Unguarded speech

Arab women from east Jerusalem are reporting a rise in inappropriate comments from Border Police at Jerusalem area checkpoints.

January 20, 2012 22:14
Checkpoint in Jerusalem

checkpoint jerusalem 521. (photo credit: Seth J Frantzman)

Twenty-four year old Salma pauses in mid-sentence as if to catch her breath. She wants to choose the right words. “I don’t think it is flirting when it is a situation when I have to just go through security. It is not their job to judge me for what I am wearing, to make comments about it or to ask for my phone number.”

She is one of several women who have recently decided to speak out about inappropriate comments and harassment by Border Police who man Jerusalem-area checkpoints.

There are several checkpoints around Jerusalem that lead into the West Bank The largest two are those for entering Bethlehem and Ramallah. Hizme and Al-Zaim regulate access into the West Bank in northeast and east Jerusalem. The largest checkpoint, which provides access to Ramallah, is called Kalandiya and operates more like a border crossing, with long lines of cars and civilian traffic waiting to get through. It is open only to Arabs, as Israeli Jews are forbidden to enter Palestinian-controlled Area A. For many Arabs in east Jerusalem, traveling through these checkpoints is a regular occurrence. As Israeli ID-holders they may enter and leave the West Bank through any checkpoint, but unlike Jewish Israelis they may also enter Ramallah and Bethlehem.

For a certain upper-class segment of east Jerusalem’s population, Ramallah has become a destination for going out in the evenings. “Ramallah has developed a real nightlife recently. There are nice restaurants and bars,” explains Salma.

“A lot of Israelis don’t see it, but east Jerusalem is boring, it is dead. For many of us who come from openminded families, Ramallah is a center of culture and action.” Many of these open-minded women dress similarly to their secular Israeli peers. But some of them report receiving too much attention from the police for how they are dressed.

“On December 24, I was coming back from a Christmas dinner in Ramallah with a friend of mine through Kalandiya. They stopped me at the checkpoint to open the trunk. I was dressed in a black tiny dress and I had a jacket on over it. The Druse border guard said to me in Arabic, ‘I don’t know how girls go around like this.’ So I told him, ‘it’s none of your business, go ask your mother or sister how to dress.’ When he saw my tone he said ‘no, but I was talking about the weather, how you dress like this when it is cold and raining.’ I said ‘OK, fine, but it’s not your business.’ His friend, who was also Druse, told me ‘you can put [just] your panties on and go out with them, who gives a [expletive]!’ He ruined my Christmas dinner with this disgusting kind of talk. So I told him ‘respect yourself.’ And then the soldier woman, who was Jewish, saw that they were yelling at me in Arabic, she said ‘you can’t cross here if the guy in your car is not one of your family members.’ So I said, ‘OK, its fine, I will go through Hizme,’ and when I went back through Hizme I was scared they would call their friends there to stop us. We were lucky that it was raining.”

Twenty-six-year-old Jihan relates a different story. “One time, a policeman who was Druse, I could tell [by] his accent, stopped me. He stopped my car at Kalandiya, when I was on the Israeli side, just before the checkpoint. He told me he wouldn’t let me pass without giving him my phone number. I think first he asked where I was going. Then he said, ‘With all this beauty you are going to Ramallah?’ I didn’t say anything. Then he said, ‘I’m not letting you go unless you give me your phone number.’ I said I didn’t want to. And he said, ‘Give me one reason why not.’”

Finally, after about 10 minutes, the officer let Jihan go.

Samar recalls similar incidents. “Once we were like coming back from Jericho to Jerusalem and there is a checkpoint there at al-Zaim on Route 1. There was a Druse police guy, he knew we were Arabs, so he stopped us and he says, ‘Hi girls.’ So he asks where we are from and where we are going. [This is a typical security question.] Then he asked us, ‘Hey girls, do you want to go to Tiberias… so we said we can’t and he said, ‘But I have a little house there and I will invite my friends.’ He was thinking to have sex, I guess. We said, ‘We can’t go out with Israeli soldiers.’ So he said, ‘We are not enough good for you?’ And we replied, ‘It is a shame to go with an Arab who works with the Israeli army.’ He was angry and he wanted to stop us forever because of that. But he let us pass after 15 minutes. After that he stops us whenever he sees us. Once he was at the Hizme checkpoint and once he was in Zaim again. And each time he asks how we are: ‘How is your sister?’ and ‘What are you doing?’ I used to be nice to him to get through.”

THE OFFENSIVE conversations the women complain about were all carried out in Arabic. While there are numerous border policemen at any given checkpoint, many of them are Jewish and most of them do not understand the conversations.

“The other soldiers notice and assume the guy is doing his job. They stand and watch and they hear the conversation and don’t understand; They think he is working,” Samar explains. She tells about a Druse officer named Asad whom she often sees when crossing the border. “Every time he stops me and sometimes I am busy and I just wave and pretend to be nice. Once I was with my mother and he asked the Israeli guy to stop me because he knows me. And he came over to me and he said, ‘Oh this is your mother? She looks like you. How are you…?’ Till now he does the same thing. Sometimes I have clothes that I bought from Ramallah and it isn’t OK to buy things from the territories. So because of this I used to be nice.”

Samar recalls that when she received flirtatious attention she never had a man with her in the car. It should be noted that several other Arab women related never hearing about these types of comments.

Soldiers who served at checkpoints during their army service express surprise when told about the harassment issue. Moshe, who served with the Kfir Brigade, had never heard about such an incident.

“We just asked the Palestinians where they come from, what they have in the car. It is a simple, consistent process. If they looked suspicious we did a more thorough check,” he says. The [Arab] men don’t like it when we talk to the women, so in general we didn’t talk to them. When I was [briefly] in military prison, I met some Druse and I heard them talk a lot about going out with non-Druse women because they view their own women as pure and superior.”

Yoni, who served in the IDF in the region south of Jerusalem, says the story reminds him of Hebrew University student Tal Nitzan’s 2006 thesis in sociology, entitled “Controlled Occupation: the Rarity of Military Rape in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” In her paper Nitzan tried to explain why reports of rape by the IDF were so uncommon, and concluded that because of the “ethno-national boundaries” between Jews and Arabs, Jewish soldiers rejected “the mere idea of trespassing these [sexual] boundaries.” Nitzan did not discuss Druse soldiers and she did not focus on the phenomenon of sexual harassment.

Prof. Edna Lomsky-Feder of the Hebrew University’s Department of Education, who has written numerous articles about gender in the IDF, has never dealt with this specific issue. “One thing for sure is that when the army deals with sexual harassment,” she writes in an e-mail, “they are talking about sexual harassment against women soldiers [by other soldiers], not about sexual harassment of civilians.”

According to Prof. Vic Kappeler of East Kentucky University, an expert on the study of police departments, the issue of sexual harassment by police of civilians is not widely studied.

Neither Nitzan nor the Association for Civil Rights in Israel responded to a request for comments on this issue. The IDF’s response was that the Israel Police are responsible for the checkpoints in the Jerusalem area.

THE 1998 Israeli law on sexual harassment defines five categories of illegal behavior, among them “unwanted sexually suggestive comments said over and over again.” In a case when there is a relationship of power between the victim and the perpetrator, the law states that the victim “does not need to express displeasure if the harasser has a relationship of power over her.” Comments made in a workplace environment that focus on a person’s sexual characteristics rather than his or her job are also considered sexual harassment.

The women recognize that there is a fine line between flirting and sexual harassment. Samar recalls an instance that was less offensive. “Once we were going to Ramallah for a party and we were dressed in miniskirts and dresses. Every time you stand at the checkpoint they make you get out and open the trunk of the car. So when I got out of the car the soldier said, ‘Oh, oh, what a lovely dress. Do you have parties in Ramallah? Is it fun? Can we go one day?’ I told him, ‘You are missing out.’”

Salma recalls that the Jewish (as opposed to Druse) soldiers at checkpoints flirted with her rather than harassing her. “It is a general thing. For example, if I go through the checkpoint and I am driving my jeep they might say, ‘All this jeep for you? Your father must be rich.’”

The women also feel that there is an issue of ethnicity or nationality involved. “At most checkpoints it is both Jews and Arabs passing through. They don’t stop us because they don’t know we are Arabs. But [at] Kalandiya and Bethlehem they know you are an Arab, they talk to you and flirt with you more,” explains Jihan, adding that “It is always Beduin or Druse.”

Salma believes that the Druse policemen and soldiers are harder on Arabs than the Jewish soldiers are. “They [the Druse] are meaner and they treat me worse. Their tone is worse, as if they are talking to dogs.” But she emphasizes that it isn’t personal between the east Jerusalem Arabs and the Druse.

“There is no connection between them and us. I never really met any except at the checkpoints.”

The Druse, a religious minority who serve in the Israel Police and IDF, all come from the North where they live in a dozen large villages.

There is a perception among the Arab women that Druse men have a double standard for how they treat Muslim women and Christian women. “It is less offensive when it comes from Jews. It is more offensive when it comes from conservative people [like Druse or Beduin men] who don’t let their women go out of their villages and keep their women in the house their whole life and deny them education,” says Salma. “But they are harassing other women [too.] Not all Arabs are the same and not all Druse are the same of course.”

The women interviewed claimed that it is difficult to talk about issues of sexual harassment in their community, and for that reason they did not want their real names used in this article.

“I couldn’t talk to my family about it,” explains Mona. “We also experience harassment [by Arabs] for the way we dress in some of the conservative Muslim parts of east Jerusalem. Not in Beit Hanina [an upper-class Arab neighborhood], but in other places.”

The women also believe they are targeted because they do not dress conservatively or wear head scarves like some Muslim women do. They note that conservative women experience a different kind of discrimination.

“They would treat a religious Muslim woman worse, not using sexual harassment; instead they would stop her on purpose if they saw her on the road. The religious women get it worse at the checkpoints because they receive more stringent security checks,” says Salma.

Complaints of sexual harassment have not reached Israeli human rights organizations. Breaking the Silence, an organization that publishes soldiers’ testimony of human rights violations, does not include any testimony from soldiers regarding the issue of sexual harassment of Arab women. Hanna Barag of Machsom Watch, a women’s organization that monitors behavior at checkpoints, does not recall ever hearing of an incident of sexual harassment in the Jerusalem area. “We don’t have information, for instance that this person on that day was harassed,” she says.

She explains that the major problem Machsom Watch confronts is sexual harassment of Arabs by other Arabs. “At Bethlehem checkpoint, because it so cramped in the morning, with people standing one on top of the other, the women complained that men touch them. It is not the soldiers who harass, it is other Palestinians. We fought for over a year for a humanitarian gate where women can pass without standing in line.”

Barag stresses that she is the one who files the reports for the Jerusalem area and if there had been a complaint, it would have crossed her desk. “The only time there was a sexual harassment story with a name and ID number was at checkpoint 109, which is called Sha’ar Eliyahu. A woman was taken aside and made to strip – and it was an Israeli woman hired by a private security company who did it to her.”

Barag doesn’t think that the issue of soldiers harassing women should be a major focus when it comes to the checkpoints. “They [the soldiers] are young people. My attitude to this is we [Israelis] do such other horrible things at the checkpoints, there is no reason to inflate the story. The soldiers are young men and they look at young women sometimes.”

Micky Rosenfeld, the spokesman for the Israel Police, which is responsible for Kalandiya, noted that he has no confirmation of any complaints about sexual harassment. “The Israel Border Police carry out security measures at different crossings in Judea and Samaria as well as in the Jerusalem area,” he says. “The border guards are trained to help support the public that make their way in and out of the crossings every day. They have daily contact with thousands of people and make sure that going through the crossings is as easy and swift as possible and at the same time prevent any terror or criminal-related incidents.”

He stresses that there is a procedure for registering official complaints. “If there is any incident that takes place other than the normal conduct then it will be looked into by the external unit that is in charge of this field, and we expect any incident, if it does occur, to be reported immediately to that unit.”

To report an incident a person can contact the police station nearest to where the event took place.

None of the women interviewed considered registering a complaint.

“I don’t have time to complain,” says Samar. “Anyway, I know the police can behave this way and get away with it.”

Salma has a different view. “Unfortunately, Arabs don’t know their rights. They always think they are second-class citizens here. So we never tried before to complain because our rights are not clear for us. We always think that we are weaker and our rights trampled.” But she hopes that by talking about it now and providing dates and details, maybe action can be taken retroactively.

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