Women in Middle East Suffering

April, 2009

Few studies have measured the consequences on women and children living in regions in constant conflict short of declared war.  This is true in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) of the West Bank and Gaza (which remains under virtual occupation, despite Israel’s “withdrawal”).  In the OPT, ongoing hostilities over 60 years, punctuated by periodic wars, have taken their toll.  The number of female heads of household has been steadily increasing, while poverty has also been on the rise.

In the Gaza Strip, where 45.14% of the 1.4 million population lives in refugee camps, and 48.3% of the population is under the age of 15, the United Nations reports that 67.9% of the residents are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and are receiving food and/or health aid.  Although some refugees live outside the camps and do not receive assistance, most are teetering on the brink of poverty.  This has been exacerbated by the recent 22-day assault on the Strip by the Israeli Defense Forces, made possible by the tacit agreement of the U.S. government, as well as the huge infusion of U.S. military funding into the Israeli budget, largely without requirements to report on its use, all in violation of the U.S. Arms Export Act.

Adding to the causes of this stress on female household heads is the high number of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians held in Israeli jails and prisons, many in Administrative detention, serving six months without a trial.  Administrative detention orders can be renewed for additional six-month terms ad infinitum.  On my recent trip to the Middle East (February 16-March 6, 2009), I was told there is no Palestinian family without an immediate or extended family member who has been in an Israeli jail.  Most of these arrestees are men, leaving the tasks of breadwinning and child-rearing to the women.

Other factors work against economic success for women and men alike in the OPT.  These include the many checkpoints (over 400 permanent ones, plus so-called “flying checkpoints” that spring up without warning), periodic closures and curfews, the giant Separation Wall that snakes through the West Bank, and Jews-only roads that require Palestinians to spend hours traveling even short distances.  This affects every aspect of life, from going to the doctor through attempting to reach one’s place of work, including the need to obtain permits to travel from town to town.  Since Palestine has an overwhelmingly agrarian economy, crops need to be moved quickly to market once harvested, and the many barriers prevent this, further depressing the economy.  To offset these losses, women often plant home gardens to provide food for the family in the interim, for even if the men harvest the fields or orchards, the ability to obtain a living by selling the produce is frequently rendered impossible.  Under this situation, women again find themselves playing the role of breadwinner for the family.

If you believe that the U.S. should not be financing a situation in which women bear the emotional and economic burden in this way, here are some things you can do:

  1. Telephone your Senators and Representatives at 1(800)590-6313 (the CapitolSwitchboard). Ask for your Senator or Representative by name and, when connected, tell the staffer you reach that you want an investigation of Israel’s violations of the Arms Export Control Act.  Say that your tax dollars should not be used for the killing and wounding of innocent civilians.  Ask them to report back to you as to what they have done about this situation.  Tell them that this is a top priority for you and that how they vote will influence whether you support them in the next election.
  1. Write to your Senators and Representatives and tell them the same things, adding that today’s economy in the U.S. takes a higher priority than supporting any foreign government.  Tell them that the Israeli standard of living is quite high, and that the Palestinian living standard is extremely low.  Emphasize that this difference contributes to the ongoing hostilities between the two peoples.  Say that continuing to give huge sums of money to Israel without monitoring how it is used will not only result in more poverty for Palestinians, but encourage them to resist the Occupation and be suspicious of anything that Israel or the U.S. do in the name of achieving peace. Add that the newly-elected Israeli government is moving in the direction of fascism—and that many in the Israeli peace and justice movement are actually using the term “apartheid”. Stress that there is no occasion when it is appropriate to use U.S. tax dollars to support such a regime. 

If possible, send blind copies of your letters to the WILPF Middle East Committee, so that we can monitor how much support we have for this letter-writing action.

By Barbara Taft   

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