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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Women of Palestine: The Untold Stories of Violence Beyond the War

Article by: Chelsea Lee, Supriya Prasai, and Ana Torres 

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

The Bodies of Palestinian Women: Enmeshed Within Men’s Battlefields Since 1948

An increase in Jewish immigration in the 1930s, propelled by their unparalleled persecution in Europe and the growing Zionist movement, led the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution separating the British mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, in November 1947. One of the results of those developments was the Nakba, translating to “catastrophe” in English. The term refers to the mass displacement of Palestinians during the period 1947/48. The Gender Security project, released a case study on conflict-related sexual violence during that time. This case study, as well as a 2021 study released in the Journal of Women and Social Work, detail the weaponisation of threats of rape, as well as individual or gang rape by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and its predecessor groups. Both were used as a means of intimidation, so that Palestinian women and their families were forced to flee their homes to surrounding countries, and to the parts now known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Approximately 700,000 Palestinians were displaced during this conflict, creating a refugee crisis that persists to this day.

Before October 2023: Harassment in Prisons

The 2021 study released in the Journal of Women and Social Work revealed that 19 out of 20 Palestinian female interviewees experienced sexual harassment by Israeli prison personnel when visiting their incarcerated loved ones. The harassment ranged from uncalled for touching to forced nudity. During the study, a mother noted the psychological impact of this abuse: “My daughter was sexually abused by the policeman. He got very close and touched her body, she was crying the whole day.” The only participant in the study who did not experience sexual violence reported her belief that “she was spared because instances of sexual violence are more targeted to those visitors who are younger than her or wearing a hijab, which I do not.” Perhaps the most disturbing result was the alleged “consistent nature of the abuse” that gave interviewees the impression that “sexual harassment, and at times violence, is official Israeli police policy.”

Since October 2023: A Severe Escalation

Since the Israeli Defense Forces imposed a total blockade on Gaza on October 9th 2023, following the terrorist attacks by Hamas and others on October 7th 2023, the situation for Palestinian women has become dire. 70% of casualties during Israel’s current military assault on Gaza, now totalling over 30,000 deaths, are women and children. The United Nations estimate that 50,000 pregnant women lived in Gaza at the beginning of the war. Isaac Chotiner, an obstetrician who returned from the war zone reported in the New Yorker about the absence of maternal care since October, stating that “the vast majority of women are not getting any prenatal or postnatal care for themselves or their babies.”

Invaded Homes, Invaded Bodies

Amongst the detainees, women have been subjected to poor treatment, ranging from the denial of menstrual pads to beatings, as well as multiple forms of sexual assault. In February 2024, UN experts revealed that “at least two female Palestinian detainees were reportedly raped, while others were reportedly threatened with rape and sexual violence.” Photos were taken of detained women in “degrading circumstances” by IDF soldiers and uploaded online. Image-based sexual abuse is a sex crime in Israel as of 2014, when the Sexual Harassment Bill was updated to include sharing intimate photos without the subject’s consent. Penalties are up to five years in jail. Furthermore, Canadian paramedics volunteering in Gaza reported cases of sexual humiliation in front of their families by IDF soldiers, with one woman raped for 2 days “until she lost her ability to speak”.

Underreported Stories

Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on human rights, noted that despite having been interviewed by many journalists on the subject of the mistreatment of Palestinian women, these interviews were “never published.” Reem Alsalem, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and Girls, underlines experiences of subjugation unique to Palestinian women, within the context of the war in Gaza: “Rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.” Despite the UN Security Council demanding an immediate ceasefire, Palestinian women and girls continue to face these ongoing atrocities, which include a higher risk of sexual violence, loss of security and identity.

Palestinian Women Abroad: Australia

Grappling with conflict and displacement, Palestinian women, both in the Middle East and further afield, share a longing for “al-‘Awda”; for return. Their transition into refugee status since 1948, and resettlement across a diaspora spanning six million globally, complicate their sense of security and identity. “Return” symbolises the diaspora’s desire to belong, as well as the political endeavour to reclaim their ancestral homeland. Amnesty International highlighted the extent of the diaspora in their publication of Five Palestinian-Australian Voices. In the report, Randa Abdel-Fatah, academic and author, remarked: “There isn’t a single [Palestinian] family that I know in Australia who hasn’t been affected [by the war].” Abdel-Fatah highlighted the community’s collective spirit: “There is a great deal of trauma, but there’s also a great deal of support […] I am incredibly nourished by my Palestinian brothers and sisters and also by the solidarity that has come out in all communities.” Jeanine Hourani shared her family’s story of asylum and her experience of childhood as a Palestinian refugee: “I understood from a young age that we, the Palestinian children, were created within the confines of a cause. As a Palestinian, I cannot live a life separate from politics.” Hourani demonstrates how younger generations of refugees face pertinent challenges in Australia as they navigate the complex realities of generational trauma and grapple with their uncertain identities as stateless persons. Speaking at Release Peace’s global event, Firas Jaber, founder of the think tank and NGO Al-Marsad, highlighted that Hourani’s statement “could be applied to Palestinians around the world as well as to those in the occupied territories.”

Beyond Statistics

Beyond copious headlines highlighting daily casualty statistics, these stories showcase the lives behind the latest headline. Despite the seemingly unending nature of the conflict, Palestinian women emphasise their resilience as they continue to raise their voices in the face of ongoing violence and displacement.

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