Are Recent Clashes in Gaza a Threat to Women's Activists?
Amid rising lawlessness, violence and radicalization in the Gaza Strip -- and a deterioration of general human rights -- women's rights activists are bracing for an escalation of street and other potential harassment.
Gaza-based civil rights and women's activist Lama Hourani, who is not veiled, said last week that she did not want to leave the house until she sees what happens in the streets now that armed Hamas forces have taken control of the Gaza Strip and its nearly 1.5 million people.
Since Hamas members tried to violently force women to wear the veil in Gaza during the first Intifada that started in 1987, she is waiting to see whether they will try to do the same thing now.
"Most critical is that we have the rule of Hamas now," she said. "We don't know what rules apply here; not only as women, as Palestinians."
Hourani said Friday in a telephone interview that violations of women's rights, due to a number of political, economic and social factors, have been rising since the Palestinian Islamist organization won its stunning electoral victory in March 2006. Gunfire sounded in the background as she spoke. "Uncovered women were harassed in the street because they were not covered -- more than before."
After several months of clashes, Hamas launched a full-scale attack against Palestinian National Authority security installations last week and Fatah militants stormed the Hamas-led parliament this week in the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the three-month old Palestinian unity government and declared an emergency government in an attempt to assert his authority over the West Bank.
Since then the narrow coastal strip of Gaza between Egypt and Israel, and the West Bank, a landlocked territory on the West Bank of the Jordan River, are now controlled by rival political forces.
"What is going on in the Gaza Strip is a severe civil war," says Amal Khreisheh, director of the Palestinian Women Working Society for Development in Ramallah. "All efforts are to be enlisted to stop this madness."
On Wednesday, Israeli forces killed several militants in Gaza and launched air raids in response to rockets launched against Israel. At least 160 have been reported killed in Gaza in factional fighting between June 10 and 17, including 45 civilians, according to the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. Eleven of the slain civilians were women. More than 400 people have been killed in Gaza clashes since Jan. 1, 2007, including 29 women.
Rising Wave of Violence
Hundreds of women are now widowed as a result of the armed clashes between Fatah and Hamas forces in recent months.
Newly vulnerable and isolated, they are left in a society torn by civil strife and division of families. Institutions that could support them also appear vulnerable.
On April 11, the al-Atta Benevolent Association in the Gaza Strip, which works to empower women and children, opened a new computer training center for girls. The next day the facility was robbed and set on fire in the middle of the night. Today, the center has a security guard, a high wall around its perimeter and two entry gates for protection.
Ibtesam Al-Zaneen, chair of al-Atta Benevolent Association, and police officials believe the incident was a robbery and not a gender-bias attack.
But some women's activists in Gaza fear they or their centers could be next now that the Strip is effectively controlled by Hamas forces.
"They are against women's agenda and women's rules and women's rights," said Rima Alrakhawi, public relations officer of the Women's Affairs Center in Gaza, a research and training center. On Sunday, she said the center had reopened for the first time after a week of intensive fighting. "Opening the center at this time is really dangerous," she said.
'Honor Killing' Toll Rises
"Honor killings" -- in which a woman's life is taken for her perceived immoral behavior -- have risen sharply in the last year in Gaza.
Between January 2006 and March 7, 2007, 17 women were targeted and killed in Gaza on honor grounds, an increase from the average of 10 honor killings a year between 2000 and 2005, according to the Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counselling in Gaza, citing statistics from the Palestinian Authority's attorney general.
Honor killings have claimed at least nine women since November. Five were carried out by an armed religious group rather than by family members, which Mahmoud Abu Rahma, a coordinator for the Gaza-based Mezan Center for Human Rights, said was a new and alarming phenomenon.
"The problem is we are not seeing any action of executive institutions of government to protect women against such violence," Hourani said.
Earlier this month, an Islamic group that calls itself Swords of Truth threatened to behead female television broadcasters who dressed "immodestly." Rights groups decried the threat and female broadcasters staged two demonstrations in Gaza.
In recent months, the offices of nongovernmental groups, cafes, music shops, Internet cafes and hair salons have been attacked or burned by extremist religious groups.
An armed extremist group attacked a sports day event at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency-run school on May 6 reportedly because the activity was mixed and included both boys and girls. One adult was killed and six were injured, including two young pupils.
Long-Term Deterioration Trend
Activists say a serious escalation of insecurity in Gaza and to a less critical extent in the West Bank -- including the rapid spread of crime and the proliferation and misuse of weapons -- has been underway since at least the start of 2003, a few years after the start of the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
They point to a thicket of factors for the growing unrest.
The Israeli military occupation -- including home demolitions, detentions and torture -- has prevented the Palestinian territories from developing economically and spawning stabilizing institutions and citizens.
The crippling Western aid and economic boycott -- imposed by the United States, the European Union and Israel for the last 15 months -- has weakened an economy already in critical condition. In Gaza, 70 percent of the population lives under the poverty line.
On Wednesday, after Israel attacked Palestinian militants in Gaza, the Israeli government ended a diplomatic embargo and opened relations with the emergency Fatah government in the West Bank. The United States and the European Union are also moving to resume aid and ties with the new Fatah government.
In addition to the political fallout, Palestinian society, like many others in the world, emphasizes traditional, conservative values and women's rights are often not considered a top priority, Hourani said.
Radicalization is a very natural outcome of societies that go through prolonged military conflict, says Maha Abu Dayyeh Shamas, director of the Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in Jerusalem. "Not only radicalization, but also break down of law and order ... In patriarchal societies -- which are all societies in the world -- women are the weaker element. If there are no policies, no systems of control, no government, a total breakdown, the first victims ... of patriarchy and militarization will be women and children because they are weaker elements of society."