A Palestinian Woman's Reaction to Sexual Harassment Lands Her in Jail

Muntaha al-Khekh spent four weeks in in jail - some of it in isolation - for striking back after being sexually harassed by an Israeli policeman.

She is a nice-looking, smiling, 20-year old girl, who has decided to pluck up her courage and relate what happened to her−− not a trivial matter in the traditional society in which she lives. Wearing a black dress and kerchief, a keffiyeh slung over her shoulders, Muntaha al-Khekh tells her story. Her father notes every word, but does not intervene. From time to time, she halts in embarrassment.

She and her six sisters live with their parents in Surif, a village west of Hebron. This is a religious community, with a hard core of Hamas supporters. Her father, Abu Ala, is an officer in the security apparatus of the Palestinian Authority. In order to help support her family, Muntaha worked as a caregiver in a preschool in nearby Halhoul. Before that, she was a wedding photographer and a beautician. She states that she was never involved in politics or security matters.

On October 22, she joined the owner of the preschool where she worked on a trip to Hebron. Around 5 in the afternoon, close to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, her companion entered a store while she waited outside, near the entrance gate for Muslims. T., an Israeli policeman in a blue uniform, approached her and asked her what she was up to. She replied that she was waiting for her friend. T. said he wanted to search her and Al-Khekh replied that she wanted a policewoman to conduct the search. T. said there wasn’t one nearby, grabbing her arm while starting to grope and stroke her. T. asked her if she was married, unbuttoning his shirt. In response, Muntaha slapped his face.

A policeman and policewoman immediately arrived on the scene and took her to a room designated for body searches. They asked her to undress, and she requested of the males that they leave the room. Policeman S. said there were cameras there anyway, cursing her with coarse words she repeated to us, nervously giggling with great embarrassment. T., still inflamed by the slap, held a can of pepper spray in his hand. He asked her if she was pregnant. She replied that she couldn’t be since she was unmarried.

She then undressed after the men left and was searched by the policewoman. S. returned to the room and asked for her parents’ phone number, pretending to phone them. He then told her that her parents had said they reject her and didn’t want to talk to her. This was very upsetting to her, and she began to scream and cry. S. pointed to a knife that was lying in a sink in the corner of the room and Muntaha grabbed it and held it to her body, as if she intended to harm herself. S. raised a chair and told her that if she calmed down, she could speak to her parents. She threw down the knife and the policemen then inspected her handbag. Then they tied her hands and took her to the nearest police station.

A police officer suggested that if she would apologize to T. for slapping him, she would be able to go home, but T. said he wouldn’t accept an apology. She was then taken for questioning at the Kiryat Arba police station, from which she was allowed to phone her father. He told her not to sign anything. In the middle of the night she was taken to the detention center at the Russian Compound in Jerusalem. Thus began 28 days of detention, two weeks in Jerusalem and two weeks at Neve Tirza prison, in Ramle, where she was held in isolation.

The Prison Services spokeswoman, Junior Commissioner Sivan Weizman, told Haaretz that “she arrived at Neve Tirza and while we were ascertaining whether her status was that of a criminal or security detainee, she was separated for security reasons. She was not held in a punishment isolation cell. An attempt to put her in the criminal wing fell through, so she was held in isolation until her release.”

Al-Khekh says she was held in a dark, narrow cell. For part of the period during which she had been detained in Jerusalem, she was chained to the bed by her hands and feet. During her detention, she was taken to 11 sessions of the military court at Ofer. Her trial is not over yet. Her case, number 5651/13, is being reviewed by Judge Major Samzar Shagoug at the Judea military court.

According to the military prosecutor via court transcript: “We have the testimonies of all the policemen who were there as well as a video portraying a prolonged incident in which the accused acts dangerously, defying the legal authorities. When do we determine if someone is dangerous? This whole thing escalated due to her own actions. Even if the policeman did insult her, that’s no reason, after you have slapped him, to then resist arrest. This snowball did not grow because of the authorities, but because of her.”

The defense attorney: “How did she suddenly become dangerous? Did anyone talk to the policeman or approach him? She didn’t go near anyone. She’s suffering terribly in detention, crying all the time. She’s in isolation.”

The judge ruled that she remain in custody until the end of the legal proceedings.

“Given the circumstances of the suspect, I’ll allow her one phone call to her family at the state’s expense,” wrote Judge Major Arye Dorni in his decision.

Her father, Abu Ala, said this week that he has seven daughters, three of them college students. “Muntaha decided to help with the financing of their tuition. She is not connected to any organization. I’m a security officer and we’re maintaining security in the West Bank. The message I’d like to convey to Israelis is that we live in a traditional society. Muntaha did not attack the policeman. He did what he did, touching her, asking her if she was married or pregnant. Should I fulfill my duty as a father and protect her honor? She has now lost her job and her honor. I’d like to know if the policeman is above the law. Was he justified in his actions?

“In our society, harassing a woman like that, in a sexual manner, can sometimes even lead to murder. How did the victim become the accused? It’s easy to accuse anyone of attacking a policeman and Israelis may believe that this is what happened. Muntaha is an innocent girl. If I were to bother a Jewish woman in Tel Aviv and she slapped me, who would get arrested? This is pure racism.”

After hearing her appeal, it was decided by the court on November 12 to release Al-Khekh on bail. It took her father another week to raise the required NIS 5,000 and for her to return home. Until her trial resumes in December, she is forbidden from leaving her village. She has thus lost her job.

A spokesman for the Judea and Samaria police gave Haaretz the following statement:

The claim that the woman was harassed at the barrier is denied in total, nor was there any mention of such a claim in the testimony taken from the suspect during the investigation.

As for the event itself: A Palestinian woman from the Hebron Kasbah arrived at the checkpoint adjacent to the Cave of the Patriarchs. She wandered around the area, and aroused the suspicions of the police. When one of the policemen asked her to explain her presence, the woman began to curse him. The policeman asked a female soldier from the Border Police, who was present at the outpost, to [physically] check the woman. The suspect began to object to the inspection, and the policeman and a Border Police soldier came to the assistance of the Border Policewoman. The suspect turned to the policeman and gave him a sharp slap, and in response she was arrested and brought to a closed inspection space, where two female soldiers performed a search of her, during which a knife was found in her bag. The suspect was placed under arrest under suspicion of assault of an officer and possession of a knife, and transferred to interrogation.

Alex Levac