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In the Shadow of Women’s History Month, Gaza’s Women Bear the Biggest Burden of Israel’s Aggression

Western silence on the treatment of Gazan women on #WomensHistoryMonth is everything you need to know about its moral standards.

Western silence on the treatment of Gazan women on #WomensHistoryMonth is everything you need to know about its moral standards.

On March 22, one of the most horrific crimes committed against Gazan women since the beginning of the Israeli genocide was revealed: a pregnant women held hostage by Israeli occupation forces in Al-Shifa hospital was beaten and raped in front of her children and husband. Other men held hostage there were forced to watch and they were threatened to be shot if they closed their eyes. The mother was then shot and killed.

My fingers feel heavy as I write these painful details. Almost seven months into the genocide (and 75 years into the occupation) and I still can’t help but wonder what these occupation soldiers have become that they can commit such crimes and do it so sadistically. 

Violation of International Law and Hypocrisy during Women’s History Month

According to the Fourth Geneva Conventions, which lay out the rights of civilians during wartime: 

Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault”.

About detained women, it states: 

Women shall be confined in separate quarters and shall be under the direct supervision of women.”

Israel is a signatory to these conventions, yet day after day, we see reports and footage that implicate Israel in violating them. 

In addition, countries that commemorated March as Women’s History Month, such as the UK and the US, have remained virtually silent – ironic given that they’ve branded themselves as the chief defenders of women’s rights. Their unwillingness to call for an end to Israel’s aggression on Gaza and for the protection of women and girls speaks volumes about which women they believe deserve to be protected and advocated for.

Arbitrary detention and execution

UN experts have confirmed that women and children have been disproportionately affected by the aggression. They make up 70% of those killed, and on average, two mothers are killed every hour. Of the 1.9 million people displaced in Gaza, women and girls make up more than half. Families are being displaced multiple times, and mothers are fearful for what will happen to their children.

Elderly and middle-aged women and girls have been arbitrarily executed by Israeli forces, including while seeking safety, fleeing, and holding white pieces of cloth to indicate that they are seeking safety. They have faced extrajudicial killings, sometimes in front of or with their families. 

Take, for example, 58-year Hala Abdel-Aty, who was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper while fleeing with her children and grandchildren from Gaza City. The family was ushered by an Israeli soldier to move forward, and as they were walking, Hala was shot. She had been holding a white flag and her five-year-old grandson’s hand. She screamed for him to run and passed away reciting the shahada.

Women have also been arbitrarily detained, subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment, beatings and verbal abuse, and sexual assault. They report being stripped of their clothes and searched by male military officers and others raped or threatened with rape. Sexual violence against women accounts for a war crime. Israelis have also taken pictures of female detainees in degrading circumstances as well as pictures and videos of women’s undergarments that they looted from homes they destroyed and occupied and circulated the footage on the internet. As Nabela testifies, women in custody have been denied menstrual pads, food, medicine, and basic hygiene practices. 

Reproductive Violence

If arbitrary detention and execution, assaults, and having to dig their children’s bodies from under the rubble wasn’t enough, Israel has been accused by rights organisations of deliberately blocking or severely limiting the flow of aid trucks into Gaza since the start of their aggression in October. Over 7000 trucks were stalled in North Sinai and trucks are waiting on average 20 days to enter. Some Israeli settlers are complicit in this, as they stand in front of aid trucks and block them from entering Gaza. This has had devastating effects on all aspects of life and all demographics, including women and mothers. 

The scarcity of clean water and hygiene and feminine supplies has left many women and girls unable to maintain basic hygiene and has forced them to use “unsanitary and potentially hazardous menstrual management supplies like baby nappies and cloth [and tent] strips”(1). This puts women at risk of disease, and indeed some have sought medical attention resulting from infections. 

Some women have resorted to taking oral contraceptive pills to avoid getting their periods, however, this leads to other health risks such as nausea, dizziness, abnormal bleeding, and deteriorating mental health. Other women have experienced multiple menstrual cycles per month resulting from psychological distress and trauma. 

The reproductive violence inflicted on women doesn’t end there. According to UN agencies, there are 50,000 expectant mothers in Gaza, and the situation is particularly dire for them. Since the start of the aggression, there has been a 300% increase in miscarriages and many face high risk conditions such as “malnutrition, placental problems with potential for catastrophic haemorrhage, obstructed labour, severe pre-eclampsia with potential for brain haemorrhage, and severe anaemia” (2). 

With more than 70,000 people injured from Israel bombardment and many more facing new or increased health challenges brought about by Israel’s aggression, the killing of over 300 medical personnel and detention of others, the bombardment and attacks on hospitals, and the blockade on fuel, the health system has faced significant pressure. Thus, women going through labour are only admitted into the hospital when they are fully dilated and are dismissed within a few hours of giving birth, with little to no neonatal care. With limited fuel to run medical equipment and shortages in incubators, premature babies are at a higher risk of death or disability as they cannot receive proper medical care. 

However, many women and babies are not so “lucky”. Some have been turned away from hospitals because there simply is not enough room to accommodate them. Some of them have made the journey by foot only to hear that there is no capacity to assist them. For women like Maha, this has had fatal consequences. As she was going into labour, Maha sought a delivery room in Al-Emirati Hospital in Rafah but could not access one because they were all full. She felt something was wrong and needed help, but without a choice, she left the hospital. As she was giving birth inside a bathroom outside her tent, her baby passed away – a martyr in his first moments of life. According to an emergency coordinator: “without this war, she would not have lost her son” (3).  

For the 17,000 women who gave birth via c-section, they had to endure the surgery without anything to mask the pain. One can only imagine the physical and psychological trauma that these women have had to experience. And without enough supplies and equipment to ensure a sterile environment for surgery, there is increased risk of infection or death.

The Plight of Mothers

The lack of food and water entering Gaza, particularly northern Gaza, has been particularly devastating for mothers and their babies. Nursing mothers have struggled to breastfeed their children and some have been forced to mix baby formula with contaminated water, leading to further health complications. When UN Population Fund (UNFPA) representative, Dominic Allen, visited Gaza in February, he said he was “terrified” for women and girls, and in particular expectant and new mothers who are experiencing malnutrition and dehydration. Doctors told him that they are no longer seeing normal-sized babies, and that there is an increase in stillbirths, neonatal deaths, and complicated deliveries. Kits for midwives provided by UNFPA, the UN agency focused on maternal and reproductive health, were not allowed into Gaza and supplies like flashlights and solar panels were removed from the shipment. 

A UN Women’s report published in January 2024 indicated that 3000 women had become widows and heads of their household in just six weeks. This means that they are now solely responsible for protecting and providing for their families. In addition, young girls (and boys) who have been orphaned along with their siblings are now forced to care of the younger children. Prior to Israel’s recent aggression, only a small number of women in Gaza generated an income (<25%). The loss of the primary or sole breadwinner of the family compounded with shortages in food, water, fuel, safe spaces for living, and work opportunities, women and their families are under extreme pressure. 

A Deliberate Genocide is a Preventable one

What we must understand about women’s difficult conditions in Gaza is that all of this is preventable. It is all human-made, or more precisely: Israeli-made, with the assistance and silence of its allies and many of those in power around the world. Palestinian women should not be forced to live under these threats to their health, families, dignity, and lives. It is against international law, it is against all divine Abrahamic religions, but most importantly it is against humanity and moral human conscience. 

What women and their families need most now is an immediate and permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of all Israeli occupation forces from Gaza. Israel needs to stop controlling the flow of people and goods into Gaza so that Palestinians can eat, drink, take a shower, receive proper medical treatment, and return to and rebuild their homes and lives. And these women and their families need to be compensated and supported by local and international entities. Initiatives and programs must be needs-based, culturally- and religiously- sensitive, and provide agency and build capacity for Palestinian women and their families so that they can rebuild their lives with dignity, honor, and autonomy. 

Above all, Palestinian women need an end to the occupation.

Another Women’s History Month has come and passed under the shadow of a livestreamed, well-documented genocide that disproportionately affects women and their children. This shadow has shed a bright light on the web of myths about concerns for women’s rights spun by nations like the UK, US, and Canada for decades.  

As citizens, we must rally our governments to put an embargo on sales of weapons to Israel and hold Israel and all complicit parties accountable. We should pressure our institutions to divest from companies that play a part in this genocide and engage in boycotts ourselves. Companies that are complicit in the suffering of Palestinians do not deserve our money and support. Join the growing movement of conscious citizens by learning more about the Palestinian cause and inform and educate the people around you. More eyes, hearts, and minds are starting to understand the reality of the occupation than ever before.

A heartfelt salute to the women of Gaza who have remained steadfast and patient throughout the past six months. They have shown us what it means to be women of honor, courage, reliance on God, and unyielding to oppressive powers despite immense hardship and exhaustion.  

Sources for Direct Quotes:

  1. https://www.bmj.com/content/384/bmj.q625
  2. https://www.bmj.com/content/384/bmj.q509/rr 
  3. https://www.jezebel.com/miscarriages-in-gaza-have-increased-300-under-israeli-1851168680

Other Sources

  1. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/the-courage-of-gazas-women-will-change-the-world-un-official/3159195
  2. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/3/23/un-chief-says-blocked-gaza-aid-is-a-moral-outage-calls-for-war-to-end
  3. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/10/31/no-privacy-no-water-gaza-women-use-period-delaying-pills-amid-war
  4. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/3/18/israel-deliberately-blocking-medical-aid-from-gaza-oxfam-report-warns
  5. https://apnews.com/article/israel-hamas-gaza-detainee-palestinian-deaths-hospitals-51d4727a1365b9e06198579c3eb856f8
  6. https://www.care-international.org/news/gaza-100-days-urgent-focus-maternal-and-reproductive-health-needed-4
  7. https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/91895
  8. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20240315-in-gaza-there-are-no-more-normal-sized-babies-un-official 
  9. https://genderdata.worldbank.org/countries/west-bank-and-gaza/
  10. https://inkstickmedia.com/israels-gaza-war-when-white-flags-cannot-save-palestinians/
  11. https://www.jezebel.com/miscarriages-in-gaza-have-increased-300-under-israeli-1851168680
  12. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20240210-israeli-settlers-block-aid-trucks-from-entering-gaza/
  13. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/11/women-bearing-brunt-israel-gaza-conflict-un-expert
  14. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2024/02/israelopt-un-experts-appalled-reported-human-rights-violations-against
  15. https://www.redcross.ca/blog/2019/11/how-does-international-humanitarian-law-protect-women-during-war#:~:text=The%20Fourth%20Geneva%20Convention%20for,Geneva%20Convention%20IV%2C%201949).
  16. https://www.thenationalnews.com/opinion/comment/2024/03/20/why-more-western-feminists-arent-speaking-up-for-gazas-women/
  17. https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/atrocity-crimes/Doc.33_GC-IV-EN.pdf
  18. https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2024-01/Gender%20Alert%20The%20Gendered%20Impact%20of%20the%20Crisis%20in%20Gaza.pdf

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