From Occupied Palestine: A Reflection on State-Sanctioned Sexual Violence

August 12, 2021

BY Shams Hanieh

Image used to reflect Palestinians resistance. Various hands protecting the face of a person, while one hand tries to break them apart by pinching the hands with a needle. Apart from one eye and hair, the face is covered and protected by the hands. Text on the image reads, "We won't be silenced."
Illustration by Dessy Baeva on Fine Acts (Modification made: Added translucent background)

[Content Warning: Description of sexual violence] The Israeli occupation has long used a variety of methods to harm and intimidate Palestinians that dare resist their settler-colonial project. Whether through administrative detention, collective punishment, home invasions and demolitions, or physical torture, Israeli methods of violence are multifaceted and know no bounds. An often used mode of violence is sexual intimidation and assault, intended to scare Palestinians into silence.

The Israeli occupation has been using sexual violence to intimidate Palestinians since its inception in 1948. Investigations on the Zionist ethnic cleansing massacres comitted at that time report women being assaulted en masse, and medical examinations of the survivors corroborated the testimonies. This violence continues today, towards men, women, and children. Studies and testimonies as recent as 2017 report Palestinian political detainees of all genders being subject to strip searches, sexual taunting, and molestation. Male detainees are threatened with the rape of their mothers and sisters, women wearing the hijab are forced to take it off in front of male soldiers, and many detainees of all genders have been molested or sexually threatened.

They yelled sexual profanities at women, assaulted them, crammed them into buildings, and spit on them. Any woman who filmed the unfolding scenes with her phone had her phone snatched by plainclothes officers

Palestinians have grown accustomed to the wide array of Israeli violence, and as brutal and traumatic as it is, it is something that is no longer shocking. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been known to act as an arm of the Israeli occupation, through its security coordination with Israel, arrests of prominent activists, and other collaborative and unjust practices. However, receiving sexual threats and violence from the Palestinian government has still managed to feel unexpected and brutalizing. The PA has recently violently suppressed peaceful protests against the assassination of PA critic Nizar Banat, and specifically targeted women and girls. PA violence bolsters the Israeli occupation’s violent efforts to suppress critical and liberatory movements, and sexual violence seems to be a go-to method.

Nizar Banat was an activist and vocal critic of the Palestinian government, and on June 24th, PA security officers arrested him in the dead of night, beat him, and pronounced him dead a few hours later. Protests soon broke out in the city of Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian government and president. On the 3rd protest, PA plainclothes security officers began their assault on women protestors. They yelled sexual profanities at women, assaulted them, crammed them into buildings, and spit on them. Any woman who filmed the unfolding scenes with her phone had her phone snatched by plainclothes officers. Later that night, accounts on various social media platforms began to leak sensitive pictures of these girls from their stolen phones to scare them into silence. After the leaking of the images and the assault on female protesters, Palestinian women worked to publicly expose the officers involved and get all the relevant social media accounts taken down, and also created support groups to discuss self-protection methods for the next protest. 

This use of sexual assault and intimidation to supress dissent is the logical continuation of PA collaboration with Israel, and highlights the use of gendered violence as a tool of state suppression. This is not the first instance in any political struggle where women are singled out in a sexually exploitative manner; however, it is an opportunity to bear witness to the ways women innovate protective networks under pressure, as displayed by the rapid response of women after the protest. It serves as a reminder that liberation can never come from the state and its security forces, rather, it comes from the street, from inter-community protection, from recognising the multiple arms of oppression, and from breaking the culture of fear and subjugation imposed upon us.