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 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.
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.