Women fight the push back of their rights in the occupied Palestinian territory
On 3 June 2022, Shatha Odeh, 60, was released from an Israeli prison, after spending a year there for being the head of what Israel claims is an illegal organisation in the occupied Palestinian territory.
In reality, Odeh said she was arrested and detained because she was the Director of Health Work Committees (HWC), a civil society organisation that provides health care to people living in the occupied West Bank, including women and girls in remote areas. Upon her release, Shatha was ordered by Israeli authorities to stop working for HWC.
According to UN Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt Office), Israel has designated her organisation, along with other leading Palestinian human rights and humanitarian organisations "terrorist" or “unlawful,” without providing any evidence to substantiate this claim.
Her arrest inspired a social media campaign, #freeShathaOdeh, and a push from almost 130 organizations from more than forty countries supporting a letter requesting that the World Health Organisation intervene for her release. Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, also issued a statement in August 2021 urging Israel to release Odeh.
Odeh was targeted as part of the most recent Israeli Government’s crackdown against civil society organisations, particularly organisations documenting Israeli violations and organisations providing critical services such as health services to Palestinians under military occupation, according to the oPt Office. Three out of seven organizations targeted by Israel in this crackdown and declared “unlawful” were headed by women or providing specific services to women and girls, which otherwise would not be available to them in the occupied Palestinian territory.
While Shatha was imprisoned by Israeli forces, she was interrogated without having access to legal counsel and subjected to harsh treatment. The oPt Office documented other cases of women who had senior positions in the organizations who were also arbitrarily detained and subjected to ill-treatment by Israeli forces in the same period. Women staff and volunteers working for one of the organisations have been summoned and threatened by Israeli forces to stop their work or they would face detention and other consequences for themselves and their children.
In addition to being prosecuted and imprisoned by Israel for her humanitarian and civil society work, Odeh and other Palestinian women defenders face threats, intimidation, and attacks by Palestinian individuals and groups for her activism. Many of the threats Odeh has faced for her advocacy work on women’s right to health by individuals and groups have also been online, she said.
“There is a shrinking space for women expressing their opinion or ideas in the media and on social media,” Odeh said. “We feel that there is nobody supporting or protecting us. So, yes, sometimes we will keep silent because maybe I will be threatened, or my family, or my daughters.”
The oPt Office has reported that women human rights defenders and journalists and women’s rights organizations face threats, intimidation and hate both online and offline. According to the Office, offenders have included the Israeli Security Forces as the story of Shatha well exemplifies, settlers, Palestinian authorities, and the non-state actors targeting women for who they are or what they stand for. These movements are not just specific to the occupied Palestinian territory, as they are happening throughout the Middle East North Africa region as well as globally.
Since the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) by the State of Palestine in March 2014, civil society organizations and women human rights defenders in the occupied Palestinian territory have publicly advocated for the implementation of the Convention and the passing of a Family Protection Bill, pending since early 2000s, which would specifically address gender-based discrimination and violence and by doing so edge women closer towards gender equality in the occupied Palestinian territory.
The bill has been harshly criticized by individuals and groups including some lawyers, judges, legal scholars and some religious, political and community leaders on social media because the bill can be seen as undermining stereotypical gender roles.
Odeh stressed that now, more than ever, the implementation of CEDAW and the Family Protection Bill are vital for women and girls in the occupied Palestinian territory.
All women should enjoy these rights whether they are under occupation, whether they are liberated, in a village, in a city or in a rural village
Shatha Odeh, Human Rights Defender
According to the oPt Office, Palestinian women working to end gender-based discrimination in the occupied Palestinian territory are singled out and targeted online with hate speech and threats including at times death threats to them and their families, as well as threats of rape and other sexual violence.
There have been instances in which women human rights defenders have also been met with physical attacks and gender-based targeting at demonstrations. According to a UN Human Rights report, during a wave of protests against Palestinian authorities in the West Bank after the killing of political opponent and activist Nizar Banat, women who were at the forefront of the protests were specifically targeted by Palestinian security forces and private individuals seemingly acting in coordination with law enforcement officers physically attacked the women, seized their phones and shared their private pictures, as a punishment for participating and a deterrent from taking part in future protests.
The Palestinian Authority and other authorities in occupied Gaza have investigated complaints to a limited extent and haven’t publicly addressed the anti-CEDAW campaigns since 2019 or taken adequate measures to protect women human rights defenders from the ongoing intimidation and threats, according to the oPt Office.
“Israel and Palestinian authorities have the primary responsibility to ensure the protection of human rights defenders, who work towards the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality, from any attacks, threats, or intimidation, including cyberviolence,” said Ajith Sunghay, Head of the oPt Office.
The oPt Office supports many women activists like Odeh to empower and protect women human rights defenders, including training civil society in the OPT on the role of women human rights defenders, and protection mechanisms available as well as providing practical skills on how to navigate digital advocacy and risk assessment.
While Odeh has faced many challenges, she isn’t giving up. The time spent in an Israeli prison with other Palestinian women prisoners strengthened her determination to work on women’s rights.
“I’m a human rights fighter,” she said. “If we lose hope, nothing will change.”
*This story is part of this year’s International Women’s Day, which recognizes the critical contributions of women, girls and feminist movements who use the digital space to connect, mobilize, and drive social change.