"The Oslo Accords looked better on paper. The international community has not supported the process and has not exerted the needed pressure to make it a reality" says journalist and author Lotta Schüllerqvist.
13 September marked the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine. In a book that aims to take a critical look at its impact, Lotta Schüllerqvist explores the consequences it has had on women.
“When the big political machine was established as part of the Oslo Accords, women who had been politically active were forced to retreat to the social sphere” she says.
When Lotta Schüllerqvist first was asked to contribute a chapter to the book The Oslo Accords 1993–2013 – A Critical Assessment, that would gather different writers’ critical reflections on the impact of the Oslo Accords, her immediate answer was that she didn’t have the time.
“Then I looked at the list of authors and there were really very few women contributing, and even fewer pieces proposed to deal with the status of women. ‘Where are the women,’ I asked, which is something I try to do whenever I can,” she explains.
So a deal was quickly struck where she would get some extra time, in order to be sure that the impact of the Oslo Accords on women would be included.
Correspondent in Jerusalem
A Swedish journalist, Lotta Schüllerqvist was based in Jerusalem as the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter’s correspondent January 2003 – December 2006. But she first came to Israel and Palestine already in 1982, and although she has moved back to Stockholm she regularly visits Jerusalem.
On her last trip, just a week after the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, we meet to discuss her contribution to the book, for which she also interviewed Mona Shawa from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Amal Syam from Women’s Affairs Centre, both Gaza based organisations working for women’s rights and peace.
“The Oslo Accords looked better on paper. It really just created an illusion that things would get better, but that didn’t happen. I remember a young Palestinian woman who told me that before there was at least clarity: there was an occupation and there was a resistance, now everything has just been muddled,” she says.
Lofty plans fell flat
Lotta Schüllerqvist remembers the excitement in 1993, and particularly in Gaza where tourist pamphlets were drawn up and plans to construct beach front hotels were made. Economic development was seen as a real possibility. But then all those lofty plans just fell flat, and implementation, specifically the planned two-state solution, was not realized.
“Implementing the accords was never really a priority for Israel, and over the years, with the Israeli government getting more nationalistic, it has become even less of a priority. The violent reaction that came in early 2000 when Palestinians began to see that the principles set forth in the Accords were only talk, basically just gave Israel more power to respond with heavy handed action. Meanwhile the international community has not supported the process and has not exerted the needed pressure to make the Oslo Accords a reality.”
Lotta Schüllerqvist explains that since the Oslo Accords, the mechanisms of the occupation have just gotten stronger, which have subsequently further limited Palestinian’s right to movement, the possibility for economic development and the force of civil society and political organising.
Women pushed out
In this current stand still and lack of development following the peace agreement, she sees that there has been a notable impact on women, which she explores in her chapter.
According to Lotta Schüllerqvist, women in Palestine have a rich history of organising, and even though women’s rights have always been secondary to the national struggle, women did have a strong voice in the resistance. But after the Oslo Accords, women’s political involvement really changed. Politically active women where pushed out when the political machinery that was part of the accord was established.
In the book, Lotta Schüllerqvist quotes the activist Hanan Ashrawi, who explained to her that in 1993 the men felt that the struggle shifted into a period of more serious decision-making, and this was a domain exclusively for men to control.
Impossible to implement new justice system
The post-Oslo Accords era has also had a direct impact on women’s lives and their status in society. “There was a lot of work on the part of Palestine to build a state on the basis of the rule of law, on the basis of a constitution and to move away from the more traditional justice systems. It all sounded good, but hasn’t really been possible to implement because of the situation following the Accords” Lotta Schüllerqvist says.
Immediately following the Oslo Accords, a committee was established to change the personal status law, but they were not able to push a new law through. Then came the Fatah/Hamas split in 2006, and with that the Parliament closed. Since then there has been no way to work towards legal reform. The implications of this is something both Amal Syam and Mona Shawa speak about in Lotta Schüllerqvist’s chapter in the book. According to them, women are not protected by the law in Palestine and fall victim to various forms of gender-based violence, including early marriage.
No expiration date
Reflecting over the years, Lotta Schüllerqvist concludes that while perhaps not a reason for celebration, the 20th anniversary does give us a possibility to look over what it has meant and what it has led to.
“Well, there has never been an expiration date on the Oslo Accords, so I guess it can go on for as long as it wants” she says.
Field Representative in Israel/Palestine
The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation
In the end of January, a UN report on the impact of Israeli settlements on the rights of Palestinians was released. Now, a follow-up report shows that in spite of there being a lot of international advocating for the Israel-Palestine peace talks that now have been renewed, the first six months of 2013 brought an increase in attacks by settlers on Palestinians and their property in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“The settlers threw rocks at our house and the soldiers kept firing tear gas. (…) I constantly feel unsafe in my own house with my young children. On that day I realised how the settlers can get away with anything with the army’s protection.”
The words are Fatima’s, a 41-year-old woman living in the village of Burin in the West Bank. She is one of 13 women, whose testimonies are included in the report Israeli settler violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, by Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling, WCLAC. With these interviews, WCLAC wants to highlight the impact settler violence and property distruction have on women. The report has also been submitted to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.
More settlements being built
The January UN report stated that the establishment of the settlements has fragmented the West Bank placing at risk the possibility of a Palestinian State, and by implication, a viable two state solution – which is the stated purpose of the resumed peace talks. Still, WCLAC’s report shows that during the first six months of 2013, work began on 865 new housing units in settlements in the West Bank, the highest figure in seven years, and an 176 percent increase compared to the same period last year. Settler-related incidents resulting in injury to Palestinians rose 5,5 percent and incidents involving property damage rose 41 percent.
Lack of accountability
According to the report, there is a general lack of accountability for settler attacks, which is a major factor in their continuance. “Despite Israel’s obligations under international law to protect the civilian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, settler violence persists largely due to the lack of adequate law enforcement by the Israeli authorities. Many soldiers appear to see their protective role as only applying to settlers, and not Palestinians” the report states. In connection, the UN report showed that complaints made by Palestinians against settlers had a 91 percent chance of being dismissed, whereas in cases involving settlers complatins against Palestinians, up to 95 percent proceed to court.
No compensation for stolen herd
Montaha, a Bedouin woman from near Jericho tells a similar story:
“My brother-in-law (…) told us that he had to hide out of fear for his life when he saw four settlers carrying guns coming from the outpost. They took [our] livestock back to the outpost and later to the settlement. We couldn’t believe we had lost our only source of income. We reported the incident to the Palestinian authorities, who in turn reorted it to the Israeli authorities. We also reported it at an Israeli police station nearby (…). Nothing was done (..) One day we saw the settlers moving the herd. We called the police who managed to retrieve six of our livestock. Two weeks later the police returned three of our goats after another three had died. (…) I dream that one day the rest of our goats will be returned as we need the income. We were given no support or compensation.”
In a bleak concluding remark, the report states that due to an absence of international and domestic accountability, there is no likelihood that the situation will improve.
“The negotiations are destined to fail as long as they do not adopt a rights based approach to the conflict" says Naila Ayesh from Women's Affairs Center in Gaza. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna.
September 13, it will be 20 years since the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel were signed. Evaluating the on-going US-led peace talks, representatives from Palestinian women’s organisations are critical to a process that seems to repeat many mistakes of previous negotiations, without taking into consideration the changes that have taken place on the ground.
“In principle I do believe that we have to settle the conflict, but after 20 years of negotiations, the process has become more important than the outcome”, says Amal Khreishe, Director of the women’s rights organisation Palestinian Working Women Society for Development (PWWSD).
Peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed in Washington, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, in July. Since then, several rounds of talks have been held in Jerusalem and Jericho.
As was the case in earlier negotiations, representatives of the Palestinian women’s movement are excluded and feel that the talks do not actually deal with what is happening on the ground (for more information see link to the left), nor with their priorities. Furthermore, they feel that the Palestinian Authority – that is negotiating on behalf of the Palestinian people instead of the PLO who took part in the Oslo process – does not represent them.
Several of Kvinna till Kvinna’s Palestinian partner organisations say that the consequences of earlier agreements, especially the Oslo Accords, have had a negative impact on the situation for Palestinians. Naila Ayesh from Women’s Affair’s Center in Gaza says:
“Palestinians see no hope in these peace talks. The negotiations are destined to fail as long as they do not adopt a rights based approach to the conflict. The last 20 years of occupation only brought about more settlements and land thefts, and continued violations of Palestinians’ fundamental rights. Now, at a time when Israel is facing the threat of political isolation, it uses the negotiations as a cover for its on-going colonization and land confiscation. The result will be a further fragmented Palestinian society, making the objectives of women’s rights organisations increasingly difficult to achieve.”
“Change has to be seen”
Naila Ayesh says that she and other Palestinians are not against negotiations as such. But she emphasizes that a peace process has to aim at ending the occupation and achieve a complete Israeli withdrawal from all Palestinian land occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.
“Change has to be seen on the ground in order for people to trust that the negotiations has lead somewhere”, she says.
Amal Khreishe from PWWSD thinks that the process lacks transparency.
“The talks exclude all political parties and civil society. Only a narrow circle is involved and they are all the same who have tried and failed before”, she says.
Women without influence
No women’s organisations have been involved in the talks, and according to Muna Hasan, Program Officer for the women’s rights and peace organisation The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation in Jerusalem, women’s influence over the peace talk agenda has largely been absent. And when women activists publicly have tried to express thoughts and concerns about the negotiations, media has not taken them seriously, but has focused on how they were dressed and whether their hair was covered or not.
Amal Khreishe fears that the Palestinians will be forced to agree on a deal that doesn’t solve the problem with the Israeli settlements on occupied land or the issue of Jerusalem. That would surely create frustration and more violence, she says.
“As a woman human rights defender, I would want to change the way security is dealt with and to discuss human security rather than military security. That could pave the way to democracy and real security.”
Not equal powers
Both Naila Ayesh and Amal Khreishe point out that the negotiations are not being held between two equal powers.
“Direct negotiations with the supervision of the US just creates a power imbalance. How can we trust that there really is a will to achieve Palestinian self-determination with all the settlement expansions and the violence against Jerusalemites?” Amal Khreishe says.
The peace talks had hardly begun before Israel announced that it plans to build more than 2 000 new houses for Jewish settlers on occupied Palestinian territory. This has created an even bigger distrust among the Palestinians, further exacerbated by Israeli security forces killing three Palestinians in Qalandia refugee camp on August 26.
Karin Råghall/Linda Öhman
Nabila Espanioly: feminist leaders in the Knesset!
Today, parliamentary elections are held in Israel. One of the candidates is the Palestinian women and peace activist Nabila Espanioly. She is determined to stand up for women’s, children’s, Palestinian’s and minorities rights, even though the political climate in Israel is increasingly toughening.
The general elections on January 22 take place in a country more and more dominated by ultra nationalistic and religious forces. During the last years, the democratic space for maneuver has shrunk, e.g. through laws restricting human rights organizations’ possibilities to receive financial support from foreign countries, or laws forbidding to advocate for a boycott of Israel or restricting public support for activities denying that Israel is a ”Jewish and democratic state”. This makes work difficult for mainly women’s rights activist, peace activists and –parties and left wing organizations. ”The political climate in Israel is very difficult and challenging. All Gallup polls indicate a right wing majority in the election, the question is how strong they will be”, says Nabila Espanioly.
Nabila Espanioly is the founder and leader of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s partner organization Al Tufula in Nazareth. Now she is running as no. five for Hadash, a party for Jewish and Palestinian Israelis. This is her first serious attempt to win a seat in parliament, but Nabila Espanioly is by no means a newcomer in politics. The questions she wants to drive in parliament are the same she has been fighting for in the last forty years: peace in the region, poverty reduction, unrecognized villages and women’s, children’s and Palestinian’s security, amongst others. ”I have always been political active and felt responsible for trying to create new possibilities for children, women and Palestinians – that’s why I decided to run for office”, she says.
Those who work against discrimination of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are constantly challenged. In December 2012, the central election committee of Israel (CEC), which is dominated by right wing parties, decided to disqualify the only Palestinian woman in the Israeli parliament, Haneen Zoabi, to run in the upcoming election. Prior to that, Zoabi was accused by the governing party, Likud, of denying Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state, because her own party supports ”a state for all his citizens” and by taking part in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2010 she herself ”had supported terrorism”. Israel’s High Court decided later that Zoabi’s disqualification was against constitutional law.
According to Maayan Dak, who works at The Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organization Coalition of Women for Peace, Haneen Zoabi is exposed to severe political persecution. ”She constantly gets sexist comments, referring to her personal life, her age and the fact that she – god forbid – is a powerful single woman.”
In Nabila Espanioly’s opinion the incident around Haneen Zoabi is one of several examples of the right-wing parties’ political strategy to question the Palestinians’ legitimacy in the Knesset. ”Right-wing parties try to impair the influence of Palestinian leaders in the parliament. They regard our party, which welcomes both Palestinians and Israelis, as the most dangerous party in Israel,” she says.
Despite the circumstances Nabila Espanioly won’t be silenced. ”I’ll always say what I think. I’ll continue my fight for peace and women’s rights, Palestinians and marginalized groups, even if it costs me dear – I’ve paid the price before and I’m willing to do so again in the future.”
The forgotten occupation
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for general elections in Israel last fall. The elections were planned to take place in October 2013, but political friction about the national budget got Netanyahu to call for early elections. The question of Israel’s occupation of Palestine fell off the agenda, especially during the election campaign. “The occupied Palestinian territories used to be a major issue few years ago, for both right and left wing parties. But now the occupation has disappeared from the public discourse”, says Maayan Dak, from the Coalition of Women for Peace.
Likewise not discussed is the link between poverty – which concerned many Israelis during the wave of protests for social justice – and the occupation’s economy .
Disregarded or forgotten is also the question of marginalized group’s representation in politics. Even parties who have a balanced representation of women and men avoid to put marginalized women, Mizrahi-Jewish activists or Palestinians on their list, according to Maayan Dak.
According to Anna Björkman, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation‘s coordinator for Israel and Palestine, it is likely that religious and ultra national parties will be successful in the elections. They have already influenced the Israeli society, not least the situation for women. Last year, Israeli media repeatedly mentioned incidents where women had been harassed because they had been wearing “provocative clothes”. One extreme example was the attack of ultra orthodox men on an eight year old girl in a bus, because she was wearing shorts. “Segregation in Israel gets more and more obvious and the election will largely be about in which society the Israelis want to live: A more secular and democratic or a more conservative one”, says Anna Björkman.
Nabila Espanioly is certain to win a seat in the Knesset. If her party won’t win five seats, some of the candidates placed higher on the list will give way, so that women will be represented. Before we hang up on the crackling line between Israel and Sweden, she says that it is important with international solidarity, especially among women’s organizations. “We need all support we can get to be able to continue to fight, we need a solidarity movement,” she says.
Text: Karin Råghall
Translation: Katharina Andersen
As the impact of days of violent escalation worsens for civilians in Gaza and in Israel, a group of 38 aid and development agencies urge world leaders to take swift action to enforce a ceasefire in order to protect civilian lives and infrastructure and prevent another widespread humanitarian disaster in Gaza brought on by a prolonged military confrontation.
The agencies said the international community must apply immediate pressure on the government of Israel to keep the crossings to Gaza open to allow in supplies of essential humanitarian aid and push all parties to the conflict to end violence and uphold their obligations under International Law.
“World leaders cannot sit by while civilian casualties in Gaza and Israel continue to mount,” said Nishant Pandey, Oxfam Country Director.
“We urgently need to enforce a cease fire. The present conflict threatens to perpetuate and worsen the humanitarian impact on Palestinian civilians in Gaza of over five years of Israeli blockade and the 2008-2009 Israeli military operation ‘Cast Lead’. It will only deepen despair, create more insecurity, and jeopardize chances for Israelis and Palestinians to reach a just and durable peace,” he said.
The agencies call comes as local health care partners and hospitals in Gaza have announced they are running out of essential drugs and medical supplies. As the escalating violence makes it difficult for partner organizations and local staff in Gaza to move around on the ground, the agencies said there were growing concerns about getting help to injured people and food and other necessities to people in need.
“Thousands of innocent people, including women and children, are in danger of being caught in the crossfire in the escalating violence between Israel and Hamas. We are urgently appealing to all sides, as well as to world leaders, to seek a political resolution and avoid the loss of any more human lives. If global leaders do not intervene, Gaza stands on the brink of yet another humanitarian crisis,” said Aleksandar Milutinovic, Mercy Corps Country Director, West Bank/Gaza.
Noting a number of civilian injuries and deaths over the past days, the agencies said that it was critical that the protection of civilians was prioritized by the parties to the conflict as outlined by International Humanitarian Law. They stressed that the protection of civilians extends to civilian infrastructure, as a number of homes have already been hit by strikes and shellings.
“Save the Children is deeply concerned by the recent escalation of violence in Gaza and Israel. Children are already among the dead – and as always, children bear the hardest burden during military conflict. Save the Children urges all parties to end the violence immediately,” said Alex Schein Save the Children Country Director.
In calling for an end to the violence, the organizations stressed the need for the international community to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1860, passed in March 2009, which outlined the conditions for a permanent ceasefire and a path to long term security for both sides.
“The failure to fully implement UN Security Council Resolution 1860 has only re-fuelled a cycle of violence that now needs to be put to a permanent end. The international community has an obligation to act to protect civilians and there needs to be immediate pressure on all parties to the conflict to stop the fighting and start working towards peace,” said David Viveash, The Carter Center Field Office Director.
With 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza, around half of whom are children and around 50,000 of whom are elderly, still living under blockade, the organizations said another military operation would only increase the hardship faced by the people they work with.
“Civilians pay the greatest price when the international community fails to act. There are families that CARE and our Palestinian partners have worked with in Gaza who are still living amidst the rubble of their destroyed homes. It is critical that those with power to stop the conflict act now. The human costs of another military confrontation would be too high – the people of Gaza cannot afford to start rebuilding their lives all over again,” said David White, CARE Country Director.
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC); Action Against Hunger (ACF); ACPP; ActionAid; Care International; Community Housing Fund (CHF); CPT; DanChurchAid (DCA); Diakonia; Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene Group (EWASH); Fondazione Terre des Hommes Italia ONLUS; Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (GVC); Handicap International; HelpAge International; Japan International Volunteer Center (JVC); Kvinna til Kvinna; Life for Relief and Development; Medecins du Monde France; Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP); medico international; Mercy Corps; Movement for Peace; Norwegian Church Aid (NCA); Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA); Norweigian Refugee Council (NRC); Oxfam; Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH); Save the Children; Seba; Secours Islamique France; Solidaridad International; Terre des Hommes Switzerland; The Swedish Organization for Individual Relief; The Carter Center; The Lutheran World Federation (LWF); The Overseas NGO; War Child Holland; World Vision Jerusalem-West Bank-Gaza
The violence between Israel and Palestine is increasing. – The civilian population of Gaza is being severely affected, regardless of socioeconomic status. Civilians have died, including a pregnant woman and several children, says Linda Öhman, working for the women’s rights and peace organization The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation in Jerusalem.
– Today is the Palestinian Independence Day and the bombs are falling over Gaza and Gaza City, it’s ironic and sad, says Linda Öhman and continues:
– There were approximately 50 Israeli airstrikes against Gaza while the armed militant wings of Hamas fired a dozen rockets against southern Israel.
The entire population of Gaza, who have lived completely enclosed under siege since 2007, is affected by this escalation in violence. The electricity supply which was already functioning badly is only getting worse. Many people are sitting in the dark without access to computers or television.
Many dead or wounded
Linda Öhman is in close contact with many women’s rights organizations.
– The escalation in violence began during the weekend, and yesterday the Hamas leader Asmad al-Jabari was killed, says Linda Öhman.
Details on how many civilians that have been killed or wounded differ, but at least 13 people are reported to have died and 120 to have been wounded. Three Israelis also died last night.
– During my three years working here for The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation I have not seen the situation get as serious as it is now. I had to cancel visits to several women’s organizations that I should have met on Monday. They called and asked if I really thought I should come.
Fear for the future
The women’s rights activists that Linda Öhman has talked to express fear and concern for the future.
– They are afraid since they feel it can lead to something bigger. Bombs do fall on Gaza regularly, but usually only in specific areas and not in these numbers. The escalation we see is really worrying. We hope for the situation to calm down as soon as possible.
Women in Israel have very different views on what the basic threats against their security are, depending on factors as ethnicity, health status and socio-economic conditions. That is one of the major findings in the Israeli Women’s Security Index, a survey based on interviews made with more than 700 women, both Jewish and Palestinian, living in the country.
The main idea behind the Women’s Security Index was to examine the concept of security in the Israeli society and to see what elements that are crucial when it comes to women feeling safe or not.
- In Israeli discourse the term security ”bitachon” is used mostly in a military sense. We wanted to find out if that really is the only threat to women’s sense of safety, says Assia Istoshina, researcher for the Women’s Security Index.
Less fear of terror attacks than of sexual violence
And apparently there is a need for a much broader discussion on security. Because although fear of military violence was present amongst the women’s responses, there were other issues that were of much higher concern. This to an extent that was surprising even for the organizations compiling the study.
- War, bombings and terror attacks evoke less fear than fear of sexual violence, economic worries and concerns for the the women’s near and dear. We did expect that everyday fears would also be prominent in women’s lives, but we did not expect them to be even more threatening than wars, says Assia Istoshina.
Big differences between groups
Being attacked on a dark street and fear of sexual attacks were among the top five biggest fears for all groups of women surveyed, regardless of ethnicity, socio-economic status, or state of health. But otherwise the fears differed a lot between different groups. The five issues that brought about a maximum feeling of tension and insecurity for Palestinian women, were:
- Losing their home
- Being attacked on a dark street
- Possibility of being arrested or detained
- War, bombing, terror attack
- Sexual assault
While Jewish women’s biggest fears were:
- Worry that something will happen to someone near and dear
- Being attacked on a dark street
- Sexual assault
- Economic situation
- War, bombing, terror attack
1/3 of Russian speakers attacked
Still the group of Jewish women was not cohesive. For instance, 32 percent of Russian speaking Jewish women reported experiences of being humiliated or attacked due to belonging to a minority group, while only 14 percent amongst the general population of Jewish women had the same experience. Amongst Russian speakers there was also a much higher percentage that reported that they had been sexually assaulted by a person they did not know, 38 percent, compared to 16 percent of the general population of Jewish women.
Women’s Security Index (WSI)
The WSI is based on interviews with more than 700 Palestinian and Jewish women living in Israel.
The women were asked to mark how much each of 14 issues evoked in them a sense of insecurity and tension. They were also asked about actual experiences they had encountered that undermine their sense of safety, about their major sources of support, about socio-demographic data etc.
The WSI was conducted by six civil society organizations: Isha L’Isha – Haifa Feminist Center, Coalition of Women for Peace, Kayan Feminist Organization, Aswat Palestinian Gay Women, Women against Violence and New Profile.
Fear in interaction with the state
Assia Istoshina points out another interesting finding in the survey – a substantial number of the women felt high levels of fear and tension connected to their interaction with state institutions.
- Provided we assume that the state mechanisms are there to protect people, and not to undermine their feeling of safety, this seems particularly striking, she says.
The organizations behind the survey now hope that it will be used by NGO’s, activists and policy makers as a tool for changing the lives of women living in Israel.
- Our dream scenario would be that the state would change its priorities and aim at, and invest in, creating a more safe society for women.
June 26 is the International Day Against Torture. The Israeli organization Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, PCATI, is using this to highlight the Israeli security forces acts of torture and abuse against prisoners.
- Women prisoners are not subjected to the same physical violence as men. The violations against women are more subtle. But it does not mean that they are not serious. It could be soldiers or interrogators getting too close, making suggestions, touching them. One interrogator began to sing a famous Egyptian song to a female prisoner, about a bride who will lose her virginity the following night. At the time the prisoner was handcuffed and her feet were tied. We need to look at how gender determines the forms of torture. How do you classify a song? says Connie M Varela Pedersen from PCATI.
Tahani Nassar and Nisreen Abu Zaineh. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation/Annika Flensburg.
- I was really scared. Afraid that I would never get out again, afraid of the insulation and of my dad’s reaction, says Nisreen Abu Zaineh.
She was arrested by the Israeli security forces seven years ago, when she was 17 years old and spent three weeks in custody, isolated, without any access to information or representation. During the interrogations she was subjected to sexual harassment and other types of abuse.
Tied up and interrogated at 16
Nisreen Abu Zaineh is one of the 1 027, mainly Palestinian, prisoners, who were part of the prisoner exchange when Hamas released the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in October last year. She sits slumped on a sofa in the office of the organization Palestinian Working Women Society for Development, PWWSD. The organization is based in Tulkarem in the West Bank.
Beside Nisreen Abu Zaineh sits Tahani Nassar who was also imprisoned. Both participate in meetings on the situation of female prisoners that PWWSD organize.
- We were on our way from Jenin when they suddenly started to fire at our car. The driver died and my brothers were wounded. Soldiers dragged me out of the car and the others were taken away by ambulance. The soldiers found bullets in my pocket, but I have no idea how they got there, says Tahani.
After she had gotten arrested she was questioned by the Israeli secret service, GSS. She was 16 at the time. For hours she was forced to sit with her hands and feet tied up. The interrogator showed her photos of her brothers and told her that they were dead. He smeared her family and told her that she was all alone.
Tactics to get people to break down
Nisreen Abu Zaineh’s and Tahani Nassar’s stories are not unique, says Connie M Varela Pedersen. PCATI is criticizing the Israeli security forces for use of torture and abuse against persons believed to threaten the Israeli state. According to Connie M Varela Pedersen, interrogations can take 20 hours and the suspects are usually tied to the hands and feet during this time.
Connie M Varela Pedersen
- It’s a very tough situation and the prisoners are completely isolated. The investigators tells them that they will never get out again. They threaten their families. In different ways they try to get the prisoners to lose their sense of time – the light may be on around the clock, or the prisoners are locked up underground. Forensic experts states that if a person is forced to stay awake for more than 72 hours he or she begins to lose control. These tactics are used tof get people to break down, not to attain useful information, says Connie M Varela Pedersen.
Women interrogated about male relatives
In the Shalit agreement all female Palestinian political prisoners were released. A new trend that PCATI has noticed in recent weeks is that women are being arrested, put in detention for a week and then being released. During their time in lock-up, many of them are pressed for information on their male relatives.
- Prison was like being in hell. We were beaten and the guards poured hot water over us. During menstruation, we only got a few sanitary towels that were supposed to last the entire period, says Nisreen Abu Zaineh.
- But at the same time it set my thoughts free. I was mentally independent. I read books and when I walked through the room, it was like going through all of Palestine. I was able to study other thoughts and opinions than those of my family.
Helps with legal support and complaints
PCATI offers legal support to Nisreen Abu Zaineh and other prisoners who have been freed. They also help them file complaints against the Israeli authorities for the abuse and torture they have been subjected to. Although many are afraid of reprisals, several have agreed to report what has happened to them. Of course one big problem is that it’s the security forces themselves who are investigating the allegations, and so far none of the prisoners have been given redress. It may seem like a hopeless fight.
- But it is important to utilize the systems in place to obtain redress. And to never give up. The official complaints help to highlight the shortcomings of the system and challenge it, says Connie M Varela Pedersen’s colleague Louis Frankenthaler and shows an article about how Nelson Mandela worked in a similar way to change the justice system in South Africa.
Harsh attitudes towards human rights organizations
At the same time the attitudes towards human rights organizations in Israel are getting increasingly harsh. Connie M Varela Pedersen and her colleagues refer to a number of laws which have been proposed in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament – laws that in various ways would hamper the work of human rights organizations.
- There is much anger and hatred against us. We are seen as enemies, as state traitors. And as long as we do not get the public opinion behind us, it is difficult for us to bring about any real change, says Connie M Varela Pedersen.
That’s also why PCATI is turning to the international community for help to increase the pressure on Israel from the outside.
- We could really need the international community to support us as human rights organizations. When the Israeli authorities are trying to discredit us and undermine our credibility, the international community could legitimize us, she says.
In the last eight years 25 people, 13 of them women, in Israel, have been killed in their homes by guns handled by security guards. A study made by the organisation Isha L’Isha shows that employees of security companies take their guns with them home at the end of the working day, thereby exposing their families to great risks.
To reduce the number of weapons in the Israeli society, and to save lives, Isha L’Isha has launched the campaign The Gun on the Kitchen Table.
"The Gun on the Kitchen Table"-campaign hosts a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo: Isha L'Isha.
There are 440 registered security companies in Israel, and a number of unregistered ones.
90 000 people work within these companies as security guards. That equals around 3 per cent of the working force in the country. Many of them are armed. The total amount of guns in the Israeli society, other than those within the military, have increased heavily during the last 15 years.
- Israel is a militarised society through and through. There are armed security guards standing outside restaurants, companies, official buildings and schools and weapons are everywhere. Noone questions it, it’s wholly accepted. The guards are considered necessary for our safety, says Rela Mazali, campaign co-coordinator at Isha L’Isha.
- Our government has commissioned private companies to uphold the nations security and thereby given up the responsibility for how the work’s being managed. We don’t have any real supervision of all these security companies and their way of working.
Women at most risk
The campaign is focused on the problem with security guards bringing their guns into their homes and thereby putting their family members at risk.
- There aren’t any public debates on how weaponalised our society has become. We know that women are the ones most threatened by guns in the homes, but women’s safety is never part of the discussions on how to create a safe and secure Israel, says Rela Mazali.
After the occurance of several high profile violent crimes, involving guns from security guards, a law on regulation of guns was passed in 2008. It states that security companies are obliged to collect their employees guns at the end of the working day. But the law has not been implemented. According to the government it would be too expensive. The companies are said not to be able to afford creating safer routines for the handling of guns.
Meeting with politicians
Last December Rela Mazali, and other activists working with the campaign, had a meeting with the Parliament Committee on the Status of Women.
“Women’s safety is never part of the discussions on how to create a safe and secure Israel”
They presented their demands on the law on guns being put to use and security companies having to control their guns.
- It was a very positive meeting. The committee has now demanded of the government to implement the law within two months. We don’t think it will happen that soon, but it’s a good start, says Rela Mazali.
Besides working politically, the campaign also targets the general public. On the occassion of 25 November, the International day on violence against women, they held demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They have also produced a film on the issue, that is being distributed via social media.
- Our goal is to get a critical review of the militarisation of our society. We have to raise the awareness of how big a security threat small arms are. Since people have shown to be very ignorant of the problems with guns handled by security companies, we are hopeful that we can make them aware and gain their support, says Rela Mazali.
The Gun on the Kitchen Table is run by Isha L’Isha. The 2011 campaign was also joined by ten other women’s, human right and civil society organizations.
We recieved a blog post from one of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation‘s employees in Jerusalem, commenting on the reports of the continuosly harsher environment for women in the city, due to attacks from ultra-orthodox Jews. There is always a bigger picture…
This is the first time I write a blog… ever. So for this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to share my thoughts on the recent media reports of the ultra-orthodox community committing acts of violence directed primarily against women for not being “modest” or for not complying with the community’s unspoken rules (i.e. sitting at the back of the bus while the men sit in the front). This has become such news that I even read an article about it in my parents’ local newspaper (the Herald-Tribune… not the International Herald Tribune…the Sarasota Florida Herald Tribune )!
While I think it is great that media is writing about the image of women in public spaces (or the disappearing image) and what impact conservative practices are having on women’s lives… there is still something that doesn’t feel right about all this sudden media frenzy. So I decided to have coffee with an Israeli friend to discuss.
Rina told me that she feels that what we are seeing is a response backed by liberal Israelis who need to show that they respect women’s rights so that they can keep proving that this is a modern, democratic society – the only democracy in the Middle East, according to Israel. Yet there is no real analysis coming out as to why these extreme acts against women are taking place nor what has made these groups so strong. There is no discussion about the fact that the state has supported them financially for years and let them live by their own principles in their own neighborhoods.
Rather than an open debate on root causes, the reaction has been to vilify the religious conservatives, to show how weird they are, that they are just a rare anomaly, and in fact, overall, Israel is still a modern, liberal society that respects women’s rights.
What am I trying to conclude by writing this? Well, that the international media attention against the ultra-orthodox is perhaps not painting the whole picture.
Linda Öhman, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, Jerusalem