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Israeli and American Leftists Face Sexual Harassment, Assault by Palestinians They Aim to Defend

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"There was some ‘accidental’ touching, and some incidents in which people called me a 'slut.'"

Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners at weekly protest. File photo from Haaretz

Last year’s Occupy Wall Street protests were plagued with reports of sexual harassment and assault on female participants at encampments. Now, Israeli and foreign left-wing activists protesting alongside Palestinians are complaining of similar problems from Palestinians they aim to defend.

The liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz obtained testimonies from female protesters and examined blog posts and online forums discussing what it’s calling the “wider phenomenon” of pro-Palestinian Israelis and foreigners, including an American woman, being harassed or assaulted at West Bank protests. Haaretz reports:

"In the past two years, at least six incidents were recorded in the West Bank and East Jerusalem: two in Sheikh Jarrah, four more in the Mount Hebron area, in Masra, in Kfar a-Dik, and an alleged case of attempted rape in Umm Salmona, near Bethlehem, that was revealed in Haaretz."

One woman wrote a letter to “Anarchists Against the Wall:"

"'At the demonstration today (February 10, 2012) in Kfar a-Dik, I noticed looks and finger pointing from the shabab (nickname for young Palestinians) that made me feel some discomfort. They talked amongst themselves, and not with me, but the word that came up quite a lot was ‘slut,’ with glances directed toward me. When I met A. and H. (two men), I told them about this, and H. stayed by my side. Despite this, there was some ‘accidental’ touching, and some incidents in which people called me a ‘slut.’ In the end of the day, it was a very unpleasant experience.'"

The sexual harassment has prompted a “stormy debate” among leftist and human rights activists in Israel. These Israelis gather weekly with international activists, including Americans, in Palestinian villages to protest Israel’s construction of its West Bank barrier, or what they call the “Apartheid Wall,” even though only 5 percent of it is a concrete wall. The Israeli government decided to construct a barrier between Palestinian neighborhoods and Israel in the wake of a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings a decade ago. A step that has shrunk suicide terrorism considerably. Haaretz reports:

"The joint activity of Israeli leftist activists on one side and local Palestinians on the other has created rare cases of cooperation in this time of conflict. But at the same time, complaints of sexual harassment by Palestinians started to emerge. In April 2010, an American peace activist filed a complaint against a Palestinian, charging he had tried to rape her. The suspect was later freed when the activist withdrew her complaint."

A veteran feminist activist told the paper there was an “outcry” when female activists were told to dress modestly due to conservative Palestinian social norms. One former protester told Haaretz:

"Two years ago we had a meeting of women who took part in the struggle against the occupation. It took place in an apartment in Jerusalem, and disturbing things were brought up. Nearly all the women that attended told of cases of harassment or discrimination. One of the women recounted how one night, in a tent set up to help Sheikh Jarrah families, someone tried to grab her. She shouted for help and Palestinians came and asked who it was so that they could ‘take care of him.’

'A female foreign activist of the international solidarity movement that was sleeping in one of the Palestinian villages, where protests against the fence take place, said that one night someone entered her room and tried to grab her, she began to shout and one of her friends rushed to help her. Since then I don’t go to places I ‘shouldn’t’ go to alone, as a woman,' she said.'"

The paper obtained a response from a Palestinian protest organizer:

"Mahmoud Zohara, a member of the Popular Committee of Masra told Haaretz that the town decided to fight the phenomenon in every way possible. 'First, the person responsible for the incident was ostracized. In addition, the Popular Committee decided to file a complaint against him at the Palestinian Court. He was fined NIS 5,000 for his deeds.'

Zohara said that the residents of the town will not accept this phenomenon. 'It is unacceptable that Israeli or foreign women that come to protest in solidarity with us be harassed and their human rights be infringed upon.'

Zohara added that the Popular Committee has done much to raise awareness about the issue among the town residents and youth. 'One must understand that harassment takes place everywhere - in Tel Aviv and in the United States as well. In these protests there is a very open relationship between the Palestinians and Israeli and foreign activists. This creates friendships, love, and yes, incidents of sexual harassment. But we must put an end to this phenomenon, whatever the price.'"

Some Israeli-Palestinian protesters ran into controversy last week after the “Solidarity Movement” published a poster on its Facebook page depicting a woman being raped, as an apparent metaphor for Palestine being “raped” by settlers. The group was protesting a deal the Israeli government struck with settlers earlier this month to move the West Bank Migron outpost to a nearby location, thus legalizing their status.

The poster’s caption reads "Deep Migron,” a play on the word “Garon” in Hebrew which is throat, a reference to the movie Deep Throat. NGO Monitor reports:

"The poster depicts a woman forcefully pinned down with her mouth held open, with the poster title a takeoff of the film 'Deep Throat.' The text, referring to the controversy over the Migron settlement, proclaims: 'If they were residents of Haifa, Beer Sheva or Ashdod they would be in jail. But they are settlers. So shut up, bend down, swallow, you probably know that you want it!!!'"

This infuriated female protesters. To answer the complaints, Solidarity Movement changed the photo to a jar of Vaseline, which prompted even further outcry.

Haaretz reports:

"Two weeks ago, another activist anonymously wrote on the website haokets.org about an incident of sexual assault she had experienced, this time by an Israeli activist. 'I was sexually assaulted last summer by an Israeli leftist activist. The assailant met, and still meets, all the right criteria: post-colonialist, post-Zionist, anti-capitalist, etc. And most relevantly, he considers himself a feminist. Until he assaulted me, we were friends.'

'After the assault it took me three long days to understand what had happened to me, and find a name for it. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, because I couldn’t understand how someone who spoke with me using the language of opposition to oppression could breach my walls.'

'When the solidarity movement released its new campaign with the Vaseline, hinting at anal rape, with the caption ‘shut up, bend over and swallow, you know you want to’ conjuring the most appalling imagery of sexual violence, I was angered, but unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised. In all honesty, the left isn’t as good at keeping gender equality as they think they are.'"

Anarchists Against the Wall told Haaretz “the group was dealing openly and seriously with incidents of sexual harassments done by Palestinians, as well as those in which soldiers and Israeli citizens were the assailants,” adding, “The attempts to use incidents of sexual assault, a phenomenon that takes place on both sides of the border, and to tie them to a single nationality, is harming the important fight against sexual violence.”

Which brings us back to events in the United States. Feminist groups such as CODEPINK have been vocal participants in anti-Israel activism, including participating in the Occupy AIPAC protests, actively supporting a boycott of Israeli goods and standing side-by-side with pro-Palestinian activists at Occupy Wall Street events. Those viewing themselves as defenders of women’s rights may want to take pause to consider the credentials of those with whom they stand, and ask, are they really defenders of the feminist cause?

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