Palestinians: fighting oppression and covid-19

As part of our series ASAP Conversations Nandini Mazumder spoke to our member M from Palestine who is a citizen of Israel. This conversation took place in May 2020 and is being re-shared in the context of the current situation in Palestine.

M: I’m Palestinian, citizen of Israel and would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to shed light on the experiences of women and marginalized groups during a pandemic like the one we’re facing today- Covid 19 and its relation to sexual and reproductive health rights.

Nandini: Thank you so much for joining us here. Can you tell us a bit about the situation in Palestine and when you’re saying that you are a Palestinian citizen of Israel, can you just tell us a bit about that because I feel like many of us, many of the audiences beyond the region may not know as much. So, if you can just tell us in brief, how does that work?

M: Okay so to begin with, I think the political context is very crucial in this conversation so it would be very important to share with the audience a little bit of the political background and the situation in Palestine. I’ll try my best to revisit the 72 years of the Palestinian struggle and sum it in a few sentences. So, the Israeli state emerged in 1948 after Britain facilitated its founding in Palestine and before that, Palestine was under the Ottoman Empire during the World War I.

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Palestine came under the British rule and the holocaust during World War II became one of the major reasons for Jews to undertake massive migration to Palestine. In 1948, Palestinian Nakba, (which means catastrophe in English), happened where Zionist forces had started attacking Palestinian cities, villages and destroying more than 530 villages and cities and killing tens of thousands of Palestinians and expelling more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes.

So, today more than 7 million Palestinian refugees do not have the right to return to their homeland- Palestine. Then in 1964, Palestinian Liberation Organization was created to establish unified resistance against the Israeli occupation. In 1967, the Six-Day War erupted between Israel and the neighbouring Arab countries and Israel gained more power and has seized East Jerusalem, West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights and the Sinai. Golan Heights is part of Syria and Sinai is part of Egypt. Then, later on the Golan Heights and the West Bank remained under the Israeli control. Israeli returned the Sinai to Egypt as part of the Camp David Accords in 1978.

After that, a few years later, the First Intifada which is the Palestinian Uprising, began against the Israeli Occupation in 1987 when an Israeli truck killed four Palestinian workers on a checkpoint so protests and violence erupted which ended in the Oslo Accord and it was signed. The First Intifada was largely a spontaneous series of Palestinian demonstrations, non-violent actions. Later on, in 1994, Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty and the Second Intifada took place between 2000 and 2005 and this was more violent than the First Uprising.

Until today, the Israeli government continues to enforce severe and discriminatory restrictions in Palestine.

Nandini: What about the public health system? What about women’s issues? It’s literally sounding like people living under a siege and a war going on where you can never know what can happen to you and you don’t even have the access to basic facilities. So, in such a situation can you just tell us a bit about the women’s health issues or women’s issues in genera? What is available and what is not? What are the challenges particularly look at sexuality and reproductive health and abortion rights?

M: Sexual and reproductive health rights are basic human rights. However, in the Palestinian community, there have been challenges which are evident on personal, community and organisational or policy levels. Palestinian women are vulnerable to the realities of the Israeli occupation as well as the historical patriarchal structure in the Palestinian community. Palestinian women are still facing gender discrimination violence including honour killing, domestic violence, sexual abuse in varying degree.

There is also a lack of accessibility to services, not only sexual and reproductive health services but also public health services in general if you have to cross checkpoints. If you are living in East Jerusalem and you have to go to the West Bank, you have to cross check-points. Even in Gaza, because of the siege and the military forces, they are restricted to seek health care somewhere else and they don’t have all the health. There is also shortage of clinical staff, equipment and medicines.

But now, going back to sexual and reproductive health rights there’s a lack of accessibility. Unmarried Palestinian women face stigma if they want to seek sexual and reproductive health services due to the high value placed on virginity. So, the reproductive and sexual health needs of both women and youth in Palestine are not being fully met due to the cultural resistance and the religious sensitivity of the issue and also because of the occupation. The reproductive health services which are available in Palestine focus mainly on family planning, maternity care and rarely recognize the sexual needs and reproductive needs of the youth. There is little focus on HIV and gender-based violence or providing comprehensive and age- appropriate sex education in schools.

As I said earlier, there is also shortage of medical staff, especially of obstetricians and gynaecologists in the West Bank and Gaza. There are relatively few studies which focus on sexual and reproductive health rights in Palestine. Also, abortion is legal in Palestine only when the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. But there is the Palestinian Family Planning and Protection Association which works for improving sexual and reproductive health rights and delivering services such as family planning counselling, guidance for women in psychological, legal and social aspects but also providing maternal, anti-natal, post-natal care. It has different locations in the West Bank, Gaza. But it is impossible to determine how many Palestinian women undergo abortion because there is almost no data being recorded.

Nandini: Can Palestinian women access services in the non-occupied areas under regime? Can they come to these areas and get services?

M: They can if they get a permit -and getting a permit is extremely difficult. If they did, they can seek services but it is very expensive. It is super expensive. Palestinians living in East Jerusalem can seek medical services and can get healthcare.

Nandini: Someone like you with an Israeli passport can probably go anywhere and seek services, right?

M: Yeah, as a Palestinian with an Israeli citizenship, I have health rights in Israel so I seek them whenever I want to go to any healthcare and I do it in the occupied territory of Israel.

Nandini: And how is it in Israel? What is the situation there? Is it easy to get an abortion in Israel or other SRHR services? What are the main issues that women face in the occupied parts?

M: In the occupied parts, it’s easier to seek sexual and reproductive health services. So, Palestinian women who are early enough in their pregnancies benefit from the fact that medical abortion is more accessible in Israel. But you still have to go through a Medical Committee to approve your abortion. So, it’s like relatively easier and more accessible but not that much.

In the last decade, there have been initiatives by Palestinians who live in Israel on sexuality and sexual, reproductive health rights. One of these organizations is called the Arabic Forum for Sexuality Education and Health and they provide sexual health information for all ages focusing on sexuality, safe sex and reproductive health rights. They offer education programmes and workshops, training. Initially, it was started among Arab communities living in Israel and later, it branched out in the West Bank. There is another organization called alQaws which advocates for sexual and gender diversity. They run workshops and training. They have 4 centres: Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa and Ramallah. They provide services for Palestinians living in Israel and also in the West Bank. In addition, there are several Palestinian feminist organizations in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel run by Palestinians who provide emotional and financial support through helplines or like financial aid for women who are facing domestic violence or hardships.

Nandini: I think we’ve kind of covered the situation in both the West Bank and the other parts of the occupied territories. Since the pandemic has hit us and it’s been a global crisis, what has been the situation in Israel; in the occupied territories and also the other parts West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza strip? How has it affected women or other people and their access to SRHR services, abortion rights along with other issues?

M: So, it is becoming now clearer than ever, how health is very important and a basic right. We are witnessing how troubled we are by this pandemic and how it magnified all the existent inequality especially for marginalized groups. They are more likely to carry a heavier burden socially, economically and also from a medical point of view. Earlier studies have shown how humanitarian crisis have reduced access to family planning, abortion, HIV and mental health services which would result in increased rates of unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and pregnancy complications.

Systematic racism which faces Palestinians living in Israel and also in the occupied territories is more likely to further the barriers to access health services and also sexual and reproductive health services. The Covid-19 crisis is particularly challenging not only for Palestinian women but also the marginalised groups within the Palestinian community. So, self isolation is more taxing for marginalized groups like the LGBTQ+ and domestic violence survivors and unpaid and migrant labourers. This whole pandemic will fall more heavily on them.

We see from data that the domestic and sexual violence has risen under the instructions to self-isolate. In Palestine, regarding SRHR, due to lockdown the situation is even worse. Women are now unable to utilise these services because of the lockdown. The access is very limited so women can’t continue their IVF treatment, they can’t get abortion pills. I’m talking about Palestinian women living in Gaza, in Israel, in the West Bank. Due to the danger of the Coronavirus, most of the health services are cancelled. There are limited health services which are available but this does not include SRHR. So, this poses a great challenge on women.

The economic uncertainty due to the crisis leads to more violence and disproportionate financial programs especially for women because they already suffer from systematic inequality as women and also as minority. Women are operating on tight budgets and are struggling to take care of their households with few resources and less money. Before the pandemic, the percentage of Palestinians who lived under poverty was double the national average. 40% of the Palestinians living in Israel, live under poverty. Under the pandemic, this percentage has definitely increased which puts people at risk. If we talk about the introduction of social distancing measures to combat the Coronavirus, it has left many people frustrated and anxious.

These measures might seem simple but they are not really easy or possible for Palestinians living under the threat of losing their homes and deprivation of their basic needs.

This is the case for Palestinian political prisoners which include children, women and men. They are deprived of rights to see their relatives, lawyers. They are not provided with any preventive or protective measures against the virus. Palestinians in Negev - which is south of Israel , live in unrecognized villages where they don’t have basic needs like running clean water, electricity or accessibility to health services. So the Coronavirus crisis would have bomb-blasting socio-economic consequences.

On the other hand, it also offers an opportunity where gender, sex, racial, ethnicity analysis could be recorded and taken into account by more policy makers, researchers, feminist and LGBTQ+ organizations. We know that we have the tools and potential capability to collaborate to build movements to fight racial, gender, ethnic injustices and oppression and to promote more sexual and reproductive health rights.

I think one of the biggest issues that we face, even before the Corona crisis, is that there isn’t enough data on sexual and reproductive health rights and the impact of crisis in pandemics on sexual and reproductive health services. We should work more on recognizing sexual and reproductive health rights as essential services and on funding these services to help maintain essential preventive, promotive and curative services. We should raise more awareness and create alternative solutions in accessing these services such as telemedicine, online counselling, over-the counter abortion pills for example.

I think it’s very important to look at this crisis in a feminist and justice framework which would centre the human rights and also acknowledge that there is intersecting injustices, recognize that there are power structures. It is very essential to monitor and address inequitable gender, health and social effects of Covid-19. This would be the perfect time to create cross-movement and cross-border solidarity to protect the most vulnerable communities in the global sense.

In the Palestinian context, I think self- determination and liberation and challenging the patriarchal system within the Palestinian community is the most important goal. We’re just seeing how Covid-19 has made the whole situation worse. We deserve to live in justice and an equitable situation.

Nandini: Yes, absolutely. I think that was a very good summing up. Everything that you said resonates so much. Within the Palestinian community, there is oppression coming from the larger geo-politics but within that there’s also patriarchy and everything else that affects all of us. So, I think it’s very important to start layering the problems, looking at the nuances, looking at the big picture and building solidarities; not only south-south but south-north because people are people everywhere and we all deserve to live better.

My last question for you is something to leave the audiences on a note of hope. What is it that you are doing or how are you managing the situation now and even before? What has worked for you so far, to keep your hopes up?

M: For me, talking to close friends and family relatives, reading and taking some time off is very relaxing. All of us deal with crisis and stress in different ways and I know it’s been a difficult time for all of us. I’m sending love and solidarity to those who are struggling, those who have lost dear ones, those who feel trapped or anxious. I think this is temporary and we should always keep the fight and be hopeful.

Nandini: Thank you so much for this very important conversation to have and we stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine and with everyone everywhere, especially those who are facing oppressions of some kind. Thank you so much.

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