Opinion |

'Targeted as a Palestinian and a Woman': Israel’s Gendered Intimidation Campaign

Even during 'peacetime,' Palestinians know they are not safe. Palestinian women face a double threat: Sexualized insults and routine abuse from Israel’s security forces and Jewish nationalists

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Israeli security forces try to detain a Palestinian woman in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
Israeli security forces try to detain a Palestinian woman in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND - AFP

When Israelis and Palestinians talk about peace, they often speak past one another.

For Israeli Jews, peace means an absence of external threats, from rockets or a widespread Palestinian uprising; for Palestinians, peace means a transformation of society to secure equal rights and resources.

Regardless of flare-ups in Gaza or civil unrest, or during extended periods of what Israelis call "quiet," Palestinians remain unsafe. Their lack of safety is by design, a feature of the system, not a bug. The recent ceasefire and the restoration of a fragile calm in Israel’s mixed cities offers them no respite.

The story of one Palestinian woman from Jerusalem illustrates what living in this kind of fear is like, and how it can have a particularly gendered expression.

Born and raised in East Jerusalem, Hiba (a pseudonym she requested for her own safety) has lived her whole life without political representation, neither in the Israeli nor the Palestinian Authority legislatures. This is the particular predicament of Palestinian East Jerusalemites, most of whom lack Israeli citizenship yet cannot vote in PA elections, if there ever is another one.

Israeli Jewish nationalists celebrating Jerusalem Day meet Palestinian protesters outside the Old City's Damascus GateCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, but the city remains divided.

Officially, East Jerusalem Palestinians may apply for Israeli citizenship, but they face deliberate impediments in the form of significant administrative hurdles.

East Jerusalemites – who constitute 35 percent of the city’s population – can vote in municipal elections, but in practice, exercising even this local franchise is often logistically complicated. Potential voters also face peer pressure from neighbors who oppose voting as the legitimization of a hostile regime. Palestinians live under surveillance, both from high-tech and conventionally armed patrols, and are regularly harassed, inconvenienced, humiliated, and under-served in terms of public services. And lack of representation means a lack of advocacy and security.

Hiba holds a BA in journalism from The Hebrew University and recently completed an MA in Oriental and African Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. But it’s the topic of her thesis – the kidnapping and murder of her cousin and neighbor Mohammed Abu Khdeir – that demonstrates how fundamentally unsafe life is for her community. In 2014, 16-year-old Mohammed was abducted right outside his house by religious Jewish nationalist terrorists, beaten and then burned alive.

Hiba can testify as to how gender and ethnicity combine to make Palestinian women particular targets of everyday assault and verbal violence.

Throughout her life, Hiba has been targeted by sexual insult from Israeli armed security forces and been spat on by religious Jewish settlers.

A Palestinian woman whose house has been occupied by Jewish settlers arguing with Israelis who came to celebrate Jerusalem Day in front of her disputed house in East JerusalemCredit: AFP

When she attended a Muslim religious school, coming home with her hair covered in a hijab, she was often accosted by armed security personnel who addressed her as sharmuta, the Arabic for whore. She’s been physically grabbed and groped by Jewish men who identified her as an Arab and faced a host of other verbal assaults. While demonstrating in the wake of her cousin’s abduction and murder, pressuring authorities to investigate, she was called sharmuta by IDF soldiers on a daily basis.

Hiba has developed a thick skin. And she draws strength from her family’s legacy.

"We resisted the Jordanian occupation, the British Mandate, and the Ottomans," she declares, proudly. "I have many relatives in the U.S., not because of 1967 or 1948, but because members of my great-grandfathers’ generation made their way there much earlier to evade conscription into the Ottoman military, which was often a death sentence.

"To be a member of my family is to stand against foreign rule, to carry yourself with pride. We refuse to be afraid in our own country."

Supporters of MK Itamar Ben-Gvir and head of the one-man far right "Jewish Power" (Otzma Yehudit) party, wave Israeli flags as he attempts to march to the Damascus GateCredit: EMMANUEL DUNAND - AFP

Over the past decades in Jerusalem, Palestinians have been periodically targeted for mob attacks. One of the most explicit incidents occurred during the recent unrest in Mahane Yehuda, West Jerusalem’s open-air market, when four religious Jewish men stabbed a 25 year old Palestinian worker. News coverage showed them being led into court holding their kippot over their faces, hiding behind the symbolic reminder to be humble before a God who commands reverence for the sanctity of human life.

They were charged with terrorism offenses and attempted murder. Those charges are unusual. Most often, assaults and other violence go unpunished, or woefully undercharged.

For example, the soldier who killed Eyad al-Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian, was finally (after a full year) charged with negligent homicide, not murder. Al-Hallaq was killed after having been already immobilized by shots to his leg, lying on the ground, with his school counsellor shouting, in Hebrew, "He is disabled, he is disabled!" at the police.

Just days ago, a soldier ordered a Palestinian father and daughter in Sheikh Jarrah to go home, then turned around and shot Jana Kiswani with a sponge-tipped bullet in her spine as she walked back through her door. He then shot the father’s leg and lobbed a stun grenade after them. After the video went viral, a police officer was suspended, pending investigation.

Daily humiliations, like a grandfather being prevented at gunpoint from returning his crying grandchild home to her mother while Jews fly past the checkpoint, are a routine part of Palestinian life.

Jana Kiswani, center, talks to her father, Mohammed, as she recovers in her family home after being hit by a sponge-tipped bullet Credit: Maya Alleruzzo / AP

Still, Hiba maintains, "I’ve gone to protests my whole life. Always non-violently. I’ve been body-slammed by soldiers. But I was never afraid, until last week."

Days after the ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza took hold, she was accosted outside Jerusalem’s new central train station.

"I’ve generally felt safe in mixed and Israeli spaces,” she says, "even though I know that I’m not, really. But not this time."

Returning from visiting friends in Haifa, another mixed city, she was waiting at the light rail stop adjacent to the station, earbuds in, listening to music. A man in his 30s neared, wearing a white shirt, a black velvet kippah, and a closely cropped beard, pretending to buy a light rail ticket from the kiosk. When she smiled politely, he turned away.

At that point, she began thinking about the fact that there was no one there to protect her.

A Palestinian woman travels on the light rail in Jerusalem amid the spread of COVID-19Credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters

"He approached me, said "Shalom" and asked my name. Most people can't tell that my Hebrew isn’t native. After all, I studied among Jewish students at an Israeli university. I asked him why he wanted to know. I thought of giving a Hebrew name, but why should I have to deny my name in my own city, where my family has lived for countless generations?"

Hiba was on edge. "If I were in any other country and a man was behaving in this fashion, I would think I was going to be raped. It definitely felt like a predatory situation."

Then the man began doing something that truly terrified her: He began to fiddle, performatively, with his handgun, removing it halfway from its holster and asked her about the necklace she was wearing.

"It’s an old mandatory coin I bought in the Old City, with Arabic, Hebrew, and English writing. At this point, it was clear he wasn’t only trying to "out" me as an Arab, he was looking in an intimidating manner at my chest. And I thought, this man might kill me."

To break the deadlock, Hiba confirmed that she was Palestinian.

"Suddenly, he let go of his gun and ran into the train station. I’m not sure why. Maybe he was planning something and lost his nerve. Maybe my smile disarmed him. Maybe he’s working up to something still to come.

Suha, mother of Mohammed Abu Khudair, shows a picture of her son on her mobile phone at their home in Shuafat, an Arab suburb of Jerusalem July 2, 2014Credit: REUTERS

"The night before they kidnapped Mohammed, my cousin, they tried to kidnap a boy walking with his brother and mother, who to this day have marks on their necks where his murderers wrapped cords around them. Was I more targeted for being Palestinian or for being a woman? Definitely both."

She began shaking. Two Israeli women, one a police trainee, approached her to see if she was alright. They told her they had been watching to see if he was dangerous.

"They were very kind. But why did they let him accost me at all? What were they waiting for? For him to point his gun at me? The minute he approached me, I was unsafe. Now I was sobbing. They helped me onto the light rail and sat with me to try to calm me.

"When I reached home, I couldn’t tell my parents. I ran straight to the shower, wanting to feel safe and clean of the whole incident. I didn’t tell anyone for an entire day."

The first responsibility of any liberal democracy is to ensure the safety of its citizens and residents, especially minorities who are both more frequent targets and may well be less likely to trust law enforcement. Israel has been failing this obligation flagrantly for generations. Israeli "security" forces have perversely, systemically, been agents of their unsafety.

Graffiti reading 'Arabs = enemies' scrawled on a wall in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat

It’s not a few bad people doing bad things and it cannot be addressed by a few good people intervening, as one eventually did in this case. Being inured to this daily reality is a survival strategy, but everyone has their breaking point. For Hiba, it was the threat of a firearm at point blank range in a public space.

During "peacetime" Palestinians know they are not safe. The government is not on their side and the state’s raison d’etre sets them up as at best impediments and inconveniences, a "demographic threat," secondary obligations, not central to its mission.

Palestinians living in their native country, both individually and historically, are nonetheless othered, treated as foreigners, fifth columnists and national security threats by official state organs and individual citizens.

Israel bases its legitimacy in part on the fact that the majority of its citizens belong to a community that was targeted as a minority over centuries in the diaspora. It’s hard not to notice that its reality is to make another minority feel unsafe and targeted. If Israel truly wishes to express its Jewish values as a Jewish state, then it has a long distance to go to ensure its minorities feel respected and protected as equals.

Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston and Director of its Arnold Center for Israel Studies

Ori Weisberg holds a Ph.D. in English Literature and has lectured at Hebrew University, Bar Ilan University, and Seminar HaKibbutzim, is a musician and composer, and works as an academic translator and editor in various disciplines. He lives in Jerusalem



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