Israel's war on the bodies of Palestinian women

Freed Palestinian prisoner Ruba Assi was welcomed as a hero upon her release in the prisoner exchange deal last November. Screenshot from a video by medyascope english. Fair use.

This article is written by Hala Al Zuheiri, and was originally published in Raseef22 on January 23, 2024. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

“They took me and my daughter to a room inside the house, and they brought in a female soldier with a police dog. She ordered us to undress completely. We did. I acted blind, deaf, and mute so that they would not beat my son,” Suhad Al-Khamour, 49, from the Dheisheh refugee camp south of Bethlehem, tells Raseef22.

In late November, Suhad’s home was surrounded by a large number of heavily armed Israeli occupation forces (IOF), who then stormed it and destroyed its contents. Suhad, a mother to three sons and a daughter, spoke with Raseef22 about how the armed soldiers kept her husband and son in the living room while she and her daughter were taken into the bedroom at gunpoint and trailed by a guard dog. Suhad and her daughter were forced to undress before redressing and quickly leaving the house. They went out barefoot, waiting in the cold for the questioning of her husband and her son, Mohammad, 26, to conclude. When they came out, the IOF took her son with them, only to release him two hours later.

On December 4, the IOF raided Suhad’s home again before taking Mohammad to Ofer Prison, near Ramallah. This is not Suhad’s first violent targeting by the occupation forces. Her son Ibrahim, 20, is detained at Nafha Prison, where he is completing a 5-year sentence, whereas her son Omar, 14, died in early 2023, after he was shot in the head by occupation forces. Rona, 24, is the only one of Suhad's children still with her at home, although her psychological condition is rapidly deteriorating.

Suhad is just one of hundreds of women who have been arrested or have had family members arrested in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza, and subjected to various forms of humiliation and violence.

According to the Palestinian Prisoners Club and the Commission of Detainees’ Affairs, about 300 female prisoners were arrested in 2023, including 184 after October 7, 2023. 

Since October 7, Israel has escalated its campaign of illegal arrests and its targeting of women's bodies through torture, abuse, strip searches, forcefully removing veils, in addition to starvation, depriving them of basic needs, and detaining them in harsh conditions in prisons and compounds. 

Testimonies from Gazan female prisoners similarly reveal use of the same tools of humiliation. Many civilians have been forcibly taken prisoner by occupation forces, and their whereabouts are still unknown.

Reinforcing the occupation by violating the body

Ruba Assi was released on November 28, 2023, in the fifth part of the prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel. Assi spoke with Raseef22 about her arrest after October 7. It was significantly more violent and humiliating than her first arrest and detention in 2020, which lasted for 21 months.

Shortly after the start of the war on Gaza, the IOF blew open the door of Assi’s house in the town of Beit Liqia, west of Ramallah, in the West bank, and stormed inside. Family members were separated into different rooms, and Assi was arrested without being allowed to say goodbye to her family or even wear a jacket. 

Occupation forces tied and blindfolded her, before dragging her into a military vehicle. The female soldier assigned to her spoke loudly and aggressively in Hebrew, intentionally provoking her. She also threatened to send her to Gaza to torture her there. After Assi arrived at the Israeli camp, still bound and blindfolded, a group of soldiers approached her, taunting her and insulting her.

She was later transferred to the Hasharon Detention Center, where she was subjected to a strip search by two female guards. “If the prisoner refuses [the search], she will be severely beaten,” Assi explained. Eventually, Assi was placed in solitary confinement at Damon Prison. She shared:

There was not enough food or water. We were deprived of bathing and subjected to violent oppression without any prior justification and at any time. We were deliberately neglected in terms of medical care, and existing health conditions were not taken into account. Even when we were preparing to be released after our names were included as part of the exchange deal, we were subjected to strip searches.

Many testimonies from released female prisoners reveal torture, abuse, beatings and threats, include threats of rape, as well as being taken hostage in order to pressure family members to turn themselves in. Palestinian civilians are also subjected to these methods of torture during home raids, at Israeli checkpoints, and during visits to detained family members.

A longstanding policy

Strip searches are not a new tool of suppression and humiliation for Israel, but they have recently emerged as an integral part of the ongoing violent crusade against and genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

Ismat Mansour, a former prisoner and expert on Israeli affairs, told Raseef22, “In Gaza, we saw how men were stripped down and filmed, in order to strip the person from within and instill a sense of inferiority and helplessness.” Mansour labels strip searches a tool of the occupation used to violate the privacy and desecrate the space of Palestinians, while diminishing their humanity. It is a deeply intentional measure.

The Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association similarly confirmed to Raseef22 that the policy of strip searching is not new. However, since the start of the ongoing war on Gaza, the violence accompanying physical inspections has blatantly increased, according to testimonies from released female prisoners. 

Workers at Addameer confirmed, “Female prisoners are subjected to a strip search at the moment of their arrest and at the detention center, and sometimes they are ordered to sit in a squatting position. Male prisoners are also subjected to this– a tool to seize control of the detainee’s body and humiliate and violate their dignity.” Testimonies recorded after October 7 indicate that female prisoners have been threatened with rape and verbal harassment.

Hassan Abed-Rabbo, spokesman for the Commission of Detainees’ Affairs, believes that “this is primarily intended to undermine and harm national and human dignity, as well as to send a message to all Palestinian women that anyone thinking of acting against the occupation will have her dignity violated and her privacy invaded.” He emphasized, “it is an attempt to pressure women and sideline them from their role in the struggle.”

Who will hold Israel accountable for violating women's bodies?

Dr. Dalal Iriqat, an international law specialist, explained to Raseef22, “When violations against prisoners are systematic and repeated, and laws safeguarding prisoners’ rights are continuously violated, the policy, according to international and legal definitions, escalates into a war crime against humanity.”

Iriqat emphasized that the policy of strip searches violates international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention, stressing that the violations are not limited to this policy but also include depriving female prisoners of basic rights, such as food and a healthy environment. “The Israeli authorities took advantage of the preoccupation of human rights organizations about war crimes in Gaza to further abuse and torment the prisoners,” says Iriqat.

The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor called on the international community to pressure Israel to reveal the fate of Gazan women who have been arrested and whose whereabouts are unknown. Approximately 3,000 Palestinian detainees from Gaza have disappeared, including children and minors. The Human Rights Monitor claims that the Israeli army continues to arrest dozens of women, girls, and infants, all of whom are subjected to humiliating detention conditions, strip searches, the forced removal of their hijab, and threats of rape.

The Palestinian Prisoners Club and the Commission of Detainees’ Affairs state that the intensity of the crimes committed against women is one of the most prominent and dangerous aspects at this stage in the war. This violence is an extension of a long history of Israeli targeting of Palestinian women; Will this war on Gaza be much harsher than any of the previous wars in the history of the occupation?

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