Beit Halachmi - Milrod - 19.3.12
Hanna Beit Halachmi Photo by Moti Milrod
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"At the demonstration today in Kafr a-Dik, I noticed looks and finger-pointing from the shabab (nickname for young Palestinians ) that made me feel some uncomfortable" wrote an Israeli leftist activist recently, referring to a West Bank protest last month. "There was some 'accidental' touching, and some incidents in which people called me a 'slut'...it was a very unpleasant experience," the activist wrote to her friends at Anarchists Against the Wall, which holds pro-Palestinian protests at Kafr a-Dik and other places in the West Bank.

The letter, describing the sexual harassment of an Israeli woman protester by Palestinian men, is just one incident that has sparked a stormy online debate among leftist and human rights activists in Israel.

That account, 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 by Palestinians. In the past two years, at least six incidents were documented: two in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and four in the Mount Hebron area, in al-Masra and Kafr a-Dik, as well as an alleged case of attempted rape in Umm Salmona, near Bethlehem, that was revealed in Haaretz.

Recently, women from leftist groups launched a forum for monitoring and handling such incidents. "The objective is to learn the subject," says one of the members. "We want to develop tools and guidelines for creating an environment with fewer cases of harassment."

The participation of Israeli and foreign activists in protests alongside Palestinians began in the middle of the last decade, but has become increasingly widespread in the last few years. The protests in Bil'in, near the separation fence, and Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem have become points of pilgrimage for leftwing activists from Israel and abroad, who join the Palestinians for weekly Friday demonstrations. In Sheikh Jarrah the demonstrations began when Palestinians were evicted from the homes they had lived in for decades after an Israeli court determined that the property belonged to Israelis. Other activists help Palestinians who are frequently harassed by West Bank settlers in the southern part of Mount Hebron.

A dent in cooperation

The joint activity of Israeli leftists on one side and local Palestinians on the other has created rare cases of cooperation in a period of conflict. But at the same time, there have been a growing number of complaints of sexual harassment of leftist women by Palestinian men. 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 requested that female protesters dress in a manner that shows consideration toward the Palestinian residents.

The written request created a gender rift within the organization with the men contending that the women's response to the issue was exaggerated. Soon after, the activists began holding meetings in which they discussed, among other things, the issue of sexual harassment.

The women activists are angry about the lame response of their male colleagues, arguing that the men belittle the significance of the harassment in the name of "the opposition to the occupation."

One Israeli woman 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.'"

The Israeli activist recalls another incident that came up at the meeting. "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 woman," says the Israeli activist.

Palestinian harasser ostracized and fined

Mahmoud Zohara, a member of the Popular Committee of al-Masra, told Haaretz that the town decided to fight the phenomenon in every possible way. "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."

He added that the Popular Committee has done much to raise awareness about the issue among the town residents, especially the 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," says Zohara.

Two weeks ago, another activist anonymously wrote on the Hebrew website www.haokets.org, a forum for social and political criticism: "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."

The vaseline poster scandal

The heated debate intensified lately after the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement posted a controversial poster on its Facebook page. The poster, protesting the deal legitimizing the illegal West Bank outpost of Migron, features a jar of Vaseline with a caption reading "Deep Migron," - a pun on the title of the pornographic film "Deep Throat" (garon is Hebrew for throat ). The poster angered some 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 don't need to go all the way to East Jerusalem to find places where no one cares what I think or feel."

The poster was removed following the criticism. Another woman activist wrote: "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 maintaining gender equality as they think they are."

Beit Halachmi, 50, and a mother of two, claims that leftist organizations suffer from chauvinism and "need women in order to create an appearance of liberalism... Women cannot be in second place. Women have become a tool for war, weapons, and sacrifice," says Beit Halachmi, who writes a blog called "The Private Is Political."

She says that in the wake of the report of the sexual harassment incident in Kafr a-Dik, unacceptable responses were voiced. "At first some people said that we should stop going to demonstrations there. But shortly after, responses along the lines of '[fighting]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 harassment 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.

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