During Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s month-long military operation in Gaza, which is now suspended in a fragile ceasefire, Israelis were glued to their screens. And more often than not, those screens showed images of men. The Israeli soldiers were men. The Hamas fighters were men. The pundits pontificating were men. And nearly all the Israeli and Palestinian casualties were men. When women did appear, they were often seen eulogizing, mourning, or struggling to reconcile with their reality. The images capture a sobering fact: Women in the region are suffering terribly from the consequences of decisions from which they are excluded. But critically, these gender dynamics also point to a way out of perpetual conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
From start to finish, the latest Gaza conflict has largely been a man’s war. The Israeli negotiating team in Egypt does not include a single woman–not even Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, whose condition for joining the current governing coalition was that she head Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instead appointed his own (male) representative, Yitzchak Molcho, to represent him in the delegation. Livni sits on Israel’s security cabinet, the small committee that has made most of the major decisions about this war, but, tellingly, she is the only woman at the table. The story is the same on Israeli television and in the country’s newspapers. According to a study by The Marker, fewer than 10 percent of all experts interviewed on news programs during the war have been women.
The sexism underlying women’s exclusion from security and military leadership has found expression in some particularly troubling statements by senior officials and commentators. Moshe Feiglin, a member of Israel’s legislature, or Knesset, recently reprimanded lawmaker Aliza Lavie for discussing a bill on sexual violence, saying that wartime is no time to be “talking about things like flowers and sexual assault.” Bar-Ilan University professor Mordechai Kedar argued on Israeli radio that the only way to stop terrorists is to threaten to rape “their sister or their mother.” The implications have not gone unnoticed. “Women are sexually assaulted every day,” Amalia Schreier, a Lavie aide who had a hand in writing the sexual-assault bill, told Feiglin. “The comparison between ‘flowers’ and ‘sexual assault’ and the delegitimization of this issue has the effect of hurting and placing at risk 50 percent of the population.”
In the current conflict, all Israeli combat casualties have been men, since the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) does not allow female soldiers to operate in positions “over the border.” On the Palestinian side, virtually all Hamas fighters are men, and more than 80 percent of Palestinian casualties in Gaza have been male (a New York Times analysis on Tuesday found that Palestinian men ages 20 to 29, the population most likely to be militants, was most overrepresented in the death toll). But women suffer gravely too—among other things, they perish in homes, schools, and hospitals that come under Israeli attack and occasionally double as Hamas strongholds, and grapple with the psychological scars that constant conflict leaves behind.
For the purposes of this article, I will mainly focus on the status of women on the Israeli side of the conflict. But the question of how gender dynamics play out on the Palestinian side is a subject no less pressing and deserves its own treatment. And in fact, the experience of exclusion among both Israeli and Palestinian women could potentially facilitate connection based on shared values—a commodity so rare in this conflict.
The assumption that “real” soldiers are men is widespread in Israel. Army announcements and news stories about military recruitment routinely refer to “soldiers and their wives.” Volunteers and businesses have been preparing care packages for the troops fighting in Gaza that include razors and men’s underwear (last week, a mother of a female reservist issued a request for women-oriented care packages that include bras and tampons).
The conflict in Gaza has stoked broader sexism and misogyny, too. One Orthodox group in Israel set up a 24-hour “modesty hotline” and posted large, colorful signs telling women and girls that they could “stop” Hamas rockets by wearing long skirts, long sleeves, and thick stockings. (The sentiment has spread to Crown Heights, New York, where the Chabad community launched a competition among girls to see who could cover their bodies the most in order to “protect” Israel and win free ice cream.) Others maintain that women should uncover their bodies to save soldiers. The latest hostilities spawned a new Facebook group called “Standing With the IDF—Maintaining a Protective Edge” (literally, a “firm cliff,” another double entendre), the purpose of which is to show women disrobing with pro-IDF paint on their bodies—and to “boost morale.”
All of this has taken place as the IDF touts its record of gender advancement, noting that women are allowed to serve in more than 90 percent of army units—though in practice it’s actually more like 69 percent—and that women are being called up for reserve duty at record rates. Women are visibly involved in managing the Iron Dome missile-defense system and teaching about artillery and engineering. But it’s difficult to claim that women are equals in the IDF (even the IDF admits that less than 4 percent of women are in combat positions). Many are in “combat-support” positions that can involve anything from opening the gate of the army base to cleaning guns—and which, by the way, command a lower salary than combat positions. And tellingly, there is only one female general in the entire IDF. “The perception of the role of women in this war is identical to that of the early years of the state—only it might have been better then,” wrote attorney Vardit Avidan of the Tmura Legal Center for the Prevention of Discrimination, in a column titled “Be pretty and let the IDF win” for the Israeli news site Ynet. “When female soldiers receive packages with men’s underwear and aftershave, the message is that they are not supposed to be there.”
“Women are perceived as the supportive backbone, via two roles exclusively for them: the role of the worrying mother who cooks and sends soldiers food ... and the role of the supportive woman via body and sexuality … supplying fighters with their ‘needs,’” Avidan added.
Women’s marginalization is particularly significant in a country where combat soldiers are revered. Consider this: What Prime Minister Netanyahu, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and the rising right-wing star Naftali Bennett all have in common is that they served in the Sayeret Matkal special-forces unit. Acceptance into this elite group is the dream of many Israeli boys, who are wowed not only by nationalism and the attractiveness of living out a Steven Seagal movie, but also by the knowledge that Sayeret Matkal opens more business and political doors than any other job in the army. Sayeret Matkal, like all elite units, is closed to women.