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Israeli peace activists told: ignore harassment ‘for sake of struggle’

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Hannah Boast
WVoN co-editor 

Israeli women peace activists in the West Bank have been speaking out online about sexual harassment, which they say, has been belittled by their fellow activists.

The problem was exposed by an anonymous letter sent to the Israeli pro-Palestinian group Anarchists Against the Wall, by a woman harassed by Palestinian men at a February protest in the village of Kfar-a-Dik.

This said: “there was some ‘accidental’ touching, and some incidents in which people called me a ‘slut.’ In the end of the day, it was a very unpleasant experience,” she writes.

Over the past two years a number of incidents of sexual harassment, and one of attempted rape, have been reported in areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem that are popular sites of pilgrimage for international and Israeli activists.

Supporters of Palestinians visit West Bank towns including Sheikh Jarrah and Bil’in to participate in Friday protests against Israel’s occupation.

These protests have become common in recent years and show solidarity and cooperation at a time of heightening tensions in the region.

However, women activists have now begun to discuss the events in a less positive light.

One activist, who used to protest regularly in the West Bank but no longer participates, said that harassment was an almost universal experience for women activists and that their movement was restricted by fear of assault.

“Two years ago we had a meeting of women who took part in the struggle against the occupation. Nearly all the women that attended told of cases of harassment or discrimination.”

She describes one incident:

“A female foreign activist of the international solidarity movement that was sleeping in one of the Palestinian villages, where protests against the fence [Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank] take place, said that one night someone entered her room and tried to grab her.”

“She began to shout and one of her friends rushed to help her. Since then I don’t go to places I ‘shouldn’t’ go to alone, as a women.”

Israeli women activists say that men within their movement have responded dismissively to reports of harassment and assault.

They believe that their experiences are belittled in the name of ‘opposition to the occupation’.

The anger of leftist women was compounded by a poster published on the facebook page of the Palestinian campaign group Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity.

The poster, protesting favourable treatment given by the Israeli government to the illegal West Bank settlement of Migron, featured an image of a jar of Vaseline and the phrase ‘Deep Migron’, a pun on the pornographic film ‘Deep Throat’ (‘garon’ is Hebrew for throat).

It was taken down after strong criticism, but the poster left the impression that the Palestine solidarity movement sees sexual assault as an issue of secondary importance to Israel’s occupation.

Mahmoud Zohara, a member of the Palestinian group Popular Committee for Masra, said that his town refused to tolerate harassment of women and that those responsible were dealt with seriously.

“It is unacceptable that Israeli or foreign women that come to protest in solidarity with us be harassed and their human rights be infringed upon,” he said.

He added that harassment of women was not unique to the West Bank.

“One must understand that harassment takes place everywhere – in Tel Aviv and in the United States as well.

“In these protests there is a very open relationship between the Palestinians and Israeli and foreign activists. This creates friendships, love, and yes, incidents of sexual harassment.”

Mr Zohara’s explanation for the phenomenon – as a form of misdirected flirtation – leaves much to be desired. Speaking of sexual harassment as similar to friendship or love suggests that the victim is in some way a participant in the crime.

However, his point that harassment does not take place only in Palestine is important.

Many defenders of Israel cite the country’s commitment to gender equality to claim  moral superiority over surrounding Arab nations, and as the basis for arguing that Israel deserves greater Western support.

These arguments recall earlier justifications for European colonial rule on the grounds of protecting white women from the perceived sexual threat of black men (Stoler 1997).

Allegations of harassment of Israeli activists by Palestinian men is a dangerous reminder of racist stereotypes that have the power to inflame nationalist sentiment in Israel and it is easy to see why activists might want to smooth over these problems.

At the same time, the leftist attempt to paint Palestinians as innocent victims is unhelpful for women activists who fear or have suffered harassment by Palestinian men.

It would also be inaccurate to speak of Palestinian men as the only harassers when Israeli activists are also implicated.

Two weeks ago, another anonymous activist described an incident of sexual assault on the website haokets.org [in Hebrew]:

“I was sexually assaulted last summer by an Israeli leftist activist. The assailant met, and still meets, all the right criteria: post-colonialist, post-Zionist, anti-capitalist, etc. And most relevantly, he considers himself a feminist. Until he assaulted me, we were friends.”

“After the assault it took me three long days to understand what had happened to me, and find a name for it.

“I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, because I couldn’t understand how someone who spoke with me using the language of opposition to oppression could breach my walls.”

Beit Halachmi, an Israeli feminist who keeps a blog called “The Private is Political”, claims that leftist organisations use women “in order to create an appearance of liberality”.

She was critical of the response to sexual harassment in Kfar-a-Dik, saying that it was not taken seriously by some other activists.

“It is true that at first some people said that we should stop going to demonstrations there. But shortly after, responses on the line of ‘the occupation is more important’ began to appear,” she said.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as haredim, were condemned around the world earlier this year after incidents of harassment and discrimination perpetrated by male members of the community emerged.

These allegations within the Palestine solidarity movement, and the even more worrying responses, suggest that Israel’s left needs to remember that it is not just the ultra-religious that need to sort out their sexism problem.

The stories of harassment coming out of the Israeli activist movement are shocking and it is important that women are now speaking out.

At the same time, media reports have focused on the experiences of Israeli and international women and it is troubling that parallels are not being more widely made with the harassment of Palestinian women in Israeli administrative detention.

Palestinian women in Israeli prisons, including the hunger-striker Hana Shalabi, spoke on International Women’s Day of being subjected to humiliating strip searches and sexual harassment by security officials of Israel’s Shin Bet.

Harassment of Israeli activists needs to be talked about alongside condemnation of the abuse of Palestinian women within Israel’s prisons, to see that in these cases, gender, not nationality, is the greater boundary.

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