Israel’s systematic violence against Palestinian women

A Bedouin woman watches as Israeli bulldozers destroy her shelter in the village of al-Araqib, August 2010. The village has been razed more than 100 times.

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

Crucial to Israeli colonialism is an attempt at the destruction of Palestinian society. This is part of a bid to secure demographic majority over non-Jewish people across all of historic Palestine and maximal control over the territory and its resources.

Pursuing these goals necessarily involves hindering Palestinians’ ability to raise their next generation and to sustain, educate and care for themselves and each other.

The institutionalized destruction of Palestinian women’s lives has thus been an essential feature of the Israeli project. And as the world celebrates International Women’s Day, and in a time of the #MeToo movement, it is important to remember how Israel has systematically carried out violence against Palestinian women, undercut their healthcare, and undermined their socio-economic conditions.

In this regard, Israeli settler-colonialism can be seen as intrinsically anti-feminist and a form of gendered violence.

Routine violence

Israeli violence against Palestinian women is routine. The United Nations Human Rights Council special rapporteur on violence against women notes that the “establishments and expansion of settlements has been accompanied by an increase in settlers’ violence against Palestinians, including women and girls.”

The Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling, a Palestinian organization, gathered statements from women who describe being “scared to leave their houses alone after experiences of [attacks by Israeli settlers] during both day and night.”

The group also collected testimony from 100 Palestinian women living in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem and found that when Israeli governments illegally settle Israelis in East Jerusalem and Palestinians protest, “women frequently report an increase in Israeli police brutality including nighttime raids on family homes and the arrest of young men and minors.”

Palestinian women who have been detained report being subject to torture or ill treatment or both, as noted by the UN special rapporteur: “Beatings, insults, threats and sexual harassment were reported to be common practices as well as intrusive body searches, which often occur before and after court hearings or during the night as punitive measures.”

Israeli violence against Palestinian women is also frequently fatal and on a large scale. During Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 offensive against Gaza, 110 Palestinian women were killed. During Israel’s summer 2014 assault on the territory, Israel massacred 230 women.

Targeting healthcare

Base violence is just one of the weapons being deployed against Palestinian women. Targeting Palestinians’ access to healthcare and reducing its quality, both in Israel and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, is another.

The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women issued a recent report finding that Palestinian women and girls residing in Israel “continue to register poor health outcomes, particularly infant and maternal mortality.”

The rate of infant mortality among Palestinian citizens of Israel is 6.4 per 1,000 live births, almost three times higher than it is among Jewish Israelis. Last month Israel’s high court took steps likely to worsen this problem by rejecting a petition demanding the reopening of a mother-infant health clinic serving some 1,500 people in two Palestinian communities in Israel.

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, meanwhile, has outlined a variety of mechanisms through which Israel undermines Palestinian healthcare in the West Bank and Gaza.

These include Israeli control of the Palestinian Authority’s budget, including its health budget, and limiting the free movement of patients, medical personnel, ambulances and medications between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as within the West Bank.

Such practices contribute to Palestinian women having worse health outcomes than their Israeli counterparts. Maternal mortality in the West Bank and Gaza is four times higher than in Israel. Life expectancy of Israeli women is on average 10 years longer than it is for Palestinian women.

Moreover, Palestinian women in the West Bank live under the omnipresent threat of having their homes demolished or of being evicted. This, according to the UN’s special rapporteur, has a “severe psychological impact” on women, “causing anxiety and leading to depression.”

Israeli military forces regularly carry out night raids in the West Bank. The special rapporteur describes these as “psychological violence” against Palestinian women to the extent that they “experience severe sleeping disorders, severe stress issues and depression.”

Meanwhile, at the checkpoints Israel has established throughout the West Bank, Israeli soldiers have blocked pregnant Palestinian women on their way to hospital to give birth.

In Gaza, health care is inadequate because of the Israeli blockade. Patients in need are at the mercy of the Israeli military to grant them a permit for travel, which is often delayed or denied.

In 2016, for instance, the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling reports that 1,726 such permits were denied and 8,242 were delayed so long that they did not receive a response in time for their medical appointments.

These restrictions are “arbitrary,” according to the center, and “target seriously ill women who pose no threat [to Israel] … For women – mothers, wives and daughters – the burden these restrictions place on them and their families is unbearable.”

Israel’s large-scale military assaults on Gaza have further undermined women’s health there.

According to UNESCO’s Commission on the Status of Women, Israel’s 2014 attack left healthcare centers damaged, without sufficient medical equipment and supplies, and healthcare providers unable to properly meet the needs of women and girls requiring sexual and reproductive health services.

During the Israeli attack, UNESCO reports, “more than 45,000 pregnant Palestinian women were deprived of access to basic reproductive health services, and approximately 5,000 of them gave birth in extremely poor conditions.”

Destroying potential

Similar problems exist with Palestinian women’s education and employment.

The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has expressed its “concern about the systemic discrimination experienced by national minorities” living in Israel, specifically Palestinian women and girls. The committee notes that Palestinian women and girls have unequal access to education – as do their ultra-Orthodox Jewish counterparts – which leads to higher dropout rates and poor outcomes in higher education.

According to the scholar Suheir Abu Oksa Daoud, “Israeli state policies toward Palestinian women workers [living in Israel] have been central to their marginalization in production and employment.”

Daoud points out that the “severe shortage” of daycare centers in Palestinian areas prevents Palestinian women from entering the labor market, noting that only 25 government-supported daycare centers operate in Palestinian areas in Israel whereas 16,000 operate in Jewish areas.

In the West Bank, the violence, vandalism and property destruction that Israeli soldiers and settlers carry out “overburdens women with increased responsibilities, including financial ones, for members of their family.”

In a study of the Israeli-occupied Jordan Valley, an area of the West Bank largely populated by Bedouin Palestinians, the rights group Al-Haq notes that Palestinian women are especially “vulnerable to the impacts of Israel’s unlawful measures in the region, which have had direct adverse impacts on their standard of living and on the various roles and responsibilities they undertake.”

For example, the organization points out that in 2015 and 2016 Israel demolished 240 Palestinian houses, tents, animal sheds, stores and poultry farms in the Jordan Valley, displacing 647 Palestinians. These measures, Al-Haq says, resulted in “devastating consequences” for Palestinian women and deprived them of their right to an adequate standard of living.

Al-Haq adds that Israel’s discriminatory planning and zoning regime systematically denies Palestinian communities building permits so Palestinian women and their families in the Jordan Valley “are forced to live with little to no privacy, in overcrowded, unsanitary and uninhabitable environments.”

These poor living conditions affect “the livelihoods of women and children and their access to basic services and facilities, including water and sanitation, healthcare and education.”

Al-Haq interviewed women in al-Qilt al-Foqa, a community in the southern Jordan Valley, about the acts of violence Israeli settlers routinely commit, often under the protection of Israeli soldiers. The organization states that “women expressed anxiety about living in a constant state of psychological distress from fear of potential settler attacks on the community.”

This anxiety, Al-Haq adds, “stems from both experiencing and witnessing incidents of violence that in the past posed a serious threat to the lives of the women, children and other family members.”

Al-Haq finds that “the right of Palestinian women to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including to sexual and reproductive freedom, is severely undermined by Israeli practices in the Jordan Valley, including demolitions, denials of road constructions, and restrictions on access to healthcare services and facilities.”

In Gaza, UNESCO reports, food insecurity among women-headed households is 51 percent while in the male-headed households in which most women live, it stands at 58 percent.

UNESCO attributes this problem to Israel’s closure of the Strip. The report notes that food insecurity worsened after Israel’s summer 2014 assault because it increased the number of displaced Palestinians in Gaza, made it harder for the population to access their livelihoods, and increased unemployment rates. UNESCO says that it expects this situation to “contribute to a deterioration of the nutritional status of women and children.”

As the “primary caregivers in Gaza, women are faced with acute challenges in coping with the large number of families with members killed or injured, the long-term impact of damaged infrastructure and reduced services,” UNESCO states.

Systematic and deliberate

Israel’s oppression of and violence against Palestinian women is pervasive and occurs at every level of their lives. It can only be seen as systematic.

The Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling describes the Palestinian women of Jerusalem as a “community deliberately and systematically placed under enormous physical and psychological pressure by the prevailing authority with an apparent intention of making not only day-to-day life unbearable, but destroying any hope in a brighter future.”

The World Health Organization finds that Israel’s measures as an occupying power are “designed to expel [Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip] and prevent them from reaching their agricultural land and property. This has a devastating effect on the health of inhabitants, particularly women (and especially women who are pregnant), children and the aged.”

Israel’s settler-colonial policies undermine Palestinian women’s abilities to live full, secure lives, and to contribute to building communities capable of flourishing in the present and in future generations.

On this International Women’s Day, one way to support the global emancipation of women is to support the struggle for Palestinian liberation.

Dr. Greg Shupak teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph-Humber. His book, The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel, and the Media, can be ordered from OR Books.