Protesters at weekly demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah
Protesters at a weekly demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah in April, 2010. Photo by Emil Salman
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Moti Milrod
Hanna Beit Halachmi. Photo by Moti Milrod

"Hi everyone, I'm writing this here because I'm not really sure when the next meeting will be. At the demonstration today (February 10, 2012) in Kfar a-Dik, I noticed looks and finger pointing from the shabab (nickname for young Palestinians) that made me feel some discomfort. They talked amongst themselves, and not with me, but the word that came up quite a lot was ‘slut,’ with glances directed toward me. When I met A. and H. (two men), I told them about this, and H. stayed by my side. Despite this, there was some ‘accidental’ touching, and some incidents in which people called me a ‘slut.’ In the end of the day, it was a very unpleasant experience.”

This letter, written by an Israeli leftist activist, is only one of the causes for the stormy debate that has been taking place online among leftist and human rights activists in Israel.

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The activist sent the letter to her friends at Anarchists Against the Wall, in which she wrote of the incidents of sexual harassment she had experienced in Kfar a-Dik, a West Bank village where the organization holds protests in support of the Palestinians from time to time.

This correspondence, along with other testimonies obtained by Haaretz, tells of a wider phenomenon of sexual harassment and assault of Israeli and foreign protesters in the West Bank. In the past two years, at least six incidents were recorded in the West Bank and East Jerusalem: two in Sheikh Jarrah, four more in the Mount Hebron area, in Masra, in Kfar a-Dik, and an alleged case of attempted rape in Umm Salmona, near Bethlehem, that was revealed in Haaretz.

Recently, a special forum was started by a group of women from leftist groups for the purpose of dealing and monitoring such incidents. “The objective is to learn the subject,” says one of the group’s members. “We want to develop tools and guidelines for creating an environment with fewer cases of harassment.”

Protesters were asked to dress in a way that was considerate

The popular protests of Israeli and foreign leftist activists alongside Palestinians had already began in the middle of the previous decade, but had become more popular in recent years. The protests in Bil’in and Sheikh Jarrah have become points of pilgrimage for activists on the left from Israel and abroad, who join the Palestinians in protest every Friday, when these protest usually take place. In Sheikh Jarrah the protest began when Palestinians were evicted from their homes that were returned to their Israeli owners by court order. In other organization, activists help Palestinians under constant harassment of settlers in places such as south Mount Hebron.

The joint activity of Israeli leftist activists on one side and local Palestinians on the other has created rare cases of cooperation in this time of conflict. But at the same time, complaints of sexual harassment by Palestinians started to emerge. In April 2010, an American peace activist filed a complaint against a Palestinian, charging he had tried to rape her. The suspect was later freed when the activist withdrew her complaint.

Hanna Beit Halachmi, a longtime leftist feminist activist, says the outcry began in the spring of 2010, when the organization Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity, issued a message requesting that the female activists arrive to the protests dressed in a manner that is considerate toward the residents.

The statement created a rift between the organization's female activists and male activists who said their response was exaggerated. Soon after, the activists began holding meetings in which they discussed, among other issues, the issue of sexual harassment.

Alongside the struggle against the sexual harassment, the female activists have criticized the responses of their Israeli associates. The ire of many of the activists in the past and in the present is directed at their associates in the left who, according to them, are belittling the significance of the harassments, all in the name of “the opposition to the occupation.”

One activist, who in the past used to frequent the protests in the West Bank but no longer participates, told Haaretz, “Two years ago we had a meeting of women who took part in the struggle against the occupation. It took place in an apartment in Jerusalem, and disturbing things were brought up. Nearly all the women that attended told of cases of harassment or discrimination. One of the women recounted how one night, in a tent set up to help Sheikh Jarrah families, someone tried to grab her. She shouted for help and Palestinians came and asked who it was so that they could ‘take care of him.’”

“A female foreign activist of the international solidarity movement that was sleeping in one of the Palestinian villages, where protests against the fence take place, said that one night someone entered her room and tried to grab her, she began to shout and one of her friends rushed to help her. Since then I don’t go to places I ‘shouldn’t’ go to alone, as a women,” she said.

Mahmoud Zohara, a member of the Popular Committee of Masra told Haaretz that the town decided to fight the phenomenon in every way possible. “First, the person responsible for the incident was ostracized. In addition, the Popular Committee decided to file a complaint against him at the Palestinian Court. He was fined NIS 5,000 for his deeds.”

Zohara said that the residents of the town will not accept this phenomenon. “It is unacceptable that Israeli or foreign women that come to protest in solidarity with us be harassed and their human rights be infringed upon.”

Zohara added that the Popular Committee has done much to raise awareness about the issue among the town residents and youth. “One must understand that harassment takes place everywhere - in Tel Aviv and in the United States as well. In these protests there is a very open relationship between the Palestinians and Israeli and foreign activists. This creates friendships, love, and yes, incidents of sexual harassment. But we must put an end to this phenomenon, whatever the price.

That assault of an Israeli activist

The heated debate intensified lately after the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement posted a poster on its Facebook page. The poster, protesting the deal legitimizing the outpost Migron, features a jar of Vaseline with the caption reading ‘Deep Migron,’ a pun playing on the title of the pornographic film Deep Throat (‘garon’ is Hebrew for throat). The poster angered activists, almost as much as the incidents of sexual harassment.

One activist commented on the poster in her blog: “There will be more noise, they will take down the campaign, apologize again without understanding what they did wrong. As long as we continue coming on Fridays. Damn it, solidarity isn’t just with the Arabs. I can find places where no one cares what I think or feel even without going to East Jerusalem.”

“Honestly, I don’t care what you are doing to fight the occupation and how fast you bring about peace. I just don’t care.” The poster was removed following the criticism.

Two weeks ago, another activist anonymously wrote on the website haokets.org about an incident of sexual assault she had experienced, this time by an Israeli activist. “I was sexually assaulted last summer by an Israeli leftist activist. The assailant met, and still meets, all the right criteria: post-colonialist, post-Zionist, anti-capitalist, etc. And most relevantly, he considers himself a feminist. Until he assaulted me, we were friends.”

“After the assault it took me three long days to understand what had happened to me, and find a name for it. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, because I couldn’t understand how someone who spoke with me using the language of opposition to oppression could breach my walls.”

“When the solidarity movement released its new campaign with the Vaseline, hinting at anal rape, with the caption ‘shut up, bend over and swallow, you know you want to’ conjuring the most appalling imagery of sexual violence, I was angered, but unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised. In all honesty, the left isn’t as good at keeping gender equality as they think they are.”

Beit Halachmi, 50-years-old and a mother of two, claims that leftist organizations suffer from chauvinism and “need women in order to create an appearance of liberality. Once there is a preference for human rights, your legitimacy is finished. Women cannot be in second place. Women have become a tool for war, weapons, and sacrifice. This is a war of men against men, having nothing to do with the occupation.”

Beit Halachmi, who writes a blog titled The Private Is Political, says that even following the correspondence regarding the sexual harassment in Kfar a-Dik, unacceptable responses were made. It is true that at first some people said that we should stop going to demonstrations there. But shortly after, responses on the line of ‘the occupation is more important’ began to appear.”

Anarchists Against the Wall responded that “the group was dealing openly and seriously with incidents of sexual harassments done by Palestinians, as well as those in which soldiers and Israeli citizens were the assailants.”

“The attempts to use incidents of sexual assault, a phenomenon that takes place on both sides of the border, and to tie them to a single nationality, is harming the important fight against sexual violence,” the organization added.

Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement had not responded by the time of publication.

Read this article in Hebrew