Passage through the Checkpoint: Experiences of Palestinian Female Residents in Hebron
In the Israeli-controlled H2 area of al-Khalil (Hebron), Palestinian women and girls moving around their neighbourhoods encounter a number of obstacles to their freedom and security vis-a-vis Israeli military, border police, and settlers. The checkpoint, however, is an unpredictable and isolated site of male control, where no one can see what happens, or guess how long the passage might be. At one of the 21 permanently-staffed checkpoints in H2, a woman might have her ID checked, bags inspected, or encounter demands that she submit to a body search where often no female soldiers are present.
During community meetings with CPT, women living or working in H2 Hebron reported that they are periodically asked to remove their hijabs and other articles of clothing when going through the checkpoint turnstile. The soldiers know that the regular pressure to expose themselves is stressful and degrading to women, yet respect for gender, cultural or religious rights is often disregarded, if not actively undermined. The pattern of male-conducted ‘security checks’ by Israeli forces in Palestinian neighbourhoods, and accompanying abuse of power, clearly violates international treaties on basic human rights. The UN Human Rights Committee makes the statement: “Persons being subjected to body search by State officials, or medical personnel acting at the request of the State, should only be examined by persons of the same sex.”
Women in the community describe being in the uncomfortable or dangerous position of having to stand up in defense of their rights to refuse inspection, from visual checks to strip search, under order of male Israeli forces. Other outcomes include longer detention of 20 minutes or more, being sent elsewhere for additional ‘security checks’ and continued harassment – often ultimately without result of inspection by a female soldier.
Palestinian teachers working in H2 explain furthermore that, although the soldiers know who they are – and perhaps because of this – they are regularly stopped and searched. Sometimes their IDs are checked and they are rerouted (thereby detained) to the police station for escalated investigation, preventing their arrival to work on time, and interfering with their students’ right to education. While navigating certain barriers, female teachers also noted soldiers deliberately shutting heavy metal gates on them so as to hit the women’s bodies, injuring hands and feet. Forced transfer to additional security sites under male military escort, as well as routine closure of roads and checkpoints, which require them to take alternative routes through alleys and residential areas, create additional risks and insecurities for women and girls.
One female teacher living in al-Khalil (Hebron) described a particularly disturbing incident. While being searched at the checkpoint, she caught the soldier trying to plant a knife in her purse: “I stopped him and told him I could see what he was doing.” She was afraid that he would accuse her of an attempted stabbing as an excuse to detain or even kill her. This fear is based in the reality of multiple cases of extrajudicial killings of women and girls, often connected to allegations of attempted attacks or possession of knives. The shootings of local Hebron girls, 18-year-old Hadil al-Hashlemoun; Dania Jihad Hussein Ershied, aged 17; and 14-year-old Kuleizar al-Eweiwi during 2015-2016 remain in the collective memory.
The harassment and violence that Palestinian women and girls face in navigating the Israeli roadblocks impact the way they move through their communities and access opportunities and healthcare. In journeying with them, it is clear that some women are speaking up in defense of their rights, refusing body searches and questioning soldiers, while some are going further to support others facing harassment and violence. One female human rights defender described her efforts to open up the conversation among young women in her community, acting as a focal point or informal hotline to share information and talk about their experiences.
Female educators also have a key role in leading girls and their families in preserving a sense of normal life and community amidst the checkpoints. At a local girls school, one principal has created a beautiful, child-friendly environment quite different from other schools in the area. Her intention is to make the school a place “where students can breathe.” The school has hosted workshops providing psychosocial care for children coping with trauma, as well as hosting community workshops around women’s rights, and responding to emergencies to improve family relations and resiliency. Educators are some of the strongest actors in defending the rights of children and their families, advocating as community leaders near the checkpoints, and negotiating the safe passage of students in the streets.
With each headline of Palestinian women assaulted or killed at checkpoints, it is all the more important to recognize the women right where they are – holding strong at the centre of home and family life and keeping communities connected across structures of division and violence. Palestinian communities, struggling to ensure the rights and honour of women and girls, face immense challenge to transform cycles of gender-based violence under the weight of military Occupation. As a starting point, we must look and listen well for the stories women and girls tell from behind the barriers, on the margins, and in their homes and classrooms, recognizing both their realities on the ground and their resistance.
With thanks to the women and girls, teachers and community leaders who shared their stories with CPT.