Fatima Muhammed Barnawi died on November 3rd, 2022, at the age of 83, in the Palestine Hospital in Cairo, Egypt. She was subsequently buried in Gaza City, currently witnessing the genocidal atrocities of the settler colonial Zionist Israeli State. But most Nigerians would probably, never have imagined, that the veritable lady of the Palestinian resistance, and one of the earliest members of the armed wing of Fatah, the main movement within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), was of Nigerian origin!
So highly revered amongst the Palestinian revolutionaries was Fatima, that Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, who married very late in life, once asserted that “if he would marry anyone it would be (Fatima) Bernawi”.
Barnawi was already the highest ranking female in the Fateh militia, by 1996, and would go on to become founder, and head of the women’s section of the police, in the Palestinian self-rule administration, in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, after the signing of the Oslo Accords, between Zionist Israel and the PLO.
She was decorated with the Military Star of Honour in May 2015, by the Palestinian Authority Chairman, Mahmoud Abass, “out of appreciation for her pioneering role in the struggle”, as well as “for the public good”.
On April 17, 2015, marked as Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, Barnawi, was honoured along with others, during which she was described as “one of the first Palestinian women to adopt (the means of) armed self-sacrifice operations after the start of the modern Palestinian revolution, which was launched by Fatah on 1 January 1965. She was the first young Palestinian woman to be arrested by the Israeli security forces, and is the first woman prisoner listed in the records of the (Palestinian) women prisoners movement… “.
Fatima Barnawi was in fact one of the only four women interviewed by Amal Kawar, for her insightful work, “Daughters of Palestine”; a book which studied the role of women in the resistance, and the armed struggle against Zionist settler colonialism. The others included, the first woman to hijack a plane, as part of the struggle, Laila Khaled, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Aisha Odeh, and Rasmiyeh Odeh.
When she passed in November 2022, her party Fatah, remembered Fatima, as a “great fighter”; going further to state that: “(She) joined the Palestinian revolution at an early stage, and had a key role in establishing the organizational and guerilla cells of Fatah movement inside the occupied territories”.
Fatima Muhammed Barnawi was sentenced to death, for the attempted bombing of the Zion Cinema, in Western Jerusalem, to protest the showing of a film which celebrated the Six Day War of 1967. That was the war in which Israel had defeated the Arab armies, leading to the conquest and occupation of the Sinai Penninsula, the Syrian Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and the occupation the West Bank and East Jerusalem. An illegal occupation, excluding the Sinai, which has continued to this day!
Barnawi’s device didn’t explode; and she was subsequently arrested by the Israelis for the attempt, and sentenced to life in prison. She asserted then, that being black, had been a factor in her arrest: “of course, they arrested all the young women from African origin”. After ten years in prison, Fatima was released in a 1977 prisoner exchange; was deported, but returned to the liberation movement, rejoining Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, and would later marry another former political prisoner, Fawzi al-Nimr, who was released in May 1985.
Fatima Muhammed Barnawi was born in Jerusalem in 1939, to a Nigerian father, Muhammed Barnawi ( which indicates that he was of Borno origin), and a Palestinian mother. At the age of nine, during the 1948 Nakba ( The Catastrophe), during which over 700, 000 Palestinians were forcibly uprooted from the homes to create the settler colonial, Zionist State of Israel, Barnawi was displaced from Jerusalem, to a refugee camp near Amman, the Jordanian capital. They eventually returned to Jerusalem to join the father, who stayed behind, and had fought in the 1936 Palestine revolt.
Barnawi experienced racial discrimination, despite her Palestinian nationality. She had been employed as a nurse, by the Arab-American Oil Company (ARAMCO), but nevertheless not allowed to administer injections to patients, because she was black.
There has always been a population of African-Palestinians, with an African heritage. Wikipedia notes that these people reside in African communities around the Bab al-Majlis, in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. Others are found in such areas of Jerusalem, as Beit Hanina and A-Tur.
Similarly, there are Palestinian Bedouins outside of Jerusalem, whose descent has been linked to African roots, and are located in such areas as Jericho in the West Bank, and in Gaza.
From the 9th Century, millions of Africans had been enslaved, and settled in the Middle East, in the infamous Arab Slave Trade, as distinct from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, of many centuries later.
These enslaved Africans worked as labourers in the riverine plantation economies, some were in domestic labour, while very many of these enslaved Africans worked as soldiers too. Some of the Africans communities in places like Acre and Jericho, had been procured to work in the sugar industry of the Umayyad period.
In fact, up to very recent times, the African communities in northern Jericho, had often been pejoratively referred to as “the slaves of Duyuk”. There were also Palestinian – Africans, whose forefathers had been enslaved, and were in the service of the Ottoman Empire.
By the 14th Century, the great Emperor of Mali, Mansa Kankan Musa, performed the pilgrimage to the Holy Places of Islam. An epic journey that has entered history. Pilgrimages by African Muslims, were to become increasingly regular from the 15th Century, as Islam become increasingly widespread, especially in the Western Sahara: Mali, Songhai, Kanem-Borno, and the Hausa city states, like Katsina, Kano, and Zaria.
Palestinians of African origin, traced their roots to those attempting to perform the pilgrimage, from Sudan and Chad mainly, and these had reached Palestine, from as early as the 12th Century. Their original plan was to perform the Hajj, by arriving in Mecca and Madina, followed by efforts to visit the third holiest site in Islam, the al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem.
But the majority of African-Palestinians, whose ancestors came from Nigeria, Sudan, Senegal, and Chad, make up the majority of these communities today, and they had arrived in Palestine, during the British Mandate.
Abraham Milligram, noted that many of these Africans arrived in Palestine, as conscripted labourers during General Edmund Allenby’s campaign against the Ottomans, in the latter stages of World War 1. Yet another group of African-Palestinians has lineage traced to the Arab Salvation Army, which fought on the Arab side, in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Following in the wake of Ottoman rule, African-Palestinians were mainly employed as protectors of the al-Aqsa Mosque, and they were noted for their very fierce loyalty to Islam. The Palestinian leader, and mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Amin al-Husseini, rented the compounds in the area, at very nominal sums, to the African-Palestinians, especially after one of the African guards, Jibril Tahruri, took a bullet aimed at the mufti!
The African-Palestinians have, therefore, been sucked into the vortex of one of the most difficult struggles in modern history; that’s the Palestinian struggle against the Zionist settler colonial project in Palestine. These Africans have very deep attraction to the city of Jerusalem, and are also very pious Muslims too.
African-Palestinians have encountered lingering, but old prejudices, with some Palestinian Arabs, referring to them as “slaves” (abeed), and their neighbourhood of the city, called “slaves’ prison” (habs al-abeed).
After 1948, African-Palestinians tended to marry from women of peasant fellahin origin. Sometimes, their colour had been the basis of objection, in attempts to marry Palestinians with lighter skin. Mousa Qous, is director of the African Community Society, and also a former member of the PFLP. He noted that: “Sometimes when a black Palestinian wants to marry a white Palestinian woman, some members of her family might object”.
However, interracial marriages with African-Palestinians has become more common in recent years, and even there are indications that colloquial Palestinian Arabic, has seen a gradual change of reference to the African-Palestinians. It’s asserted that there’s preference for a word like “sumr” (dark colour), over “sawd”, which Wikipedia, noted had “an uncouth connotation”!
The situation isn’t better with the Israelis too. Ali Jiddah, was a member of the Marxist-Leninist, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who works as a tour guide. He stated that the racism from Palestinian Arabs is rooted in ignorance; but Palestinians experience same from the Zionist Israelis too: “We Afro-Palestinians are dually oppressed, as Palestinians and because of our colour the Israelis call us ‘kushis'”. According to African-Palestinians, the Israeli occupation is the main perpetrator of racism, against the African-Palestinian community.
A lot of the changes being noted in Palestinian society, towards African-Palestinians, come from the special status that they occupy, because of their contribution to the Palestinian struggle for national liberation.
Ali Jiddah himself had served 17 years in prison, along with his cousin, Mahmoud, for placing four grenades on a street in downtown Jerusalem in 1968, which wounded nine Israelis. Mahmoud committed a similar attack. They were released in a prisoner swap in 1985.
Of course, Fatima Muhammed Barnawi, was the eminence grisse of the African-Palestinian contribution to the Palestinian struggle for national liberation. She is a genuine national hero in Palestine. That was the reason that she was genuinely mourned by all shades of Palestinian life, when she died at the age of 83 on November 3rd, 2022.
Fatima Muhammed Barnawi, has her roots in Nigeria’s Borno State, and she’s buried in Gaza City. Spare a thought for this heroine of the Palestinian liberation struggle. As the settler colonial, Zionist regime carries out its genocidal attacks on Gaza, a part of our humanity is interred, and is being bombed, in that heroic Strip.
Abuja, Friday, November 17th, 2023.
Is’haq Modibbo Kawu, PhD; FNGE: Broadcaster, Journalist, Political Scientist.