was his daughter.
Ignoring her father’s warnings, 20-year-old Maram took a kitchen knife to an Israeli military checkpoint on Dec. 1 and was shot dead as she tried to attack the soldiers, according to the Israeli military. The deadly mission put her among some 20 young females who have been involved in attacks on Israelis in recent months — a new trend that has confounded both Palestinian families and Israeli security officials.
While battling Israel was once a role restricted to Palestinian men and boys, the current wave of violence has seen an unprecedented spike in female involvement. And where the few women who did engage in attacks in the past were typically underprivileged females seeking redemption after being rejected by their families, the attackers are now largely ideological, educated women from supportive homes.

Brewing desperation
Palestinians consider the trend to be a combination of rising Islamist zeal, the growing role of women in the conservative society and the brewing desperation of a younger generation with few prospects.
In Maram’s case, her family said she had a burning drive to resist the Israeli occupation somehow. A top English student at An-Najah University and a devout Muslim, Maram was deeply troubled by TV images showing the death of young Palestinians killed in attacks and clashes with Israel.
She had memorized the entire Qur’an and cited religious and nationalistic motives for her desire to strike at Israelis. Unlike her younger brothers, who busied themselves with daily life, her father said Maram was an independent thinker who couldn’t be swayed from her convictions, even after serving six months in prison for another unsuccessful stabbing attempt on a soldier two years earlier.
“Girls are more sensitive to the occupation. They are more emotional about these things,” said Hassoneh, sitting in his Nablus home under a large poster of his late daughter wearing a headscarf. “She believed that she would inspire the boys to do something ... She looked at me and said: ‘When our men who sit in coffee shop see (a girl) killed, they will move.’“
His wife, Hanan, sitting next to him with a gold necklace featuring Maram’s image, said her sorrow was mixed with pride. “I’m happy she is a martyr, but I miss her a lot,” she said.
Doomed to fail, but...
Since the violence erupted in mid-September, 21 Israelis and an American Jew have been killed, mostly in stabbing attacks carried out by young Palestinians in their late teens or 20s. Many attackers were doomed to failure from the start, armed with only crude weapons such as knives, scissors and potato peelers.
At least 132 Palestinians have been killed, of whom 11 were women. Israel has identified 91 of the Palestinians killed as attackers; the rest died in clashes with Israeli troops.
Israel says the violence is the result of incitement by Palestinian leaders and on social media sites. The Palestinians say it stems from frustration over nearly 50 years of occupation, failed peace talks and continued Israeli settlement construction.
In previous rounds of violence, women were expected to stay home while the boys fought. But women’s increased presence online, where most of the rallying cries to violence take place, and general advancement in society have emboldened many to partake in the “national struggle,” said Jihad Harb, a Palestinian researcher and commentator.
“Social media has opened a new horizon for the new generation. They interact and build their thoughts in a new way that gives girls the same chances of boys,” he said.
The Israeli military says that of 152 attacks recorded, 22 were by women. It attributed the rise to a new, bolder generation of Palestinian women that did not belong to the established military organizations and did not ask for anyone’s permission to act.
One of the most notable incidents involved a pair of cousins, aged 16 and 14, who stabbed an elderly Palestinian, mistaking him for an Israeli, with a pair of scissors near a popular Jerusalem marketplace. Security camera footage captured a police officer shooting one of them dead and wounding the other.
Ibrahim Awwad, the father of 16-year-old Norhan, who was wounded, said he was shocked by their botched attack and could only speculate that they were driven by the daily life in the Qalandia refugee camp north of Jerusalem, where they often woke to the sounds of shootings.
“If I knew they were going to carry out an attack, I would have tied them up in the house,” he said. “But everything was normal. There were no signs.”
Harsh measures begetting violence
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that because females didn’t fit the typical profile of an attacker, they aroused little suspicion and had an easier time getting around Israeli checkpoints. That has now changed.
Hanan Ashrawi, the most senior female Palestinian official, said the surge in attacks reflects an overall more active political approach of the younger generation. She said that Israeli measures had provoked all Palestinians and that women feel “they are just as affected by this reality.”
Deeper religious devotion was also a factor, she added.
Taha Qatanani said his 16-year-old daughter Ashraqat’s greatest wish was to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and when he was unable to get her the necessary permits, she accused him of letting her down. Tensions at the site, the third-holiest in Islam, and rumors that Israel was trying to expand its presence there enraged her, Qatanani said.
On Nov. 22, she pulled out a knife at the entrance to a West Bank military base when a settler driving by veered off the road and struck her with his car. A soldier then shot her dead.
“As long as there is occupation there will be resistance,” said Qatanani, who served several stints in Israeli prisons for his activity in the Islamic Jihad movement.
In the family living room on the outskirts of Nablus, there was a makeshift shrine to Ashraqat featuring her image against a backdrop of Al-Aqsa and a wooden carving in her honor with a bloodied knife piercing through a map of historic Palestine.
“I would have much more relief if my son had done it,” Qatanani said over tea, pointing to 18-year-old Yassin. “My masculine mentality says the man should do it. But I consider the girl doing it a much stronger message ... when it gets to the degree that a girl carries out an attack it means there is nothing else.”

Lebanese choreographer Nadim Cherfan on Mayyas, Britain’s Got Talent, and dancing for Beyoncé

Mayyas won 2019’s “Arab’s Got Talent.” (Supplied)
Updated 13 min 55 sec ago

Lebanese choreographer Nadim Cherfan on Mayyas, Britain’s Got Talent, and dancing for Beyoncé

DUBAI: Overnight success doesn’t take 24 hours; it takes years of hard work and dedication. But hard work pays off when TV mogul Simon Cowell calls your craft “genius” in front of an average television audience of 6.7 million viewers.

For Lebanese dancer Nadim Cherfan – now founder and choreographer of the dance troupe Mayyas, who have just appeared on Britain’s Got Talent (BGT): The Champions – his journey began 21 years ago at the age of nine.

“(Back then) I knew exactly what I wanted to be,” he tells Arab News. “Unfortunately, in the Middle East at that time the dancing scene was shy, and not many dance schools existed.

“I couldn’t get the proper training at a young age, though I was fully aware of my talent and spent hours daily in front of my mirror in my room figuring out body movements imitating what I watched on TV.”

Lebanese dancer Nadim Cherfan is the founder and choreographer of the dance troupe Mayyas. (Supplied)

But perseverance pays off. Relatively unknown a year ago, Cherfan, now 30, is making his mark in the industry, while also creating the opportunities for Lebanon’s next generation of dancers that he didn’t have.

Lebanon’s Got Dance Talent

Mayyas performed a spectacular dance at the second audition of Arab's Got Talent. (Supplied) 

Mayyas is an all-female group that became Lebanon’s very first champions of Arab’s Got Talent (AGT). Crowned winners in April of this year, it’s hard to believe that the act was only created around nine months ago, prior to AGT’s season six premiere in February.

“(I was 14 when) I started taking classes with professionals in Lebanon and attending workshops in the US, the UK and India,” Cherfan says. “And I fell more and more in love with dancing and I am still falling deeper daily.”

He was 20 when he began to teach others; his first class having only three girls.

Mayyas performed wearing Indian costumes during the third Arab's Got Talent. (Supplied) 

“I continued to do so, and have raised a large number of students that have grown with me. Today, 200 students are currently taking classes with me.”

From those 200, Mayyas was born.

“Mayyas was created for Arab’s Got Talent once I made the decision of (applying for) season six,” Cherfan continues. “The crew consists of 50 professional dancers.”

Mesmerising Arabia

Najwa Karam awarded the dancers fast entry to the grand finale with the ‘golden buzzer’. (Supplied)

Mayyas captured fans right away after their debut performance on AGT, one of whom was judge and Lebanese singing superstar Najwa Karam who awarded them fast entry to the grand finale with the ‘golden buzzer’.

“You can tell just how much work they put into it,” she said at the time. “I pressed the golden buzzer, because I genuinely, genuinely believe they deserve it.”

Fast forward to the finale, and they were crowned champions by the Middle Eastern voting public.

MBC Group Spokesman Mazen Hayek and Nadim Cherfan at Arab's Got Talent rehearsals. (Supplied)

While the wins were a great moment for Cherfan and the crew, he also admits feeling extremely anxious.

Calling them challenges instead of highlights, he explains: “The golden buzzer and standing ovation; the beautiful comments of the judges, and winning the title itself are challenges, because they are stress and responsibility – in those moments (all I am thinking is) ‘What’s  next? How can I do better?’

“But becoming the first Lebanese to win AGT makes me so happy and proud.”

Heading to London

Mayyas won the 2019 Arab's Got Talent. (Supplied) 

Fast forward a few months, and Mayyas bagged the opportunity to compete in BGT: The Champions, a spin-off of BGT which features notable winners, finalists and participants from across the history of BGT and other international versions of the ‘Got Talent’ franchise.

The group became the first and only act from the Middle East to participate, and the response by the judges and venue’s audience was overwhelming.

“Absolutely genius, brilliant, inventive, (I’ve) never seen a dance like this ever on one of these shows,” stated Cowell, with fellow judge David Walliams commenting: “It was absolutely magical from start to finish. I can totally see why you won AGT. It was just one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen on BGT.”

Judge Amanda Holden added: “It was absolutely beautiful – the choreography was so intricate and every single move you made was so precise and so disciplined. You are a fantastic representation of AGT.”

Recalling the experience, Cherfan tells us: “I never thought I would reach this stage in my life. This was an absolute incredible experience for the team, and so satisfying and an honour for us to be the first team from an Arab country to reach this stage and compete against the best acts in the world.”

Girl Power

Mayyas troupe performed different cultural-inspired dances. (Supplied) 

The future is definitely looking bright for Mayyas, and Cherfan is determined to give them the exposure they deserve.

“I chose a female crew, because I wanted to deliver a message about women’s empowerment as we all know that until now Arab women are still called names for being dancers. I wanted to prove how elegant refined and beautiful dancing is,” he says. “And who’s better than these gorgeous ladies to do so?”

Fresh off their win at AGT, Cherfan revealed that they were to use their cash prize to launch a studio in Beirut. And in a move that demonstrates how Cherfan is keen on nurturing dance talent around the region, he also decided to split some of the prize money with fellow AGT finalists, the Moroccan father-and-daughter team Duo Acrobat.

“The plan isn’t a plan anymore – we’re actually in the process of finishing our school, Mayyas Studios!” he reveals. “These students train twice a week which is not enough if someone’s wants to pursue dancing as a career, but unfortunately in Lebanon and the Middle East, dancing is not considered as a serious career that an individual can live out of.”

The all-female group is aged 13-25. (Supplied)

Cherfan wants to change that, he says, adding that his ultimate goal would be for Mayyas to front a ‘fawazeer’, a variety show popularised by Egyptian performers Nelly and Sherihan during Ramadan in the 1990s.

“’Fawazeer’ would be the ultimate satisfaction - I hope (AGT judge and Egyptian actor) Mr (Ahmed) Helmy produces one. We would be more than honoured to be part of it.”

As for the solo ambitions of the choreographer himself, his dream goal would be to be part of the team of a certain Queen B. 

“I would love to one day choreograph for Beyoncé,” he concludes. “She’s a huge inspiration and amazing dancer, and she’s the number one entertainer in the world.”

Ms. Knowles, if you’re reading… give Nadim Cherfan a call.