Table of Contents
4. Political Participation
5. Domestic Violence and Access to Justice
Women have struggled and continue to struggle for equal rights in virtually every nation of the world. In areas such as education, occupational opportunities, reproductive rights, freedom of movement, political participation, and healthcare, many women around the globe face limited options and social and political restrictions that are difficult if not impossible to overcome. These difficulties are uniquely apparent in the Palestinian Territories, where a complicated geopolitical situation exacerbates the traditional limitations on the rights of Middle Eastern women.
The Gaza Strip and the West Bank, collectively known as Palestine, are located in the Middle East between the Mediterranean Sea and the nation of Jordan. The territories are located within the state of Israel (See Figure 1). Approximately 4 million people currently reside in the Territories, and nearly half are women. There exists a long, controversial history of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that began in earnest after World War I and continues to this day. The current research does not aim to choose a side in this ongoing conflict; however, in order to understand the difficulties that Palestinian women face in everyday life, one must have a minimal understanding of the chain of events that led to their unique circumstances.
The areas now referred to as Israel and Palestine were originally part of the Ottoman Empire. After the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I, control of the area was given to Britain via the Sykes-Picot Agreement (Sykes-Picot Agreement, 1916). In the post-WWI years, Jewish immigrants began to enter the area, which at the time was largely Muslim. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration (Balfour, 1917) was sent to Zionist leader Lord Rothschild from Arthur James Balfour, the British foreign secretary. The letter stated, in part: "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
The stage was set for the creation of a Jewish homeland. The Balfour Declaration was agreed upon by France, Britain, Japan, and Italy in the 1920 San Remo Resolution. While not deciding any specific borders, the Resolution confirmed the designation of Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people while promising not to, “... prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” (San Remo Resolution, 1920).
Conflicts over land rights continued in the region, and became even more pronounced with the outbreak of World War II and the mass displacement of the world's Jewish population. With the Nazis actively persecuting Jews, they were forced to flee their homes. The influx of Jews in the traditionally Muslim Palestine created tensions between the groups. In 1936, the killing of Sheik Izz alDin al-Qassam, a respected Palestinian nationalist and preacher, by British forces led to an eruption of violence that lasted for nearly three years. Only when the British agreed to end land sales to Jews in Palestine did the violence subside.
The reprieve was not to last. In 1948, Zionists declared that Israel was a state in its own right. The major conflict that followed is dubbed “The War of Independence” by Israelis (Bard, 2015) and the Nakba, or, “The Catastrophe,” by Palestinians (Alkhateeb, 2013). In that conflict, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee, and the Israelis gained massive amounts of land that were previously held by them. To this day, thousands of Palestinian refugees still reside in camps in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, and Syria.
Conflict continued sporadically until 1967 and another dually-named war between the Israelis and Palestinians. The “Six Day War,” (according to Israelis) or “The Setback” (according to Palestinians), in which Israel attacked Egypt in a territorial dispute, led to the United Nations' Resolution 242. That resolution states in part, “The Security Council... affirms that the fulfillment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles: Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict; [and] termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” (Security Council, 1967) This brief Resolution impacts the peace process between Israel and Palestine to this day, as many scholars and analysts interpret the text to require that Israel withdraw its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which were gained during the aforementioned war. Indeed, the redistribution of land in the region from Palestinians to Israelis was remarkable (See Figure 2).
Disputes continued for the next two decades. In 1972, Palestinian fighters invaded the Munich Olympics, killing eleven Israelis and holding hostages, demanding the release of 200 Arab prisoners being held in Israel (Binder, 1972). Then, in 1987, war broke out again, this time with Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip actively rebelling against Israeli occupiers in the territories. The Intifada, as it was known, continued until 1993 and the passage of the Oslo Agreement, which gave autonomy to the territories. Despite this, skirmishes and battles continue. According to the UN Security Council, from 2000 to 2007, 4,228 Palestinians and 1,024 Israelis have been killed in ongoing conflicts in the region (Security Council, 2007).
Today, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are partitioned off from Israel by a large segregation wall on the border with the West Bank, security gates, checkpoints (See Figure 4), Israel-exclusive roads, and blockades. Movement into and out of the Palestinian territories is closely monitored by the Israeli military, and travel is difficult. The Israelis justify the barriers as necessary to protect against attacks by the Palestinians. Palestinians continue to protest against Israeli occupation, and Israel responds to real and perceived threats by bombing Palestinian homes and public buildings, creating in Palestine what the United Nations called, “...a permanent state of emergency.” (UN Women, 2013) In addition, Israeli settlers have been accused of destroying olive groves and other Palestinian property (Bowen, 2014). To the disappointment of Israeli officials, the United Nations recognized Palestine as a non-member observer state in 2012.
The volatile living conditions in Palestine create issues regarding women's human rights. Limited mobility and lack of access to essential resources make it difficult for women to access adequate healthcare. Daily violence and social norms create barriers in education for girls and women in the Territories. The representation of women in the civic community is minimal due to women's lack of participation in political life. And domestic violence flourishes due to legal and social norms that are exacerbated by the ongoing conflict with Israel. Women's access to the legal system and justice, already made difficult by the Sharia Law under which Palestine operates, is even more complicated when day-to-day life itself may make society unconcerned with accusations of rape and domestic violence. The following research merely scratches the surface of the complex sociopolitical system under which the women of Palestine live.
The political and economic struggles of the women of Palestine create detriments to health. Limited mobility in the region due to the Israeli blockade means little opportunity for economic advancement. The unemployment rate in Palestine is high; in fact, in 2015 the World Bank declared that Gaza had the worst unemployment rate in the world (Gaza's Unemployment Rate Highest in World, 2015). According to World Bank data, in 2011 the poverty rate in the Territories was 25.8% (World Bank, 2015). Poverty leads to poor living conditions, limited access to nutritious foods, inability to afford necessary resources such as cleaning supplies, medical supplies, adequate housing, heating and cooling sources for homes, and other issues.
Israeli occupation forces are one of the greatest detriments to the health of the people of Palestine. The blockade stops many necessary resources from entering the region. With the decline in supply, prices of food and resources skyrocket. Lack of access to nutritious foods has had a devastating effect on the people of Palestine, particularly the children. In a report on the health conditions of Palestine, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that, among children aged 9 to 12 months, the rate of anemia was 57% in 2012 (World Health Organization, 2013). The rate among school-aged children was 36%, and the rate among pregnant women was 27.8%. Palestinian children also suffer a disproportionate amount of stunting (below minus two standard deviations from median height for age of reference population) and wasting (below minus two standard deviations from median weight for age of reference population) (UNICEF, 2015).
The limited mobility of Palestinians also makes it difficult to travel outside the area for necessary medical treatments that are not available in the territories. Israeli forces deny many of the requests for authorization to leave the territories on security grounds, according to the WHO report. The study found that, in 2012, 9,329 requests to leave for medical treatment were submitted from residents of the Gaza Strip. Of these, 8,628 were approved and 701 were denied. From the West Bank, 222,188 requests were submitted, with 177,051 approved and 39, 105 denied. The remainder of requests went unanswered (See Table 1).
Table 1. Requests for Authorization to Leave the Territories for Medical Treatment, 2012
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Palestine has its own health administration, of course. The Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Health was created after the Oslo Agreement of 1993. According to Article 5 of the Public Health Law of 2004, the Ministry is responsible for, in part:
- Pre-marriage medical tests.
-Care for women, especially pregnant women.
-Support for natural breastfeeding.
-Monitoring child growth and development.
-Making family and society aware of child care services and protections (Palestinian Public Health Law, 2005).
Article 8 of the Public Health Law lists the terms and conditions for women seeking abortions. Abortions are illegal in Palestine, except when it is necessary to save the mother's life. If abortion is the only option, a woman must also have two specialized physicians to act as witnesses, provide written approval for the procedure, and the abortion must be performed in a medical institution (Palestinian Public Health Law, 2005).
The condition that abortions must be performed in a medical institution raises the question: How many medical institutions are available in Palestine? The WHO report found that, for the total population of 4,168,858 people living in Palestine, 81 hospitals are available. This works out to 14 hospital beds per 10,000 residents. This is one of the lowest numbers of hospital beds in the Middle East. Yemen has 7 beds per 10,000 residents, Iraq has 13, Syria has 15, Iran and Egypt have 17, Jordan and Oman have 18, Saudi Arabia has 22, and Turkey has 25 (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2012). In stark contrast to Palestine, Israel boasts the highest number, with 34 hospital beds per 10,000 residents (See Table 2).
There are also 187 family planning centers in the Territories. According to the WHO report, the proportion of women in Palestine who are of reproductive age is 48.8%. With nearly half of the female population of child-bearing age, the small number of hospitals and family planning centers in Palestine is not adequate to provide for the needs of the nation's women. Perhaps this is part of the reason for Palestine's relatively high maternal mortality rate: 28 per 100,000 live births in 2011, according to the WHO report. In Israel, the maternal mortality rate was 7 per 100,000 live births in 2010 (Key Facts on Israel, 2013). It should be noted that maternal mortalities are under-reported in Palestine, and the number may in reality be much higher.
Table 2. Hospital Beds per 10,000 in Middle Eastern Nations
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The political and social realities of Palestine make women's access to adequate healthcare extremely difficult. Poverty and the lack of resources create health problems that the healthcare system of the nation is not equipped to treat. The lack of medical institutions makes traveling outside the territories the only option for some Palestinian patients. However, receiving treatment out of the country is expensive and made difficult by the complex process of being granted authorization from the Israeli government to leave the region.
Education is important for improving the quality of life for women around the globe. It gives women the opportunity to get better jobs, helping them escape from poverty. A stable income reduces women's reliance on their husbands, families, and government assistance, giving them autonomy and a greater sense of self-respect. A proper education can also give women the tools they need to face crises and setbacks they may face in their lives. Similarly, schools can act as coping mechanisms for children who face struggles in their home lives.
As with the Ministry of Health, the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MoEHE) was formed following the Oslo Agreement. The Palestinian Basic Law, Article 24 states, “Every citizen shall have the right to education. It shall be compulsory until at least the end of the basic level. Education shall be free in public schools and institutions” (Palestinian Basic Law, 2003). Currently, there are three types of schools in Palestine: public, private, and those run for refugees by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Of the current population of 1,138,965 students, public schools account for 67.08%, private schools 8.85%, and UNRWA serves 24.07% (MoEHE, 2014).
When the Palestinian Authority took over the education system, enrollment increased more than 50% in the following decade (Nicolai, 2007) and it continues to increase steadily today. According to the MoEHE, from 2008 to 2013, the number of students enrolled in public primary school rose .58%. The number of personnel employed at public schools also continues to rise, from 42,163 in 2008/2009 to 47,877 in 2012/2013. For these students, there are 1,881 public school buildings with 23,252 classrooms. There are an average of 30.3 students per classroom and 22 students per teacher (MoEHE, 2014).
Girls in Palestine do not suffer from a lack of access to education. According to the Royal Academy of Science International Trust (RASIT), in the 2007/2008 school year, the number of girls enrolled in primary and secondary schools surpassed the number of boys, with 548,781 girls and 548,314 boys (RASIT, 2009) However, outside factors affect the success of girls and women in their educational endeavors.
The physical division of the West Bank and Gaza has led to divisions in policies regarding education. Authorities in the West Bank tend to avoid reforms that would disrupt the already fragile state of the education system, while authorities in Gaza are more conservative and promote a gender-segregated approach to public schools (UN Women, 2013). Social norms like chaste laws and the accepted role of women as wives and mothers also hinder women's educational development. Girls are often the last to be enrolled in school and the first to be pulled out in times of crisis or family trouble. Girls may drop out of school in order to marry or help out at home. When women do complete their secondary education, it is often in traditional “motherly” roles such as teaching, nursing, and social work. These fields are also the ones with the highest rate of unemployment: 42.8% of Palestinian women in these fields are out of work (RASIT, 2009).
As with healthcare, Israeli occupation forces are the cause of most of the troubles in the Palestinian educational system. In East Jerusalem and elsewhere, public schools attended by Palestinian children are required to use Israeli-censored textbooks, from which the symbol of the Ministry of Education has been removed along with the Palestinian side of the Israel-Palestine narrative (Abukhater, 2011) (See Figure 5). A 1999 study found that classroom maps were changed to depict Israel while excluding Palestine, and that over 4,000 books were banned from the territories (Alzaroo, 1999).
Curfews enforced by the Israelis also hinder education in Palestine. A curfew in this context consists of Israeli troops patrolling Palestinian areas with tanks and other weaponry, often in response to threats from Palestinian protesters, real or perceived. During curfews, schools remain closed, as residents are required to remain at home. Missed school days halt the education process and contribute to rates of demoralization.
Violence is also a hindrance to education in Palestine, and it remains prevalent in the area. From July 8-July 10, 2014, 81 people were killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza (List of Victims, 2014). From July 26-August 5 of 2014, 916 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, while 27 Israelis died during the same conflict (Keller & Yourish, 2014). Schools are not exempted from attacks. On August 3, 2014, Israeli forces bombed a UNRWA school in Rafah that was housing displaced persons, killing ten civilians (See Figure 6). Earlier that week, a bomb struck a UNRWA school in Jabalya refugee camp, killing 15 Palestinians (US Appalled by Disgraceful Israeli Shelling, 2014). Such acts of violence make traveling to school difficult and dangerous, and the threat of death may lead families to become reluctant to send their children to school.
While girls in Palestine have approximately equal access to education as boys, outside influences create obstacles. Division among the leaders of the territories creates confusion and a lack of consistency between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Social norms such as gender-specific practices and decision-making, early marriage, and the tendency of women to go into traditional fields that are high in unemployment all devalue a woman's education in the Palestinian Territories. The continued occupation by Israeli forces and the resulting violence effectively halt the education process in the region for the duration of conflict and thus leave Palestinian students at a disadvantage.
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- women's rights Palestine Middle East Israel domestic violence health care education political participation access to justice