Domestic Violence Cases Climb in Israel as Coronavirus Closure Keeps Families at Home

Shelters expected to reach maximum capacity within days, authorities plan new ones ■ Requests for help spike amid confinement and economic distress caused by outbreak

Lee Yaron
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Israelis protest gender-based violence in Tel Aviv, December 20, 2019.
Israelis protest gender-based violence in Tel Aviv, December 20, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Lee Yaron

Women’s shelters have only a few spaces left that are expected to be filled in the coming days, as the number of domestic violence complaints spikes amid the closure caused by the coronavirus crisis. The Social Affairs Ministry says it is looking into opening additional shelters to prevent having to turn women away.

According to ministry data, the shelters are now at 90 percent capacity, but the shelters say it’s more like ‘95 percent. The overcrowding is the result not only of an increase in violent attacks, but of the inability of women to leave the shelters, since there’s little way for them to find work at this time, sources told Haaretz. The domestic violence hotlines and centers to assist victims of sexual abuse are reporting an increase in the number of reports, and expect an unprecedented increase in the number of women who will suffer domestic violence.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70Credit: Haaretz

The combination of being forced to stay at home and financial pressures and loss of routine create a fertile environment for domestic abuse, the sources said. “We aren’t prepared for the tsunami that’s going to happen; we’re talking about an extreme situation that we’ve never seen before,” said Rivka Neuman, head of the women’s advancement division at WIZO, which operates two shelters and a hotline. “We are seeing normative families reporting violence for the first time, and a worsening of the situation in families that have been in the cycle of violence.”

Danielle (not her real name), who left a battered women’s shelter two years ago after a lengthy recovery process, told Haaretz of the distress caused by the current crisis.

“I’d built a new life for myself,” she said. “I moved to a new city, I cut off contact with my ex and I haven’t seen him since. I’ve had a new partner for a couple of months already. We had to go into quarantine after we returned from abroad and suddenly he’s a different person. We’ve both been fired from our jobs. Both of us are home with the children and I’m afraid. He screams at us and makes threats. He is resembling my ex more and more. I’m deathly afraid that it will turn into physical violence. I have nowhere to go.”

Those working the hotlines tell of numerous calls from women in quarantine who have been physically or verbally abused and cannot leave their homes. According to Dina Havalin Dahan, CEO of an emergency hostel for women and chairwoman of the forum of nonprofits that run shelters, being confined at is unbearable for victims of domestic violence and their children. “The number of shelter employees has been increased and their activities have been adapted to the special situation under the guidance of the Social Affairs Ministry,” she said. “But now there is an urgent need for additional shelters for victims of violence and their children.” 

The Social Services Ministry said it was preparing to open more shelters for victims of violence. “We are examining existing buildings that could serve as shelters and are surveying and monitoring the requirements on a daily basis,” the ministry said. “Every woman who needs a response will receive it.” Social workers who specialize in domestic violence are continuing to work regularly after they were exempted from the emergency orders issued by the government, added the ministry.

On Friday, Aida Touma-Sliman, the former chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, asked Social Affairs Minister Ofir Akunis to address the state of the shelters urgently: “The prolonged isolation at home  and the economic damage the virus is causing have increased domestic violence, and the shelters cannot keep up with the pace,” she said. “A place that will accept at least another 100 women, some with children, is required. The Social Affairs Ministry must take quick action to assist the shelters.” 

If new shelters are not opened within days, dozens of women whose lives are at risk could end up having to wait for a spot; every month about 50 new women arrive at the shelters, and these numbers could greatly increase. “Normally, there are 200,000 families in the circle of violence, according to conservative estimates,” said Neuman. “These numbers will rise a lot.” 

Another problem is that women who are victims of violence and were treated in secret by WIZO are afraid to continue with the treatment online, as they fear their abusive partner with whom they are shut in at home might discover it, Neuman explained. 

Women who “are surrounded by professional support in normal times have found themselves alone,” Orit Sulitzeanu, the executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, told Haaretz. The number of people turning to the association has risen because of “a feeling  of chaos and a lack of control that is prevailing.” The victims are experiencing even greater distress, as well as a worsening of the symptoms characterizing post-traumatic stress disorder, she added.

The increased violence is also reflected in the number of murder attempts within families. A week ago, a woman was murdered by her partner in Rishon Letzion and on Wednesday a young woman was murdered in Umm al-Fahm, alongside the attempted murder in Lod of a woman by her partner.

Last week, the Israel Women’s network sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Akunis calling on them to allocate resources for emergency housing and shelters for abused women, and also to establish an emergency command center to distribute information on the issue in all languages. The Women’s Network also demanded that resources be allocated to local municipalities for actively contacting and providing solutions to families.

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