University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

In the militarized geography of occupied East Jerusalem, a Palestinian girl named Lama described the erection of a new Israeli checkpoint, or what she and her classmates renamed “killing boxes,” in the communal space of Bab al-Amoud (Damascus Gate) as she walked to school early one morning:

“Have you ever seen a human…insan (a human) that enjoys hating and killing people…I mean enjoying building more and more killing boxes [sanadiq al qatl]? How else can you call those new boxes built in Damascus Gate… aren’t they similar to those built by the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, by my grandmother’s house? And the one close to our house here in the Old City? I feel pain when I see them…they kill people I love…they wound me…but they also remind me how strong we are…”[1]

Lama’s voice narrates the “watchtower” and “watchers” that are “keeping the peace” as killers and killing boxes. Her dismantling the narrative architecture of colonial occupation speaks back to the mundane witnessing of state violence, exposing the ways in which Palestinian children “express the collective social traumas of their community” and give voice to a counter-hegemonic vocabulary that refuses their objectification as victims.[2]

In addressing the question of “why peace needs to be feminist” in relation to Palestine, Lama’s voice will be my compass. Centering the voices and insights of Palestinian women and girls from Jerusalem, I wondered about the extent to which the brutality of the colonial imagination imprisons the very terms of this question; the ways in which our continued investment in hegemonic vocabularies might impoverish our political imagination. What, in our context, is “peace”? “What is our context?”[3] The colonizer’s answer is evasive and ambivalent. I want to think instead with Lama’s gesture, which invites us to consider the counter-hegemonic vocabulary of the colonized as a means of decolonizing the liberal paradigm of peace to liberate it from its own shackles.

The Violence of Liberal Peace

Recent scholarship underscores how race, gender, and sexuality are mobilized to sustain violence in peace and peacemaking processes. Hegemonic notions of peace are often male dominated domains that marginalize or exclude women completely, naturalize racialized and gendered state violence, and silence ongoing forms of patriarchal violence embedded in everyday life, which are empowered by the durability of colonial formations.[4] Palestinian women, like women in other colonial and conflict contexts, have been marginalized from masculine domains of the political.[5] This includes what is widely understood as the “Middle East Peace Process” (MEPP), which transformed an anti-colonial movement for liberation into a statebuilding project that ultimately served to pacify and control Palestinians rather than edify the path towards freedom and sovereignty. Indeed, the framework of “peace” became a tool of further entrenching Israeli settler colonial violence and power, enabling the consolidation of a (predominantly male) Palestinian ruling class committed to “maintaining the status quo.”[6]

The critiques of peace processes notwithstanding, the hegemonic language of liberal peace is itself vested in the violence of the colonial order and the modern/colonial project of the nation-state. In Palestine, the peace process is inseparable from the foundational violence that created the conditions for its emergence: the genocidal removal of Palestinians and the creation of the Jewish state. This is a project that is, as yet, ongoing. The discourse of peace thus creates an unintended opening into a radical critique of the very project of security and statebuilding (and Humanity, no less) it intends to uphold.

Thus, a decolonial feminist analysis of peace is not concerned with the inclusion of women into liberal peace and statebuilding agendas, or the adoption of international resolutions to deter “violence against women”, the language of which too often serves as a disciplined performance of a civilizing subject.[7] The biggest weapon wielded against the collective defiance of the oppressed and exploited is, according to Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the “cultural bomb.”[8] It makes the colonized want to identify with “all those forces which would stop their own springs of life,” including, centrally, the language and narrative of the oppressor.

The language of liberal peace is the language of the oppressor, which reproduces the dominant cultural order.[9] It has helped to stifle a liberatory imagination, all the while distracting from the deeper entrenchment of the settler colonial project, blaming the victim for failed negotiations and violence inflicted on them through “narrative manipulation.”[10] The liberal concept of peace thus cannot be disentangled from its foundations in the violence of the coloniality of power.

Decolonizing Peace  

What interests me as a scholar of Palestine Studies, and more specifically, as a Palestinian feminist, is not whether Palestinians can gain access to this Universal category of the Human through a politics of recognition, incorporating our ongoing Nakba[11] into the hegemonic legal and political orders of our time. Nor am I interested in the conditions through which our suffering and humanity might finally be made legible. Rather, how do we narrate our particular experience with the lethal and ontologically disruptive gendered racial-colonial power of the Zionist state? And where do the terms of our analysis take us in regards to the forms of justice that we seek and the strategies that we pursue? How do Palestinians imagine and practice liberation in the midst of ongoing colonial violence and full-scale assault on our physiological and psychic well-being, on our homeland as kin?

To imagine peace from a decolonial perspective is an invitation to imagine Palestinian futures otherwise, towards the possibility that instead of continuing to invest in the colonial trajectory of Indigenous displacement, disappearance, and death, in the tearing apart and destruction of our sacred kinships, in and through the language of colonial containment, we might instead insist on presence, on the affirmation of Palestinian life and belonging. Decolonizing peace implies the rethinking of the nation outside the constraints of the nation state.[12] It insists on an attunement to counter-hegemonic practices of feminist worldmaking and subordinated knowledges nested within and against the edifice of the colonial state that extend beyond the universality of the modern and its civilizing discourses, of which gendered inclusion is a part. Such a project is by definition intersectional, anti-imperialist, and built on the alliances of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Queer and other historically oppressed peoples struggling for freedom across the globe.[13]

The world calls them watchtowers and checkpoints. We call them what they are: killing boxes. To take Lama’s renaming seriously is an epistemic challenge that requires valuing the embodied and affective knowledge, the intellectual and political genealogies, of Palestinian women and girls produced on a global scale. The ruse of colonial statehood, security, and peace proceed afoot while more Palestinian land is stolen, a village in the Naqab is razed “in order to plant trees,” and another family in Sheikh Jarrah is evicted from their home in the dead of winter. Three youth are executed in Nablus in broad daylight and a 78-year-old man with a U.S. passport left for dead while bound, gagged, and handcuffed with plastic zip ties in Israeli custody. A mother of six is shot by soldiers at a checkpoint and left to bleed out. A population of two million is held captive with calories counted and four hours of electricity per day. Amidst the daily war of colonial violence, the language of peace is also a killing box.

Keeping peace in killing boxes maintains it as a dead peace. Such peace lives (or more precisely dies) in the necrological geopolitics of the liberal regime. Decolonial feminism rejects killability, refuses the maintenance of a geopolitics of war and death, and calls for teaching life. In a moment when the Palestinian people are “reuniting Palestinian society in all of its different parts; reuniting our political will, and our means of struggle to confront Zionism throughout Palestine,” we are called on to redefine the terms. A starting point for imagining counter-hegemonic forms of peace from a feminist perspective might be the ways of seeing and being in the world wrapped in the intimate insights, the mundane experiences, and the decolonial thinking of the Palestinian girlchild.


I thank Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Elizabeth Velásquez Estrada and Anthony Dest for their insightful comments, and the co-editors of this issue for creating space to work and think together.

Sarah Ihmoud is assistant professor of anthropology and peace and conflict studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She is a member of the Palestinian Feminist Collective.


[1] This ethnographic quote is borrowed from Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s article “Gun to body: Mental health against unchilding” (2020: 126).

[2] Ibid, 127.

[3] Here, I am evoking Sylvia Wynter’s essay “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation” (1971) as a means of gesturing towards the intimacies of the “plot” of plantation slavery in thinking the “plot” of settler colonialism, both foundational to liberal modernity and the hegemonic construction of “peace”.

[4] I am thinking here with the numerous critical insights offered in Elizabeth Velasquez-Estrada’s “Intersectional justice denied: Racist warring masculinity, negative peace, and violence in post-peace accords El Salvador” (2022). I am also thinking with the dynamic insights of Palestinian feminist critiques of Palestinian women’s exclusion, the demobilization and “NGO-isation” of the rich tapestry of feminist movements post-Oslo, the transformation of gender politics, and the intersections of patriarchal and colonial violence. Some examples include Julie Peteet’s Gender in Crisis: Women and the Palestinian Resistance Movement (1991);  Islah Jad’s “The NGO-isation of Arab Women’s Movements” (2009); Eileen Kuttab’s “The Many Faces of Feminism: Palestinian Women’s Movements Finding a Voice” (2014); and Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Suhad Daher-Nashif’s “Femicide and colonization: Between the politics of exclusion and the culture of control” (2013).

[5] Yara Hawari’s “The Political Marginalization of Palestinian Women in the West Bank” (2019) provides a nuanced and concise analysis of these challenges.  

[6] Ines Abdel Razek offers an important critique of the MEPP in “Thirty Years On: The Ruse of the Middle East Peace Process” (2021).

[7] Lila Abu-Lughod, Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Rema Hammami’s forthcoming book, The Cunning of Gender Violence (Duke University Press), explores the ways in which VAW and GBV have emerged as powerful agendas within international governance and law.

[8] Cited from Decolonising the Mind (1986: 3).

[9] See Stuart Hall’s discussion of the culture concept in “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms” (1980).

[10] Abdel Razack 2021.

[11] Nakba is Arabic for “catastrophe”; it refers both to the historical moment of 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians were killed or forcibly displaced from their homeland during the creation of the Israeli state, and the broader structure of settler colonial violence and power initiated by this historical moment.

[12] Ana Isabel Rodriguez-Iglesias provides important insights in “A decolonial critique of the liberal peace: Insights from peace practices of ethnic people in Colombia” (2020). Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus (2014) and Mariana Mora’s Kuxlejal Politics (2017) are exemplary of the ways Indigenous peoples have created alternative and decolonial spaces for autonomy, collective living, and belonging within the confines of the nation state.

[13] I thank Anthony Dest for suggesting that decolonizing peace necessarily means embracing struggle; a struggle that asserts autonomy and self-determination as an aspect of a broader disruption of the global order of modernity.