Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas

(WOMENSENEWS)–In the West Bank, a Palestinian woman in labor waits over an hour for an ambulance to take her to the hospital. After it picks her up, it is stopped at a military checkpoint by Israeli soldiers, who refuse to let her pass through. She ends up giving birth right there.

In the Gaza Strip, a woman beaten by her boyfriend does not report the abuse to the Palestinian police because she knows they are incapable of helping her.

Another young woman stops going to school because she can no longer take being harassed by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint on the way to her university in Gaza City.

These testimonials have been collected by the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling in East Jerusalem and the Women’s Studies Center in Jerusalem to document the special hardships of Palestinian women caught in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The occupation has been fundamentally detrimental to women’s well-being,” Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, director of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling, told Women’s eNews in a phone interview.

As Israel and the Palestinian Authority hold peace talks, rights workers such as Abu-Dayyeh Shamas are trying to make stories such as these a bigger part of that discussion.

“If military security is the only type of security that is on the agenda of the peace negotiations–which is so far the case–then women’s needs, which are all related human security, are not going to be addressed,” says Abu-Dayyeh Shamas. “Human security is what leads to military security.”

The end of Israeli occupation, she says, needs to be accompanied by investment in health, education, social welfare and economic development.

Amnesty Report

Last week, Amnesty International echoed many of Abu-Dayyeh Shamas’ concerns in a report that detailed the abuses of women living in the Palestinian territories and recommending that more women participate in the peace talks.

“The breakdown of the economic and security situation caused by the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict has imposed increased pressures and restrictions on women,” Amnesty International said in the report, “and at the same time it has further curtailed women’s ability to control their own lives.”

Roadblocks, checkpoints and curfews imposed by Israeli authorities have restricted Palestinian women’s access to education, healthcare and work, making them more vulnerable to control by male relatives, says the Amnesty report. House demolitions and the destruction of natural resources by Israeli forces are increasing the economic and psychological burden on Palestinian women, who remain primarily responsible for running the house and caring for family members. Militarization and the strains placed on families by poverty and unemployment have increased violence against women in the home.

The abuses of Palestinian women are closely linked and need to be addressed by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Amnesty says. It contends the abuses violate women’s rights under international law, including the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women–commonly referred to as CEDAW.

Legal Vacuum

Neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority has been able or willing to implement the U.N. treaty on women’s rights in the territories, leaving women there without a legal foundation to challenge discrimination and abuse by Israeli authorities and their own societies, say human rights workers.

As a non-state, the territories cannot be a party to international treaties such as CEDAW, though it is still bound by customary human rights norms. Israel has ratified and signed CEDAW, but denies it is responsible for applying those standards outside its territory.

“There is a vacuum of human rights accountability (in the Palestinian territories) which often leaves women with inadequate protection, recourse, and remedy,” says Lucy Mair, a researcher on Israel and the Palestinian territories for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Mair adds that decisions by both the U.N.’s Human Rights Committee and the International Court of Justice put the burden of protecting the rights of women living in the Palestinian territories on Israel, the occupying power.

“Israel is responsible for the application of both international humanitarian law and international human rights law as long as it retains its status as an occupying power,” says Mair.

Marco Sermoneta, a counselor with the Mission of Israel to the U.N., disagrees, contending that the law of armed conflict–not human rights–governs the situation in Gaza and the West Bank.

“Human rights law is simply not equipped to deal with the reality of armed conflicts,” he says. Sermoneta also maintains that all jurisdiction and control over matters covered by CEDAW were transferred to the Palestinian Authority during the mid-1990s.

Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, of the East Jerusalem women’s center, says the Israeli occupation has undermined the Palestinian Authority’s ability to enforce laws.

Women’s rights are ensured by transparent and functional legal institutions, but Israel has systematically weakened the Palestinian legal system and the police,” she says.

She points to the prevalence of domestic violence as an example. According to a 2002 poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, 57 percent of respondents living in the Palestinian territories said that they knew of a woman who had been assaulted by her husband.

The Palestinian police force, says Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, has been immobilized by curfews and closures and as result, has been unable to respond systematically to gender-based violence.

The Amnesty International report notes that existing Palestinian laws to protect women who have been victims of family violence are not only insufficient, but in some cases even encourage such abuses.

The Jordanian penal code, which is in force in the West Bank, “grants exemption from prosecution and reduced penalties to men who kill or assault wives or female relatives on the grounds of family honor,” according to the report. Rapists who marry their victims are exempt from prosecution and a girl who’s been a victim of violence or abuse must have a male relative file a complaint on her behalf.

Nonetheless, the Amnesty report concludes that Palestinian institutions “are best placed to take the necessary measures to ensure that the rights of Palestinian women are respected and promoted.” The report urges the international community to ensure that the Palestinian Authority has the necessary resources to make legal and social reforms.

Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.

For more information:

Amnesty International–
Israel/Occupied Territories: Women carry the burden of conflict, occupation and patriarchy:

Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling: