Palestinian women 'have suffered most in intifada'

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The Independent Online

Palestinian women have borne the brunt of the pain inflicted by four-and-a-half years of conflict but their plight has been largely ignored, Amnesty International says.

The human rights group calls on both sides of the conflict to take "urgent steps" to alleviate the suffering of women in the occupied territories in a report which levels criticism at the Palestinian Authority as well as the Israeli military for failing to safeguard women's basic rights.

The report lambasts Israel for failing to allow sick and especially pregnant women access to medical care across checkpoints and suggests that some of the worst devastation wrought by the army's demolition of more than 4,000 homes since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000 has been inflicted on women.

The report also highlights the ill treatment of women in Israeli detention and the impact of a "discriminatory" 2003 law that prevents couples, including parents, from living together if one is a Palestinian from the West Bank and another an Arab Israeli citizen or resident of East Jerusalem.

But the report, subtitled Conflict, occupation and patriarchy, also blames the Palestinian Authority for having been "unable and unwilling" to confront abuses of women, including "honour" killings, and says that it is impossible for women threatened by their families to escape. It also points out that 200 Israeli women have been killed by Palestinian armed groups as well as the 160 Palestinian women killed by the Israeli army.

Among a harrowing series of typical case studies the report cites the case of Maysoon Saleh Nayef al-Hayek, whose 10-mile trip from her home village to the hospital in Nablus to deliver her first baby ended in a nightmare in which her husband was shot dead by Israeli troops.

She describes in the report how her husband drove her and her father-in-law to the Huwara checkpoint and adds that after being ordered out of the car to produce their papers: "We told the soldiers I had to go to hospital to give birth as soon as possible, that I was in severe pain. They first refused, then told me to uncover my belly, so they could see I was telling the truth. All this lasted about an hour and we were told to go ahead. We drove on and after a few hundreds of meters I heard shots from the front of the car.

"The car stopped, and I saw that my husband ... had been shot in the throat and upper body, and was bleeding heavily." She added: "Soldiers came and pulled me out of the car. They made me take off all my clothes to examine me. Then they left me on the ground, bleeding from the wounds and in labour. I asked for something to cover myself with but they didn't give me anything. To this day, I feel shame and anger about this."

Her husband by now dead, she gave birth to her child in a hospital lift.

NA, a 38-year-old woman from Khan Yunis, in the Gaza Strip, said that she travelled to Alexandria for medical treatment in December last year but had since not been allowed to return home. "I have four children who are all in school and the youngest is five years old. All I want is to go back."

But the report also highlights the case of Maha, 21, a Palestinian woman, who was forced to drink poison in September by her father who had discovered that she was pregnant. Maha telephoned the Women's Affairs Technical Committee, a women's NGO in Gaza City, to seek help but it was impossible to reach Beit Hanoun, where the girl lived, because the Israeli army had just launched a major operation and had completely sealed the area. As a result she was too late in arriving at hospital to be saved.

The report, written by Amnesty's Middle East expert, Donatella Rovera, also says that women bear the brunt of the anger of male relatives who feel humiliated because they cannot, as a result of the economic devastation caused by Israeli closures and blockades, "fulfil their traditional role as providers for the family".

'My baby died in my arms at a checkpoint'

In August 2003, 29-year-old Rula Ashtiya was forced to give birth on the ground, on a dirt road by a checkpoint, after Israeli soldiers refused her passage. Her husband Daoud called the ambulance and was told they should go to the Beit Furik checkpoint between their village and the town of Nablus because the ambulance could not get past.

Rula said: "We took a taxi and got off before the checkpoint because cars are not allowed near the checkpoint and we walked the rest of the way; I was in pain. At the checkpoint there were several soldiers; they were drinking coffee or tea and ignored us. Daoud spoke to them in Hebrew; I was in pain and felt I was going to give birth there and then; I told Daoud, who translated what I said to the soldiers but they did not let us pass.

"I was lying on the ground and I crawled behind a concrete block by the checkpoint to have some privacy and gave birth there in the dust, like an animal. I held the baby in my arms and she moved a little but after a few minutes she died in my arms".

Her weeping husband cut the umbilical chord with a stone.