Marah Bakeer was on her way home from school when she was shot. It was one of those normal days that everyone speaks of after the initial shock of a life-changing event recedes; Marah, 16, left the gates of her high school, boarded the school bus, and stepped off at the stop just outside her town of Beit Hanina, a small Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Backpacks in tow, she and her friend, Asma, spoke of their future: graduation, college, life. It was then when Marah’s was stolen from her.
Multiple gunshot wounds and humiliation were just the beginning of Marah’s experience as an Israeli prisoner—and her experience is only one of the many countless cases of the increasingly alarming Israeli mistreatment and imprisonment of Palestinian women that has increased in the past year.
Since the occupation began in 1967 (the actual diaspora began began in 1948), approximately 10,000 Palestinian women have been imprisoned. In 2015, a total of 106 women, girls, and children were held in prisons and detention centers. What began as approximately 20 imprisonments in January 2015, escalated to 60 by the end of February 2016 – 26 of which were arrested in this year alone. Many of the accusations are without evidence and have a common denominator: attempts to knife an Israel soldier.
Prisoners are commonly transferred more than once to different detention centers, during which they are forced to sit in cage-like cells for hours.
“We didn’t have access to a bathroom or clean air. We weren’t even allowed to rest our bodies,” Khalida Jarrar, one of the detainees, described.”Our bodies were hurting severely because of sitting in the same place for hours without moving.”
Imprisonment for these women means more than metal bars and gray walls. It is a conglomeration of prolonged solitary confinement, denial of access to toilets and showers, denial of basic health care, sleep deprivation, forced nakedness, starvation and dehydration, and sexual assault.
The resulting physical and psychological distress is not only immediate – it follows the girls and women home long after they are released.
“I still have a hard time with certain aspects – particularly the torture and the long periods in isolation. Prison is not a normal life. The psychological impacts affect how you see the world long after you are released,” said Khawl al-Azraq, a former Israeli prisoner. “And the problems that remain from prison affect your family, your community – every aspect of your life.”
Reports say that women have also given birth in compromising conditions, all the while being denied adequate nutrition and health care. Hands and feet are shackled before and immediately after delivery.
After giving birth to a baby boy, one woman said:
“They took him away from me and immediately cuffed my hands and legs to the bed… My legs were shackled for three days.”
Seeing that, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was internationally adopted in 1979, clearly stated, “States Parties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.” The treatment is akin to barbarism.
The similarities between the imprisonment conditions of Palestinian women and the treatment of the female prisoners in Syria by both the government forces and militant groups such as ISIS are striking. Syrian women are arbitrarily arrested and then subject to physical abuse, humiliation, sexual assault, forced nakedness, and denied access to medical care.
While the inhumane treatment of Syrian female prisoners by the government and ISIS is condemned by the US and the international community at large, they remain hauntingly silent at the identical abuse of Palestinian women by the hands of Israel. Why is it that the US is quick to identify and denounce the cruelty inflicted upon Syrian women by the hands of an Islamic state, but turns a blind eye to the identical treatment of Palestinian women by its partner in crime?
Meanwhile, the Geneva Convention remains a prop in the international dialogue, used only to buttress discussion rather than play a substantive role in the prevention of human right violations. The fourth convention clearly calls for the protection of civilians during conflict, preventing the cruel treatment and loss of human dignity of prisoners. These prohibitions have not been enforced as of yet and have instead been loosely tossed around in official documents reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
While girls in Western nations are making seamless transitions into womanhood and breaking barriers in everything from social stereotypes to scientific advancements, the women and girls of Palestine are subject to arbitrary life-threatening violence and imprisonment. But this also makes Palestinian women stronger than the average Jane. Women like Khawl give birth in prison, and girls like Marah strive to educate themselves from behind bars. They break the kind of barriers that would break other women upon imposition.
“We carry all of the suffering of our people, but we continue living and continue resisting.”