How Does Israel Violate Women’s Rights in the PA?
The latest UN Resolution declares that the so-called Israeli Occupation of Palestine is an obstacle to Palestinian women’s rights. I actually read the resolution; I wonder how many people did. Let me tell you what I found in the resolution and how it corresponds (or does not) to reality on the ground.
First, the document lists a number of Security Council Resolutions and Conference declarations rightly promoting the protection of women from violence and discrimination. For example, one paragraph calls for
“… women’s equal participation and involvement in all efforts for the achievement, maintenance and promotion of peace and security,”
And then they get specific. The document expresses:
“… grave concern about the continuing systematic violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people by Israel, the occupying Power, and its impact on women and girls,”
The document also wants to emphasize:
“… the limitations on Palestinian jurisdiction in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, which undermine the ability of the Palestinian Government to protect Palestinian women and girls in certain areas,”
It would be helpful were they to define exactly what “certain areas” is referring to. If they are referring to Area C that is under Israeli administration, then this was agreed upon by both sides to the Oslo Accords, meaning that the leadership of what became the Palestinian Authority agreed that Israel control Area C. If they want to complain about that they should direct their complaint to the Palestinian signatories.
Furthermore, what does “limitations on Palestinian jurisdiction” mean? Does it mean limitations over the total area of land the Palestinians want to claim as their own (all of Israel being included in their aspirations)? Does it mean that jurisdiction is limited regarding administrative offices over which they have control? Given that the PA is totally responsible for education, health care, municipal government, policing and the court system and more, in which way is their jurisdiction limited? In order to understand what they mean by Israel supposedly undermining the ability of the PA to protect their women and girls, one would need to know exactly what they are referring to.
The document later declares that:
“… the Israeli occupation remains a major obstacle for Palestinian women and girls with regard to the fulfilment of their rights, and their advancement, self-reliance and integration in the development of their society;”
The question they never answer is: HOW?
How does the so-called occupation prevent the fulfillment of the rights of PA women and girls? In order to get an answer to this question, I turned to a prominent Arab feminist in Israel. She repeated the litany of complaints against Israel we hear time and again, such as:
The occupation increases economic instability and the first to be affected are women, first as workers, and as housewives because of the imprisonment of their husbands.
I wonder what she thinks about the fact that Abbas refused to send an official delegation to the economic conference in Bahrain that would have sought to improve the economic instability of the PA. Or what she would have said about the demonstrations of civilians against what one man calls the Tunisian mafia that is oppressing the Palestinian people. Does she agree with BDS that caused the closing of Soda Stream, a firm that provided a good income with social benefits to Palestinian men and women? Or wonder about the impact of the murder of two Israelis at a factory in Barkan, that also has Palestinian and Israeli workers?
It is a good thing she did not blame family poverty on Israeli imprisonment of husbands since the PA leadership makes sure that terrorists, dead or in jail, get a good pension/salary, reducing the income of those who work at regular jobs if money is scarce (after they siphon off their own take, that is).
She also said:
Women are prevented from getting a good education. If they want to go to university, the lack of freedom of movement in the West Bank means that their right to an education is violated because they cannot get there.
A veteran journalist working in the West Bank/Judea & Samaria said that this is “cheap propaganda and a lie”. He told me:
Women have full access to education and I’ve never heard of one case where a woman complained that she couldn’t go to school or college because of the occupation. That’s ridiculous.
The feminist from Nazareth also talked about the loss of privacy to take care of their hygienic needs for the women of Gaza when they are compelled to live in schools after homes are destroyed by the Israeli bombs. She said that these women
…are violated twice: as a person and as a woman.
I wonder that she does not direct her ire at Hamas that seems to have a predilection to building tunnels from, or storing missiles in, the basements of homes. She gave more examples but I do not see the point in going over all that old tired territory in full.
Given that I did not find anything new in my conversation with the Arab feminist, I decided to explore the possibility that academic studies on the lives of women in the PA may shed light on this issue.
An Academic Look at Women’s Rights in the PA
American historian, Ellen Fleischmann, studied the historical contributions of Arab women living in the British Mandate of Palestine from 1920 until 1948. The extent of their involvement may be surprising to some. It was new to me. She concluded that these contributions have been marginalized in contemporary history:
Both ‘official’ Palestinian nationalist and collective history elide all evidence of the nuances, contradictions, and complexities of the women’s movement: its independence, factionalism, individual power struggles, and originality. It is telling that, to this day, the split in the women’s movement which occurred almost sixty years ago has been successfully repressed, and those who do remember it are reluctant to discuss it. The representations of the women’s movement had to correspond to and fit within the major nationalist narrative – in some ways to rectify the weaknesses within the male-led movement – in order to be more seamless, more united, and more positivistically linear in its progress and triumphs. The result is the construction of a mythico-history in which women’s importance in the nationalist narrative is based largely on obscuring the rich ambivalences and contradictions of their role in order to maintain unifying nationalist myths and legends.
While there are some points in her paper that show her anti-Israeli bent, these are irrelevant to her discussion of the role of Arab women in the fight against the British Mandate.
Gender and Women’s Studies Professor in New York, Simona Sharoni, made an amazing claim. But first, we should note that apparently after 1948, women’s involvement in the public sphere may have disappeared when Judea & Samaria was under Jordanian (Arab) occupation and Gaza under Egyptian (Arab) occupation. It only seems to have risen again after Israel regained control over what became disputed territories. Sharoni wrote that:
The [First] Intifada  provided Palestinian women in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who had participated in literacy programs and skill-training courses operated by the women‘s committees, with both an opportunity and an excuse to join the women‘s movement and to put what they had learned to use. The involvement of some women in the national liberation struggle notwithstanding, a majority of women in Palestine became politically involved as a way to protect their homes, families and communities. In the course of this involvement, women learned crucial skills, which prompted them to challenge the exclusion of women from the official decision-making levels in the political arena.
On the Israeli side, Jewish women, whose political involvement was previously marginalized in the name of “national security”, were inspired by the visibility of Palestinian women at the forefront of the Intifada.
Sharoni then lists five women’s organization that arose in Israel as a result of this and the beginning of their awareness of the impact of the occupation on the Palestinians and a gendered analysis of the conflict. However, to her chagrin, the media reporting on conjoint Palestinian-Israeli women’s conferences and activities regarded them as human interest stories rather than as news worthy of serious consideration.
This marked, however, an important turning point for women in the PA:
For Palestinian women, the realization that full participation in the national struggle does not necessarily guarantee an improvement in women‘s rights and social conditions triggered critical debates within Palestinian society. This disillusionment sparked a strong sense of commitment to the struggle for gender equality and women‘s rights, and opened a new chapter in the history of the Palestinian women’s movement. [emphasis added]
They established more women’s centers throughout Judea & Samaria and Gaza and embarked upon research into the impact of the occupation on women’s lives, setting up forums and publishing articles and other materials. It seems that some of the research had ulterior motives and set the foundation for the propaganda points that pro-Palestinians love to repeat. I will examine these in greater detail at another time.
Writers such as Birzeit Associate Professor Eileen Kuttab, Birzeit Women’s Studies Director Islah Jad, and Columbia University Anthropology Professor Lila Abu-Lughod all lament the changes in the discourse after Oslo. The influx of international NGOs and foreign funds intending to support the improvement of women’s rights in the PA changed the focus from locally defined goals that viewed fighting the patriarchy and the occupation as indivisible.
The problems were defined by Western NGOs as problems within a Moslem society. The women in Gaza definitely work within an Islamicist context and feel they are successful, seeing no reason to abandon their beliefs, according to Jad. The more secular society in Judea & Samaria sees the occupation as instrumental in preventing the advancement of women’s status and intimately tied up with the patriarchy. For all Palestinian women, the emphasis has to be on collective empowerment whereas applications for foreign funds for activism must focus on individual empowerment.
The ability to continue working with Israeli women’s organizations is impaired, according to Sharoni, because the Israelis have an approach more closely aligned to that of the foreign NGOs. Furthermore, they favour negotiation over armed struggle and in conjoint Israeli-Palestinian conferences, the foreigners go along with the Israelis, making the Palestinian women feel dictated to. The Israeli women want to emphasize their similarities and not deal with their differences. So perhaps this can be seen as another example of Israeli occupation of Palestinians, this time with cooperation from the foreign NGOs that generally are anti-Israeli but pro-negotiation.
There are interesting areas to be explored regarding women’s rights in the PA. One might be the impact of media reporting slant on the evolution of women’s involvement in public life. Another might be the differential successes in Gaza versus Judea & Samaria.
An additional focus might be on their right to define their own problems in their own terms and not have to adopt international definitions and goals that are inconsistent with their needs. But when they write historical lies, such as that Israel buried families alive when bombing buildings and used white phosphorus in Gaza, then it makes it hard to believe in the sincerity of their goals. When they blame Israel for the economic and political instability of the PA and do not mention the human rights violations committed by their own leaders (such as arresting and imprisoning journalists without charge) or the murder of anyone who appears to be promoting normalization with Israel, they make it hard to believe in the sincerity of their goals.
But perhaps all of this is overly academic and I should be more like the author who wrote the tongue-in-cheek piece in The Mideast Beast:
“For years, we witnessed brutal oppression of women in counties like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, honor killings in Pakistan, and the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Congo,” Joanna Manganara, the president of the International Alliance of Women, told The Mideast Beast. “We are ecstatic to learn that every country but one [Israel] has cleaned up its act, and that 99.9% of the world’s women are now safe.”
This article was originally published in Israel National News Op-Eds on 2 August 2019.