Gaza: It's a Man's War

How sexism contributes to the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians
A Palestinian woman in front of her decimated home in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

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. 

A female Israeli solider in the Caracal battalion, a female-majority unit within the Israeli army (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

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.

It’s no surprise, then, that a 2014 state comptroller’s report found that women fill less than one third of all senior management positions in the public sector, that only 64 out of 331 chairs of the board of government-affiliated companies are women, and perhaps most alarmingly, that not one of the CEOs of those 331 government companies are women. Minority women—such as Ethiopians and Arabs—are almost completely unrepresented in government leadership.

On matters of war and peace, the absence of women is even more glaring. Livni’s presence as the sole woman on Israel’s security cabinet is mildly heartening, when you consider that the previous committee had zero. The Turkel Commission that investigated a 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla had no women on it, and women’s rights groups have had mixed success in appealing to Israel’s High Court of Justice to force government commissions to include more women.

Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of one of three Israeli teens murdered in the West Bank in June, mourns at his funeral alongside her husband and former Israeli President Shimon Peres. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

***

Over the past two years, a coalition of women has been working at the nexus of gender, leadership, and conflict in Israel. The group, called 1325 Israel and led by the attorney Anat Thon-Ashkenazy and the former Israeli lawmaker Naomi Chazan, has been developing a plan to affect change based on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, a measure passed in 2000 that calls on nations to incorporate women “in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction.” Israel was the first country to adopt Resolution 1325 in 2004 by declaring its commitment to the theory of the law in a bill on women’s rights. But it has since failed to make progress in implementing it. In the meantime, some 45 other countries have adopted the resolution, some—including Guatemala, Ireland, and the Philippines—with considerable success.

According to Hebrew University researcher Sarai Aharoni, who conducted her doctoral research on women’s roles in peace negotiations in Israel, there is a “clear gendered-division of labor, placing Israeli men as primary negotiators and women in supporting roles” such as secretaries, spokeswomen, typists, and legal advisors. Aharoni argues that women are excluded because of “a) the dominant framing of peace as a security-related issue and the centrality of militarized masculinity as defining the ideal-type negotiator; b) the limited representation of women in high-ranking offices in public administration and politics at the time; c) Israeli perceptions about women’s weak negotiating skills vis-à-vis a imagined Palestinian masculinity; and d) societal stereotypes and expectations that materialize in lack of support for women’s attempts to maintain a career-family balance.” 

The 1325 Israel coalition, which includes more than 35 Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, presented its Comprehensive Action Plan to the Knesset in July. The manifesto has five primary objectives: the equal representation of women from all sectors of society in decision-making bodies and processes at the national and local levels; ‘gender-mainstreaming,’ or ensuring gender equality, in all decision-making bodies and processes at the national and local levels; the protection of women of all age groups and social sectors from all forms of violence in the public and private spheres; the prevention of violent conflicts and the eradication of racism; and the advancement of the Comprehensive Action Plan and the implementation of Resolution 1325 in all government ministries and bodies.

“Israel is used to politicians with glorious military records,” Livni recently wrote in support of Resolution 1325. “But I can promise you that there is not always a correlation between having an impressive military record and the ability to make security decisions—in fact sometimes it is even limiting. A security approach is broader than a military approach. … The job of decision-makers is to ask questions, and not be stuck in narrow military concepts.”

The dearth of women in decision-making positions means that perspectives from 50 percent of the population are largely missing. And it’s not just any 50 percent—it’s the 50 percent who, as a result of their powerlessness, silencing, marginalization, and objectification in times of war, have life experiences that would add tremendous value to the conversation. Not only do women suffer from war, but they are often left to pick up the pieces resulting from violent choices made by men.

Moreover, the exclusion of women means that the same value system that sidelines female citizens—a value system that accepts social hierarchies as a given, that holds that some members of society are more worthy than others, that views biology as an unstated component of one’s intelligence, that ignores the voices of those who have not proven themselves on the battlefield—is the same one that conceives of Israel’s policy toward Gazans. If Israeli men have trouble seeing Israeli women as more than pin-up girls for soldiers, how will all-male teams of decision-makers view the women of Gaza? If Israeli leaders don’t view Israeli women as equal partners, how will they view non-Israeli women—and men?

The Action Plan is not just about bringing women into the decision-making fold, but also about broadening perspectives on conflict and redefining the very concept of “security.” Security, according to the document, encompasses:

protection from violence in public and private spaces; termination of the ongoing state of warfare; protection and advancement of political, civil, and economic rights; freedom from religious coercion; freedom from oppression born of denial of personal and collective rights; freedom from violence, which results in death and destruction among innocent people; and equal opportunities for women from all parts of society in the economy, education, employment, health, and housing. Moreover, the Action Plan is based on a definition of security which includes a peaceful resolution of the conflict, the establishment of agreed-upon national borders, withdrawal from occupied territories, prevention of future violent conflict, and the establishment of stable and enduring peace.

“Resolution 1325 is about protection in times of armed conflict, but it is also about prevention and participation,” said Chazan, the former Knesset member, who hails from the left-wing Meretz party, in an interview. “In terms of protection, we need to remember that this war really first and foremost affects civilians. A large number of casualties in Gaza are women and children, and a large number of Israelis traumatized by falling rockets are women and children. So the first issue is about protecting women’s lives.” 

Still, Chazan added, “Human security is not just security from military attacks. It’s physical, economic, and social security. It’s security to speak your mind even when you’re a minority opinion. It means that you wake up in the morning and you have something to put on the table for your kids. It means you can walk the streets at night without being afraid of being attacked. It means tolerance for the other. It also means security against attacks. But the goal of security against attacks means creating a climate for human security under the broadest terms.”

***

There is reason to believe that bringing women into the highest echelons of power could help end the seemingly endless cycle of violence in the region. When a country is faced with terrorism—very real terrorism, such as the kidnapping and murder of three teenage boys in June, and the incessant and random barrage of Hamas rockets into Israel—there are many possible reactions ranging from vengeance to self-restraint, with an array of possibilities in between. There are also different paradigms for understanding the conflict, from the linear “us” versus “them” in which the point of fighting is to “win,” to more holistic frameworks that see force as necessary for self-defense but not a move to be deployed in a game of chess.

The tension between these two approaches was apparent in Israel immediately after the slaughter of the three teenagers. Some demanded blanket revenge while others urged just the opposite. Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of one of the murdered boys, called for compassion and reconciliation, and even paid a condolence call to the family of 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir, who was murdered by Jewish extremists in an apparent revenge killing after news of the Israeli teens’ fate broke. 

“Only the murderers of our sons, along with those who sent them and those who helped them and incited them to murder—and not innocent people—will be brought to justice: by the army, the police, and the judiciary; not by vigilantes,” Fraenkel said. “No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Mohammed’s parents.”

Tariq Abu Khdeir's mother, Suha, shows a photo of her son after he was beaten by Israeli police. (Mahmoud Ilean/AP)

Fraenkel articulated a vision for addressing the conflict. But within days, violent Palestinian riots broke out, and Israel responded the way it always has, by attacking the enemy until Israel “wins.”

Israel could have reacted in other ways. “More women with different perspectives can prevent future conflicts,” Chazan said. “And then we can get to participation in peace-making and in the resolution of conflict. … Not every woman is anti-militaristic. But if you have a larger number of women, they expand the discourse. Their concerns are different, and their notions of security are about human security and not just military security. If we had the goal of human security, we would be in a different place.”

I am, of course, not suggesting that all women are leftists or that all men are excessively militaristic. Resolution 1325 is not based on concepts of natural or essential differences between women and men, but rather on the idea that different human beings have different lived experiences. It’s about ensuring that the experiences of 50 percent of the population are considered in all decision-making.

Gender equality does not happen by itself. It requires a plan, and leaders acting on that plan. According to a 2012 study by Harvard’s Women’s Policy Journal, European nations that adopted a national action plan related to Resolution 1325 successfully raised the proportion of women in government by 33 percent within two years of doing so. In countries including Holland, Rwanda, Sweden, the Philippines, and Uganda, the number of women in legal and defense administrations departments increased significantly. In nations such as Congo, Liberia, and Nepal, entire staffs were added to analyze gender representation at all levels of government. Colombia, Ireland, Serbia, and the Philippines passed laws to protect women from violence. Colombia, Congo, Sierra Leone, and Spain implemented multi-year, across-government plans to advance women’s representation in all areas of decision-making.

Israel can—and should—do the same. Only when women are considered equals will Israeli society be fully ready to forge a healthy, long-term, peaceful relationship with its neighbors. As Chazan explained, “Our job as women is not to cry and pick up the pieces. It’s to do something to make a difference.” 

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