Protecting Palestinian females: HRW misses the mark

A Palestinian girl protests Israel’s latest incursion into Gaza at a Hamas rally in the northern Gaza Strip, 3 November 2006. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)

I truly do not understand some of the decisions that my colleagues and friends at Human Rights Watch have been making. This week, to much fanfare, they rolled out a very well-funded study about domestic violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in which their main order of business is to blame the Palestinian Authority for having, “failed to establish an effective framework to respond to violence against women and girls.”

As a woman, as someone who survived some long-ago domestic violence, as the mother of two daughters, and as quite simply a member of the human race I am deeply concerned about the question of domestic violence. But this study seems wrongly conceived and wrongly focused for a number of reasons:

(1) The study makes no mention whatsoever that I can see of the huge amount of physical and systemic violence inflicted on Palestinian females by the Israeli occupation forces. Why not? It does make a few namby-pamby references along the way to the impediments that the Israeli occupation’s roadblocks, lockdowns etc place in the way of participants in the Palestinian justice system who might want to help remedy the plight of Palestinian females suffering domestic violence. But why no mention at all of Israel’s own use of lethal violence against Palestinian females?

Just in the past few days, the Israelis have killed at least three adult women and one girl in Gaza, maybe more. (See two of those reported here.) Back in July, the Israelis killed 20 women in Gaza in one month alone. And so it goes on and on and on— lives of women snuffed out or blighted forever through wounding or bereavement— at the hands of Israel, the occupier. But no mention at all in this HRW report.

(2) The report states that, “the PA holds ultimate responsibility for protecting victims and holding perpetrators accountable.” In my judgment this is quite incorrect. Israel has never relinquished its responsibilities (or rights) under international law to act as the occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza. It is therefore, pending a final peace settlement that addresses the sovereignty issues in those areas, the power that bears the “ultimate responsibility” for the protection of life and public security in those areas. The PA is just acting, as it were, as an intermittent sub-contractor to the occupying power. Certainly, Israel retains the right to arrogate back to itself at any time that it chooses, any of the powers that the PA may exercise— and it has done so very frequently and very freely, in both territories. (For example, when it sent tanks back into Ramallah in 2002 or since, or into Gaza last month, this did not constitute an “international incident” or an “act of war” against a neighboring state. It was simply Israel exercising the rights as occupier in those areas that it has never relinquished… Which is not to say, of course, that the way in which it has exercised those rights has always been legal. It has not. But it does show that Israel claims the right to re-enter at any point, at any time— and that the Security Council and the rest of the international “community” agrees with this assessment.)

So for HRW to haul the PA onto the mat of blame now as bearing the “ultimate responsibility” for harms that befall Palestinian females, while criticising Israel only very tangentially for hampering the PA from doing its job is, I believe, seriously to miss the mark.

It is, I repeat, Israel, as occupying power, that has established all the conditions of life (and death) for the Palestinians of the occupied territories and that must be held primarily reponsible for them.

One of the main conditions of life that Israel has established has been its own frequent use of lethal force against all Palestinians, including women, as noted above. Another has been its imposition of tight constraints on the ability of Palestinians in both territories to carry out anything like a normal human existence - through the imposition of stifling movement control regimes, economic boycott, etc etc.

Is it any wonder that under those demeaning and sometimes life-threatening conditions of life, many Palestinian families have found themselves stressed out to the point where stronger family members increase their use of “domestic” violence against weaker family members? This is a classic example of what Israeli saint Amira Hass calls “The Experiment.”

It would be good if every single person at Human Rights Watch responsible for producing this latest little report could go back and re-read the whole of Hass’s great mid-October article on that topic. Here’s some of what she wrote:

The experiment was a success: The Palestinians are killing each other. They are behaving as expected at the end of the extended experiment called “what happens when you imprison 1.3 million human beings [in Gaza, alone] in an enclosed space like battery hens.”

These are the steps in the experiment: Imprison (since 1991); remove the prisoners’ usual means of livelihood; seal off all outlets to the outside world, nearly hermetically; destroy existing means of livelihood by preventing the entry of raw materials and the marketing of goods and produce; prevent the regular entry of medicines and hospital supplies; do not bring in fresh food for weeks on end; prevent, for years, the entry of relatives, professionals, friends and others, and allow thousands of people - the sick, heads of families, professionals, children - to be stuck for weeks at the locked gates of the Gaza Strip’s only entry/exit…

It is the good old Israeli experiment called “put them into a pressure cooker and see what happens,” and this is one of the reasons why this [Palestinian factional violence] is not an internal Palestinian matter.

Hass’s article, by the way, refers more generally to the incidence of political violence among members of the different armed factions in the OPTs. But it is also completely applicable to the issue of intra-family violence there.

But from HRW, all we get is just a few very veiled references to the “difficult conditions of life” being experienced by the Palestinians. Certainly, no recognition whatsoever that it is the Israeli occupation administration that must— under international law— be held fully responsible for those conditions of life.

(3) The level of “research” carried out by HRW for this study is laughably inadequate, and certainly nowhere near sufficient to have propelled the study into so many of the august tribunes of the western MSM. The study makes no attempt whatsoever to quantify the incidence of domestic violence in the OPTs or even to provide any form of rough comparison between the level there and the level in other countries. All we are told is that, “A significant number of women and girls in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are victims of violence perpetrated by family members and intimate partners”, and

Various studies and statistics gathered by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) and Palestinian women’s groups record high levels of violence perpetrated by family members and intimate partners, aggravated during times of political violence. Information obtained from social workers, academics, and police officials on the prevalence of domestic violence, incest, and actual or threatened “honor” crimes, also indicate that reported rates do not reflect the full extent of such violence…

Then from there the report leaps almost immediately to concluding that “it is already well established that violence against women and girls inside the family is a serious problem in the OPT.” And that’s the best that the attempt at quantification can produce.

My own estimation? I believe it is entirely possible that the incidence of domestic violence in Palestine may be lower than that in the US, where the physical and social isolation of many small family units leaves the women in those families particularly vulnerable… But I recognize that we simply do not know about the level, in either place.

Yes, I know there are always under-reporting problems in this domain. But what, actually, do the reports that do exist from Palestine exist tell us about the situation there? And can they demonstrate this stated link between domestic violence and the incidence of political violence? That, at least, would be interesting and significant to know. But the HRW report presents no serious attempts at any form of quantification or even of estimation. We are all just invited to take on trust the general trope that “there’s a lot of it about, out there in Palestine.” I note that just exactly this same same kind of lazy trope— claiming concern for women’s rights and women’s interests - was used to justify all kinds of colonial depradations of various parts of the world by the colonial powers of centuries past. A case of plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose here perhaps?

That summary linked to there also tells us, regarding the methodology the HRW people used for the report, that

This report is based on more than one hundred interviews conducted in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, Hebron, Tulkarem, Jericho, and Gaza in November and December 2005; follow up communications with many of the same individuals by telephone and email as well as a handful of new interviews in June and July 2006; and examination of relevant laws, academic literature, policy analyses, surveys, and other published materials…

Of the one hundred interviews, as far as I can tell, roughly half were with social workers, government officials, and other professionals, and roughly half with women who were themselves actual survivors of domestic violence.

This scale of interviewing, and the preparation and publication of a lengthy report like this, use up considerable resources. (And this, from an organization that is always begging me and others to give it more money.) I think that from their elegant perch in the Empire State Building, the HRW leaders could have chosen some campaigns that would have been far, far more effective in bringing increased protection to the lives and wellbeing of Palestinian females. They could have started by insisting that Israel

  • end its promiscuous recourse to the use of lethal force,
  • lift the illegal blocade it maintains on Gaza and on the institutions of the PA in general, and
  • dismantle both the system of checkpoints and barricades it has erected deep inside the Palestinian West Bank and the network of (completely illegal, and very damaging) Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

    Then they could continue by urging our own legislative and executive powers here in the US to cut off all the financial and political support that has allowed Israel to persist in these anti-humane (including anti-female) policies for many years.

    Moves like those would make a huge improvement in the conditions of life for Palestinian women and their family members… And until Israel enacts such changes, we can expect only that Palestinian women and their menfolk will remain, sadly, trapped in the belly of “the Experiment.”

    But HRW did not mention wide-reaching, humane, and effective steps like those. No, instead they just chose to beat up on the quite powerless and always vulnerable “Palestinian Authority.” No marks for bravery, friends.

    Helena Cobban is a writer and internationally syndicated columnist on global affairs. She has contributed a regular column to The Christian Science Monitor since 1990: it covers a broad range of issues including strategic affairs, human rights, peace-building, global governance, and international justice. She has maintained a weblog called “Just World News” since February 2003. She is a Contributing Editor of Boston Review, where her recent articles have included lengthy essays, incorporating interviews along with analysis, on Lebanon’s Hizbullah, on Hamas in Palestine, and on the July 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah, forthcoming, Nov.-Dec. 2006. These and most of her other articles published since 2002 can be accessed through Just World News. This article was blogged at Just World News.

    Related Links

  • Just World News
  • Report: Authorities Must Address Violence against Women and Girls, Report, HRW (7 November 2006)