Addressing Women's Empowerment in Times of Occupation and Colonization

Addressing Women's Empowerment in Times of Occupation and Colonization

From 5 to 22 July 2005, the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) will meet with Israeli delegates to discuss Israel's state report. Israel's report to CEDAW is incomplete; it ignores discriminatory laws against internally displaced Palestinian Arab women in Israel, fails to address Israel's human rights' responsibilities towards Palestinian women in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and disregards its international obligation to allow the return of Palestinian refugees, of which half are women.

 This article provides a brief overview of the international framework for the achievement of women's rights. It then looks at Israel's policies affecting the rights of Palestinian refugee women around the world and Palestinian women in the OPT. Finally, it examines the challenge of empowering women while war crimes and crimes against humanity are perpetrated on a daily basis and inquires: how can women's rights be achieved in times of occupation and colonization?

CEDAW, Beijing and the Millennium Developments Goals

Over the past decade, women's equality and emancipation have become priorities of the international community. The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the 2000 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are two leading initiatives addressing the needs and interests of women. Out of eight Millennium Goals to be attained by 2015, two specifically concern women; namely (1) the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women; and (2) the improvement of maternal health. The UNHCR has also made the satisfaction of protection needs of women and children refugees a recurrent and central theme of its 2002 Agenda for Protection. More generally, governments are obligated under CEDAW and committed under Beijing to take a range of measures to guarantee women's "empowerment, full participation and equality in society" with the goal of furthering development and achieving peace.(1) The international community envisions women's rights as an organic component of peace and development.

Palestinian refugee women: rights denied

The international community continually affirms Israel's direct responsibility towards the realization of the core fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, namely, the right to self-determination, the right of return and the right to restitution and compensation.(2) However, through its Law of Return (1950) and Citizenship Law (1952), Israel maintains a legal and administrative regime that works against the realization of Palestinians' fundamental rights.

More recently, Israel approved a law explicitly prohibiting the right of return of Palestinians. On January 1, 2001, the Knesset passed the Ensuring Rejection of the Right of Return Law(3) which prevents refugees, defined as “a person who left the borders of the State of Israel at the time of war and is not a national of the State of Israel, including the persons displaced in 1967 and refugees of 1948 or a member of his family” to return “to the territory of the State of Israel except with the approval of a majority of members of Knesset.” This law, as the Law of Return and Citizenship Law, is undoubtedly discriminatory as it specifically targets a national, religious and political group. Furthermore, the law breaches Israel's obligation to allow and facilitate the return of refugees when it stipulates that “the government of Israel will not make any commitment and will not enter into any agreement that is inconsistent with the provisions of this law.”

As a result of Israel's defiance of international law(4), an estimated 7 million Palestinian refugees around the world, of which half are women, are denied the opportunity to choose one of three durable solutions; return to their homes and properties, integration in the host country, or resettlements in a third country. The possibility to choose one of these three options constitutes the only acceptable remedy under international law. Of these options, return is generally the preferred solution by refugees and UNHCR, and the only option that constitutes a fundamental right.

Israel also denies Palestinian women in the OPT their fundamental human rights. Indeed, Israel recognizes its jurisdiction over the Jewish settlers living illegally in the OPT, and includes settlers in reports to human rights treaty bodies such as CEDAW.(5) Conversely, as an occupying power, Israel denies it has jurisdiction over the protected persons living in the same territory. Concretely, it means that Palestinian women are not protected by human rights law while Jewish settler women are.(6) In fact, Israel not only applies international human rights law to settlers, but also the Israeli Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom (1992), which is categorically prohibited under international humanitarian law as it changes the status quo ante of the territory.(7) This discriminatory application of jurisdiction clearly violates Article 2(d) and(e) of CEDAW which stipulate that state parties will “refrain from engaging in any act or practice of discrimination against women...” and “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organization or enterprise. [Emphasis added]”

Quick Facts

● About 3.5 million Palestinian women are refugees, of which 1.6 million are also stateless.
● Approximately 120,000 refugee women will be affected by the construction of the Wall.
● 52 women gave birth at checkpoints since 2002. Between September 2000 and December 2002, 19 women and 29 newborn infants died at checkpoints.
● 707 children and over 250 women have been killed since September 2000.
● 288 children and 126 women are currently in detention.
● Over 39,000 Palestinians, mainly women and children, had their shelter destroyed since September 2000.

Palestinian women and conflict in the OPT

As a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross observed, "war is no longer, if it ever was, a man's business.."(8) Women play an active role in times of conflict and occupation, they bear arms, sustain families and lead peace movements. They are not the stereotypical passive and vulnerable actor. For instance, women have active roles in Palestinian civil society and lead non-governmental organizations promoting democracy based on gender equality and social justice as well as equal participation in decision-making and peace negotiations. Nonetheless, as refugees and displaced persons, women are more vulnerable due to the trauma of forced displacement and exile, lack of coping mechanisms in times of crisis and an often precarious and uncertain status.

Women and children living in refugee camps have been particularly affected by the conflict. Israeli missiles launched into crowded camps kill, injure and disable women and children. Until today house demolitions have denied the right to family life, security and housing of over 39,000(9) Palestinians. The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences and Amnesty International have recently published reports recounting incidents of Israeli occupying forces use of women human shields, harassment and humiliation of detained women and dehumanization of women at military checkpoints.(10) Moreover, the unprecedented restrictions on freedom of movement and denial of access to essential services exacerbate the situation of Palestinian women.

The combined effect of these traumatizing events is seen in the proportionally higher percentage of women and girl child suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A study by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme on the prevalence of PTSD among children 10-19 years of age revealed significant differences between boys and girls in the acute level of PTSD whereby, 57.9 per cent of girls compared to 42.1 percent of the boys developed the symptom. The study also indicated that children living in camps suffer more than children living in towns (84.1 per cent and 15.8 per cent respectively).(11) Another study by Dr. Abdel Hamid Afana found that 73% of patients visiting primary health care clinic in the Gaza Strip had mental disorders and that the prevalence among females was higher (76.8%) than males (67%).(12) These studies conclusively show that the conflict disproportionately affect women and girls, especially those living in refugee camps.

Women's empowerment, colonialism and occupation

Under article 3 of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, states are obliged to respect, protect and promote fundamental human rights and “... ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men.” Many, if not most, of the fundamental rights and freedoms necessary to the achievement of equality between men and women are denied to Palestinian women.

The Military Commander is Not ‘Minister of History’
Petition to Post Signs in ‘Canada Park’

Zochrot submitted a petition to the Supreme Court of Justice for permission to post signs at ‘Canada Park’ designating the Palestinian villages of Yalu and Imwas that were destroyed during the 1967 war. A third village, Beit Nuba, was also destroyed but the village is located slightly east of the park.

Zochrot has struggled for two years with the Civil Administration of the occupation in order to post signs at the remains of the villages in the park. Although many of the remains of the Palestinian villages are still standing, the existing signs at the park teach visitors about the different histories of Jews, Romans and others, but do not make any mention of the hundreds of years of Arab existence in the area.

“The purpose of posting signs on the history of the park,” wrote Adv. Michael Sfard who is representing Zochrot, “is to provide visitors with information about the history of the area and in order to forward values such as knowledge of the land and its heritage. Omitting selective passages from the local history is an unreasonable and extreme decision, which mars these values.”

“It raises the suspicion that the refusal to post the signs in the area is based on political motivations aimed at preventing visitors to the site from becoming acquainted with its Arab past. The commander is not the ‘minister of history’ and is not authorized to prefer one historical narrative over another.”

The State is required to issue a response to the petition in July 2005.

For more information visit the Zochrot website:

The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women wrote in February 2005 that "security measures by the Israeli occupying forces combined with the response this provoked among various Palestinian elements have contributed to an integrated system of violence, which intersects with a traditional patriarchal gender order that creates traumatizing impacts on Palestinian women."(13) In other terms, it is "... naïve to imagine an improvement of women's plight in wartime, without recognising the fact that they remain structurally disadvantaged in times of peace."(14) Until the societal disadvantages affecting women's rights are addressed, the central issue to women's empowerment remains a sustainable resolution to the conflict, which involves “ effective response to the core of the conflict in the region - i.e. the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their land.”(15)

Hence, as stipulated in the preamble of CEDAW, the "...eradication of Apartheid, all forms of racism, racial discrimination, colonialism and foreign occupation and domination..." are prerequisites to the attainment of gender equality, development and peace. Only the implementation of Palestinians' fundamental rights such as the right to self-determination, the right to return and the right to restitution and compensation constitute a genuine and sustainable vector to women's empowerment. Until such core rights are fulfilled, the realization of women's fundamental freedoms and rights - education, health, participation in public life and the general advancement of women, will remain partially addressed.

Karine Mac Allister is Assistant to the Coordinator, Research, Information and Legal Advocacy at BADIL.

(1) See, UNIFEM, Millennium Development Goals Must Link to CEDAW and Beijing Processes, UNIFEM Releases New Publication in Lead Up to Beijing + 10, News Release, 25 January 2005 and Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women (4-15 September 1995), UN Doc. A/Conf.177/20, 17 October 1995, para. 13.
(2) See, for instance UNGA Resolution 3236 (XXIX), 22 November 1974 which stipulates the right to self-determination, national independence, return to their homes and property of the Palestinian people. See also, UNGA Resolution 51/129 which recalls "resolution 394 (V) of 14 December 1950, ... to prescribe measures for the protection of the rights, property and interests of the Palestine Arab refugees" and "call once more upon Israel to render all facilities and assistance to the Secretary-General in the implementation of the present resolution."
(3) Sefer Hahukim (Laws of Israel), Booklet 1172 (10 January 2001), p.116 in Nimer Sultany, Citizens Without Citizenship, Mada's First Annual Political Monitoring Report: Israel and The Palestinian Minority, 2000-2002. Haifa: Mada al-Carmel: Arab Center for Applied Social Research, 2003, p. 19.
(4) UNGA Resolution 194, UN GAOR, 3rd Session, UN Doc. A/810 (1948) calls for three specific remedies which Israel should accord to 1948 Palestinian refugees pursuant to international law: (1) the right of return to their home, or repatriation; (2) the right of restitution of private property belonging to those displaced Palestinians returning under the right of return; and (3) the right of compensation for the use of property, damaged or destroyed property, or for the property of Palestinians choosing not to return. Resolution 237 stipulates that Israel should "facilitate the return of those inhabitants who have fled the areas since the outbreak of hostilities." UNSC Resolution 237, S/RES/237, 14 June 1967. See also, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: article 9 and article 13 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCP): article 12.
(5) The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also reiterated “its concern about the State Party's position that the Covenant does not apply to areas that are not subject to its sovereign territory and jurisdiction, and that the Covenant is not applicable to populations other than the Israelis in the occupied territories.” The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Israel, E/C.12/1/Add.90, 23 May 2003, para. 15. See also, the International Court of Justice, Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Advisory Opinion, 9 July 2004. para. 112.
(6) See, Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations: Israel, CCPR/C/79/Add.93, 18 August 1998, para. 13.
(7) Diakonia. "Informal excerpts taken by advocate Netta Amar from the Israeli High Court of Justice Hearings on the Wall" (unpublished), Jerusalem, 9 may 2005. It is interesting to note this Basic Law does not protect the right of equality for all. Hence, no statute protects the right to equality of the Arab minority in territories where Israel applies the Basic Law. For more information see, Legal Violations of Arab Minority Rights in Israel, A report on Israel's Implementation of the International convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. Shafr 'Amr: Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, March 1998, p. 19.
(8) ICRC, Women and Armed Conflict, Official Statement by Gabrielle Nanchen, New York, 7th March 2005.
(9) This is an approximate number including the number of individuals affected by house demolition as a result of military attacks, lack of so-called permit building, punishment and the limited data available on the impacts of the first phase of the construction of the Wall.
(10) See, for instance the report from Amnesty International, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Conflict, occupation and patriarchy, Women carry the burden, MDE 15/016/2005, pp. 6-9. Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective: Violence Against Women, Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Yakin Erturk, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2005/72/Add.4, 2 February 2005.
(11) UNRWA, Annual Report of the Department of Health 2003, p. 5.
(12) Dr. Abdel Hamid Afana, "Gender and Other Predictors of Anxiety and Depression in a Sample of People Visiting Primary Care Clinics in an Area of Political Conflict: Gaza Strip", 2 Rahat Medical Journal 1, February 2004, Pakistan.
(13) Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective: Violence Against Women, supra note 10, p. 2.
(14) Supra note 8.
(15) Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective: Violence Against Women, supra note 10, p. 2.