Surviving soldiers and settlers in the West Bank

Surviving soldiers and settlers in the West Bank

Surviving soldiers and settlers in the West Bank

While driving around Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem during a recent visit to the city, I passed a tent erected by the Ghawi family on a street corner in the Shaikh Jarrah quarter. As it was dark, men, women and children were sitting in plastic chairs around a table, beneath a street lamp, under the broad leaves of a fig tree. In early August, the Ghawis were evicted from their home of 50 years by Israeli security forces, making way for settlers who claimed the building had belonged to Jews before Israel’s war of establishment in 1948. By the end of October, the Israelis had dismantled their temporary shelter, leaving them on the street.

Driven to despair
During an earlier stay in Jerusalem, I met and interviewed Umm Kamel, another evictee. She and her husband were forced out of their home in the middle of the night, several years ago. He died a few days later but she camped out in a tent on waste ground until the Israelis bulldozed the site.  
Members of Umm Kamel’s extended family were also evicted recently. In early November, the Israeli municipality notified the Women’s Society in the Old City that its premises would be demolished stating that unlicensed additions had been made. The community is the only institution providing rehabilitation and cultural programmes for women in the walled city.

Stoned, shot at & surviving
The Israeli occupation is particularly hard on women. In East Jerusalem and the West Bank, women are routinely harassed by Israeli soldiers and abused by settlers. Women are stoned and shot at when they move outside their homes and suffer raids and teargas while the men are at work. When dwellings get trashed by Israeli troops, the women are expected to clear up the mess. They try to salvage what is remaining.
Parents are more likely to take girls than boys out of school or university because of the humiliation they face while negotiating at checkpoints and barriers. Women who do not have travel permits cannot reach hospitals or clinics for pre-natal care and delivery. Women are discouraged from seeking medical treatment, particularly preventive care. Breast cancer has become one of the most common diseases in this community and a main cause of death among victims.

Plight of widows
During Israel’s recent war on the Strip, 118 women were killed and 825 injured. Hundreds, including widows and wounded were rendered homeless.
According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, women widowed by the war are not only victimised by the conflict but also marginalised by cultural, social and economic discrimination. Since widows are compelled to live with family, many come under strong pressure to remarry. Most single women do not work, either due to lack of training or because they have children to take care of.
Israel’s siege of the Strip has left a majority of men unemployed. In turn, they take out their frustration on women and children.
Insecurity has driven the society in on itself and is becoming increasingly conservative, limiting the options for women. This trend has been exacerbated by the actions of the Hamas government.

Victims of a ‘virtue’ campaign
Last summer, it launched a ‘virtue’ campaign to counter ‘immoral behaviour’. Hamas police patrols insist that women dress ‘modestly’ on the beach and circulate only in the company of husbands and fathers. The campaign coincided with an order issued by the chief justice ordering female lawyers to wear a full length robe and a headscarf when appearing in court.  15 women lawyers in Gaza challenged this ruling. But this was rejected by the government. Nevertheless, the attempt at imposing the scarf prompted many women to wear it. Similarly, pressure was exerted on parents to send their daughters to school wearing a cloak and scarf. Although Hamas rejected this imposition, it did ban women from riding motorcycles and prohibited mannequins and shop windows from displaying women’s underwear.
Upset and uncertain, a growing number of Gazan women are misusing painkillers and taking to drugs for solace .
While the Hamas government has been accused of suppressing women in Gaza, Israel has not been called to account for its actions. Its behaviour violates not only the Fourth Geneva Convention but also its 1991 signature on the UN Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Gritty survivors
In spite of occupation and war, women throughout the Palestinian territories have managed to make great strides in education. Zahira Kamal, a leading activist and former Minister of Women’s Affairs, tells me proudly that, during the 2007-08 academic year, the number of girls in primary and secondary schools surpassed boys. The drop-out rate for girls is falling but is not as low as for the boys. The number of women enrolled in universities was higher than that of men, although only 6.6 per cent of women have degrees as compared to 9.8 per cent of men.  However, this picture is expected to change as more and more women attend universities, she said. Furthermore, the number of women studying scientific subjects is approaching 51 per cent.

Palestinian parents have for long recognised education as a means of providing for a future. They have also acknowledged the fact that educated women have more opportunities to secure jobs. Educated women are less likely to face poverty and violence at home. However, the average age of marriage for women remains 19, reflecting the large number of women who wed early.

Painful progress
Unfortunately, the growing number of educated Palestinian women has not translated into employment. The figure for women with jobs is 14.5 per cent as compared to 29 per cent in the Arab world and 52 per cent around the world. Women do not get equal pay as men. It is also difficult for women to take on decision-making public body and upper management positions. Women outnumber men only in the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs and count for only 11 per cent of the judges.

Palestinian women, torn by the attractions of modernisation and the traumas, are progressing, albeit at a slower rate than their sisters in neighbouring Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.