Normally, news of a major army operation would force every other item on the public agenda in Israel onto the back burner. But the levels of anger among Israeli women over the Netanyahu government’s inaction on violence against women were high enough for the cries of protest to be heard at full volume Tuesday.
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Despite the dramatic announcement by the government at 7:30 A.M. that the Israeli army was in the midst of destroying Hezbollah-dug tunnels penetrating its northern border, the unprecedented “Women’s Strike” proceeded as scheduled.
Fountains were filled with blood; women splashed in red paint fell on the streets in staged “die-ins”; crowds marched with black coffins; thousands walked out of their workplaces; major intersections were blocked and flights delayed. And from movie stars to teenagers, social media feeds filled with photographs of protests with the hashtag declaring (in Hebrew) a “state of emergency.”
Those leading the protest made it clear that women’s lives were as important as national security concerns and there was no reason to curtail the protest. “Fifty-one percent of the population do not count, nor receive resources, and their basic needs are not met,” a statement by the organizers read. “This is an outrage and we are stopping it.”
The events were sponsored and coordinated by the Red Flag Coalition, which includes more than 50 feminist and women’s organizations in Israel.
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On the face of it, the two murders that galvanized Tuesday’s action might seem unlikely triggers to bring Israel to a halt and inspire a protest that defied a tense security situation.
The girls whose bodies were found on the same day, November 26, were from two of the most marginalized populations in Israel: Silvana Tsegai was a 12-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker, beaten to death in her south Tel Aviv apartment by her mother’s estranged boyfriend; the second, Yara Ayoub, 16 – an Arab Israeli teen from the Galilee village of Jish – was heading to a party when she went missing and was later found in a dumpster. Four members of her extended family are under arrest in connection with her killing.
But there were several elements that turned the girls’ deaths into a tipping point that pushed public outcry far beyond that heard during marches on November 25 – the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
That day was observed dutifully but, as in previous years, came and went with little reason for hope that the government would take more vigorous action against the violence.
So it came as a resounding slap in the face to women when, just a day later, Tsegai and Ayoub’s bodies were found, making them the 23rd and 24th female victims of either spouses, family members or men known to them – a number that hadn’t been reached since 2011.
This marks a sharp increase from previous years. In both 2016 and 2017, 16 women were murdered – itself an increase from the 13 murdered in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
The fact that both women were young girls made it difficult to engage in much of the victim-blaming that often takes place when grown women have been murdered by partners and family members.
There was no questioning whether they should have taken action, told the authorities or left the house. These are points that are usually raised even when women have, to no avail, taken such action: Half of all victims of domestic violence in Israel have previously complained to the police. (Indeed, Tsegai had already complained to the authorities about her suspected killer.)
The girls’ ages – and the fact they are part of the social media generation – also played a role in eliciting such a strong public response. Evening newscasts featured videos of the girls, and the understanding of their innocence and what was lost created a far greater emotional impact than mere names, ages and photographs.
Undeniably, politics also played a part. Anger boiled over in the face of recent evidence that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was personally indifferent or ignorant of the deadly violence that women in his country are facing.
On November 25, both Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu visited a women’s shelter in Jerusalem – prompting a rare show of public dissent from the premier’s wife.
She professed “shock” when she learned that her husband and his governing coalition had just voted down a proposal to set up a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the murder of women by their spouses, former spouses and other family members.
When the prime minister was asked why he had done so and explained that it was because “it was an opposition proposal,” his wife stepped in and chided him. “On this issue there really should be no coalition and opposition. It’s an issue we all share,” she reportedly said.
The premier then attended the weekly cabinet meeting, where, unusually, he used the word “terrorism” to describe violence against women.
However, he then announced he would be addressing the issue by chairing a ministerial committee on domestic violence – unaware that such a committee already existed and had already recommended that his government supply funding to address the issue. Yet a year after the cabinet backed that move, the money has still yet to materialize.
Although Netanyahu vowed to tackle the crisis, the timing of Tuesday’s army action on the northern border has been seen as suspicious by some.
For example, in an interview on Israel’s Army Radio, MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) speculated that the timing of the announcement might have been deliberately chosen to blunt the political fallout of the protest.
“My message to all of the protesters is that there’s nothing to expect from this government,” she said, speaking at one of the protests. “Enough is enough! They haven’t done anything for years, and they aren’t going to do anything now.”
If Netanyahu perceives that the pressure to act is coming from his political opponents, Michaeli may well be right.
But if he comes to believe that continued inaction might cost him political support from women in what many believe to be a fast-approaching national election, there is a chance he could, finally, mobilize his forces against a deadly threat to half of Israel’s population on the domestic front.