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Why Feminists Should Care About The 50 Year Anniversary Of Palestinian Occupation

Yesterday, Israel celebrated the dubious milestone of a fifty-year-long occupation of Palestine, cementing its position as one of the longest military occupations of a foreign territory in modern history.

When the Occupation took hold in 1967, the United Nations Security Council emphasized that territory snatched through war is impermissible and demanded that Israel immediately end its belligerent occupation. Israel did not comply, and half a century later, the occupation of Palestine is viewed by international law and a majority of the international community aside from the United States as implicated in war crimes, illegal activities, and human rights abuses. Just December of last year, the Security Council reaffirmed its 1967 resolution, condemning Israel’s “flagrant” violation of international law. Last June, a United Nations body issued a report — later retracted under pressure — calling the regime an apartheid. Human Rights Watch has reported “unlawful killings; forced displacement; abusive detention; the closure of the Gaza Strip and other unjustified restrictions on movement; and the development of settlements, along with the accompanying discriminatory policies that disadvantage Palestinians.”

Much of the human rights abuse disproportionately impacts women and children. State violence often targets women — as activist group INCITE! noted, “When a state views a population — its dispossessed, disenfranchised and occupied indigenous population — as a ‘demographic threat,’ that view is fundamentally both racist and gendered.”

With over 500 deaths of women attributable to occupying forces between 2000 and 2013, Palestinian women are no different. They face routine abuse and harassment by the Israeli Defense Forces and settlers alike. Palestinian women incarcerated by Israel report rife sexual abuse in prisons. Other Palestinian women are left unprotected by the state: Israeli military activities and control have restricted the movement of Palestinian women, making it “tremendously difficult” for them to access family networks, social, medical, or protective services. Mordechai Kedar, an Israeli military intelligence officer turned academic, suggested that “raping the wives and mothers of Palestinian combatants” would deter attacks by Hamas militants. Israel’s Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked was quoted as saying Palestinian women must be killed for giving birth to “little snakes.”

Protesting flagrant human rights abuses should be a key part of any feminist agenda, but feminists who’ve attempted to include Palestine in their platforms have come under severe fire. After the International Women’s Strike called for the decolonization of Palestine and the tearing down of the apartheid wall, the organizers came under harsh criticism by Zionist feminists who insisted that their very existence proves the compatibility of Zionism and women’s rights. They claim that while they are “happy to debate Middle East politics or listen to critiques of Israeli policies,” support for ending the occupation of Palestine cannot be key to the feminist movement. Such critiques are naive, and assume the current political situation in Palestine — increasingly at a breaking point — is something irrelevant that feminists need not take a position on.

The idea that feminism is something aside from the nuances and difficulties of international politics betrays internalized misogyny and a deeply self-centered, self-serving view of feminism. The politics of feminism are not confined merely to the domestic, the home sphere, or to issues earmarked as being “for women” because they have to do with women’s bodies, and reproduction or representation. Feminists have a responsibility to thoughtfully engage in all aspects of the political world, and not to consign foreign affairs or geopolitical crises to the realm of the white men that occupy positions of power in international relations. Feminists should take international politics and the role of the United States in the world seriously, and build a movement that works toward justice both domestically and globally. Domestic feminism cannot divorce itself from the global consequences of state actions.

And to think of issues that affect women of color in other countries as somehow tangential to feminism means associating feminism primarily with satisfying the needs of white western women in the Global North. As Eric Levitz notes, “To suggest that the Israel-Palestine conflict, the minimum wage, and opposition to fossil-fuel extraction are intuitively marginal to the feminist cause is to presume a universality of female experience that does not exist.”

In short: Any feminism that serves the few at the expense of the many is simply oppression by another name.

Zionist feminists often object to the addition of Palestine to feminist agendas on the ground that Israel is being disproportionately and unfairly targeted, and that feminists should care about rights abuses in say, Syria, or Saudi Arabia. Feminists should absolutely have a comprehensive global focus, but that doesn’t mean drawing attention to Palestine isn’t an important priority, especially in the United States. The United States is uniquely important to sustaining Israeli occupation, funneling money and international support to fill Israel’s coffers. It has also “consistently offered Israel a shield from UN resolutions and other modes of censure and sanction.” Challenging U.S. support for Israel can be politically fatal — which means there is usually little resistance to the culture of impunity surrounding U.S. money funding war crimes in the Middle East. It is only civil society support and protest that can challenge the United States’s international position, and subsequently push Israel to meet its own obligations under international law and human rights law. Political support from feminists thus could have a very direct and real impact on the lives of Palestinians — making it an ethical obligation for feminists to support Palestinian liberation.

To conclude with Sarsour’s words:

I would say that anyone who wants to call themselves an activist cannot be selective. There is no country in this world that is immune to violating human rights. You can’t be a feminist in the United States and stand up for the rights of the American woman and then say that you don’t want to stand up for the rights of Palestinian women in Palestine. It’s all connected. Whether you’re talking about Palestinian women, Mexican women, women in Brazil, China, or women in Saudi Arabia — this feminist movement is an international global movement.

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Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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