In the Absence of Justice: Embodiment and the Politics of Militarized Dismemberment in Occupied East Jerusalem – UN Women Report

Executive Summary

General Background

This study is a continuation of a comprehensive project investigating Palestinian women's access to justice in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). While the first phase of the research was conducted in the occupied West Bank (see UN Women 2014), this phase of the study examines women's access to justice in occupied East Jerusalem.

The research examines the socio-political factors affecting Palestinian women's access to justice in East Jerusalem. Occupied by Israel in 1967, East Jerusalem exists in a liminal space where intersecting legal systems contribute to a complex machinery of bureaucracy, law and justice systems. The aim of this project is to deepen understanding of Palestinian women's experiences in Jerusalem as they attempt to access justice through both formal institutions and informal paths. The research collected data prior to, during, and after the beginning of the escalation of violence in Jerusalem in October 2015. The data was compared and analyzed not only to map the banality of violence women face in a conflict context and the way it affects women's access to justice, but also to learn women's "countermaps"—the everyday strategies that Palestinian women living in Jerusalem employ to survive and resist violence, and navigate power structures, in their attempts to access justice.


The study draws on a decolonizing feminist methodological approach that is based on the voices and experiences of native Palestinian women and girls in occupied East Jerusalem. Decolonizing methodologies challenge the major tenets of positivist research and thus, the very politics of knowledge production. Feminist interventions have found that it is impossible for the researcher to occupy an "objective" or "neutral" position in relation to her research subjects. Rather, our representation of "others" is always a product of our own social positioning. In using this methodological approach, the research team decided that, rather than impose a standard definition of "justice" or "access to justice" on our research participants, we would ask them to define justice and access to justice themselves. This process amplified and enabled us to garner insights from their voices to help build a more effective research methodology in understanding women's access to justice.

The data collection began in December 2014 and ended in June 2016. The lead researcher was supported by a team of researchers and fieldworkers from the Jerusalem-based Women's Studies Center. Members of the research team were experienced in conducting research and fieldwork in conflict and colonial contexts, and working with female victims/survivors of various forms of violence. Due to the fragmentation of space and security concerns in occupied East Jerusalem, the team drew on multiple methods of qualitative data collection, including: semi-structured interviews with women and girls; engagement in focus groups, meetings, schools, community centers and other groups; interviews with professionals and legal activists, including lawyers, human rights advocates, feminist activists and leadership of Jerusalem-based NGOs; the collection of letters from Palestinian Jerusalemite girls and boys; and finally, participant observation in streets, schools, and courts.

Participants in the study were Jerusalemite women and girls from five areas within the Israeli-defined municipal borders of Jerusalem, including city neighborhoods, the city center and refugee camps. Research was conducted in stages: 16 initial focus groups were conducted to gain general insights into the topic of Palestinian women's access to justice in occupied East Jerusalem. Subsequently, 116 semi-structured interviews with informed consent were conducted with women residents of East Jerusalem, leaders of civil society organizations active in the city, and legal entities serving women in the city. This was followed by participant observation bythe team of researchers, a snowball sample with female victims of domestic violence, case study follow-up on three court cases and five families that were particularly representative of a number of the complexities identified by women living under occupation in East Jerusalem, letter gathering from Palestinian Jerusalemite girls and boys, freedom of information requests from Israeli authorities, and secondary source research among reports published by various Israeli human rights organizations.

Data collected using the above tools was validated using three follow-up focus groups, the first with formal social control agents in Jerusalem (social workers, lawyers and others that work in Israeli social institutions), another with staff of Palestinian organizations located in Jerusalem, and a final focus group with Palestinian university students and recent graduates from East Jerusalem. In addition, interviews were conducted with two local lawyers dealing with Palestinians in the Israeli criminal justice system.

Main Findings

Occupation and patriarchy work together to create significant obstacles for East Jerusalemite women in realizing their social, legal, political and economic rights as well as physical safety. The Israeli ID card system holds women hostage in a bureaucratic trap where they cannot access justice without the "right" ID card or are constantly in fear of their family members being deported from Jerusalem. Women are stigmatized by their communities if they report gender-based violence to Israeli authorities. Women don't report workplace abuse and harassment for fear of stigma, ridicule, evictions and/or residency revocations. Women living behind the wall in East Jerusalem have limited access to services or justice even though they are East Jerusalem residents. Women and girls feel the most intimate aspects of their lives are constantly The first-hand accounts of East Jerusalemite women in this research study give critical voice to the challenges Palestinian women are facing after more than 50 years of occupation. Concrete progress towards the goals of gender-responsive rule of law and improved women's access to justice cannot be made without addressing the occupation regime and its human rights violations, as well as the patriarchal control mechanisms women struggle with daily. The hope is that this research study will serve as an important advocacy tool to raise awareness of the challenges Palestinian women face in accessing justice and increase momentum towards a just and sustainable peace.

The main findings of the research are organized thematically, based on themes that emerged during data analysis of the primary and secondary data sources.

Palestinian Women Navigating the Israeli Legal System

Palestinian women and girls' experiences navigating the Israeli legal and justice systems demonstrated the extent to which the Israeli legal structure upholds structural inequalities. Women's lives are penetrated by the power of law, while they are consistently stripped of their power before the law, because the law is made by the occupying force.

In cases where some semblance of "justice" was achieved for these women—for instance, in cases of domestic abuse where women were entitled to some form of protection from the state—new layers of violence were created, as women described the state's infiltration into the intimate spaces of their homes and family lives. Moreover, women and their communities were distrustful of going to the Israeli authorities for support, as this was often seen as an act of adherence to, strengthening of, or worse, collaboration with the occupying regime.

Despite all the difficulties they faced, and the stripping away of their power by various mechanisms, women interviewed came up with new ways of subverting power or resisting state control over their lives. In some cases, women chose to exercise their right to family by staying in Jerusalem even if they, or their loved ones, were not "permitted" to do so by the Israeli state—that is, undocumented. Some women were unable to register their children, or apply for family reunification, for fear of coming in contact with Israeli bureaucracy. Indeed, our wish to preserve the privacy and security of the women interviewed prevents us from conveying all of the coping mechanisms women shared with us, or the strategies that they employ in everyday life to subvert the power and surveillance of the Israeli permit regime. Yet the very act of survival in these socio-economic and political conditions (i.e., working in the informal labor market, struggling to feed their families, and navigating the maze of bureaucracy) must be seen as nothing short of everyday resistance by these women.

Women, Poverty and the Workplace

Palestinian women's labor force participation among those ages 35-44 in East Jerusalem actually exceeds that of Palestinian men of the same age. This is extremely unusual (women's labor force participation in the rest of the West Bank is relatively low, and a fraction of men's). It can be explained by the challenges Palestinian men face in finding formal work in the city, while the low-wage care economy employs almost exclusively Palestinian women who then become primary breadwinners.

This data demonstrates how the occupation and settler violence and expansion deeply affect the racialized gendering of both the Israeli and Palestinian labor markets. Israel recruits Palestinian women in East Jerusalem as cleaners, teachers, and workers. Employing these women in low wage labor allows the state's social control machineries to penetrate Palestinian communities. The narratives from women working in the Israeli system suggest that the entirety of family life is affected by security, race and socio-economic class. They suggest that Palestinian women's poverty, the Israeli view of their poverty, and the way in which laws are codified, all operate to regulate women's individual conditions in their own homes and families, as well as their productive and reproductive labor.

Our overall analysis illustrates that women's access to justice in the labor market in East Jerusalem is affected by a multiplicity of factors, including the multiple legal systems, the lack of trust in the various political economic systems, the accessible but discriminatory low wage labor market, local cultural ideologies about women and paid work, the role of education in mitigating women's access to labor markets, and racism against Palestinians.

Girls in East Jerusalem

Letters collected from Palestinian girls and young women throughout various areas of occupied East Jerusalem, in addition to focus group discussions and participatory observations, suggest continuous mundane trauma, fear, indignities, and insecurity resulting from the prevailing socioeconomic conditions, the political violence of Israeli security forces and settlers, and daily humiliation resulting from obstacles placed on freedom of movement, education, and more.

The everyday control over their lives by the state and the continuous injustice of political violence, family violence, poverty and aggression on children were all factors described by girls as “stripping away their power.” these conditions have affected the Palestinian familial structure, in some cases transforming traditional social roles, and enhancing patriarchal control and abuse within the household. taken together, these factors severely limit Palestinian girls’ access to justice and protection, adversely affecting girls' right to a safe and dignified life and placing severe restrictions on their dreams for the future. However, despite the obstacles and many layers of violence, girls find ways to resist oppression and maintain hope for a better future, in their daily attempts to reach school, support each other and their families, better themselves through education, and continue fighting for dignity.

One significant and perhaps surprising issue raised in the girls' letters and subsequent focus group discussions is the "performance" of the Israeli system, and the "performance" of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the teachers, bureaucrats, health workers and social workers. The Israeli state performs as a democracy in the international and national public arena, presenting itself as protecting children's rights while at the same time discriminating against Palestinians in general, with gendered implications for Palestinian girls. Meanwhile the PA, Palestinian teachers, and others perform advocacy to expand the rights for Palestinian women and children, yet have no power to effect any amount of social change in East Jerusalem due to the intense political obstacles created by Israel's military occupation and the international community's support, tacit or otherwise. Even at a young age, these girls demonstrate an intuitive understanding of the socio-political context in which they live and must endure.

Political Violence

Law and justice, as explained by women and girls, have not only failed them, but have actually worked to create new tools and modes of dispossession and oppression and to sanction political violence. Respondents discussed the way law, when it exists, is not on their side, even when they have been exposed to sexual and physical violence. The law's relationship to the body was a major factor, as young women talked about being stripped of their veils by police and soldiers, witnessing the humiliating undressing of men in public by police and soldiers, and more. The undressing of men and women was perceived as a mode of "stripping down" the community and its members' right to safety and security. Such attacks and the resulting exposure have traumatized many respondents. The eviction and revocation of residency has likewise dismembered society, blocked solidarity and togetherness, and exiled families and communities. However, what struck the researchers was the strength that prevailed: the way in which women and girls consistently attempted to open up new spaces of resistance, whether on social media (Facebook, WhatsApp, and more), through music, writing and other modes of cultural resistance, or via spiritual praxis and religious beliefs.


Our general findings suggest that Palestinian women in Jerusalem are subjected to various forms of violence, including the violence of law, the violence of bureaucracy, and the penetration of militarized violence into the mundane and intimate spaces of everyday life, through policies that limit women and girls' access to protection, education, healthcare, basic services, adequate housing, adequate standard of living, economic prosperity, freedom of expression, movement, right to family, right to mourn and provide a dignified burial for the dead, and much more. The gendered social, legal, political, economic and cultural expressions of violence emanate from the longstanding Israeli military occupation of East Jerusalem, which has strengthened patriarchal power within Palestinian society and affected women's access to justice in a conflict context governed by multiple, intersecting formal and informal legal structures.

We propose understanding the gendered social body politics facing women in East Jerusalem, and the constant resulting losses as what we term the "politics of militarized dismemberment." Such blockages "amputate" women's ability to proceed in accessing justice. Yet at the same time, women are constantly attempting to "re-member" the self and the social body through daily acts of survival and the creation of countermaps to access justice in the microspaces of the Israeli occupation.

The politics of militarized dismembering, as we define it, has several key features:

•  It is systematic: a continuous, structural process that strips away women's power to the extent that it is at times impossible to generate the vocabulary to describe one's suffering, or one's access to rights in the context of a militarized regime.

•  It requires that we examine the history of injustice and the local and global politics of dispossession that inform the present policies, bureaucracies, and blockages facing Palestinian women in their attempts to access justice in East Jerusalem. It is important to emphasize the historical roots of the structure of the Israeli occupation where political space is occupied by those that have perpetrated injustice on the bodies and lives of Palestinians in contravention of international laws.

•  It operates within a permanent state of emergency in East Jerusalem, where there is a constant suspension of the rule of law at the same time that the "right to dismember" the native Palestinian is legalized.

Israel's regime of militarized dismembering in East Jerusalem is being maneuvered by political powers. Those causing the dismembering are generating political and legal space. As a result, women who must navigate this system find themselves in a suspended space where it is extremely difficult to create and maintain social networks. This regime of militarized dismembering is carried out through several key technologies:

•  Surveillance (e.g., the ID card regime)

•  Bureaucracy (e.g., regulations related to accessing arnona or property tax, and national insurance)

•  The violent inscription of militarized power onto women's bodies (e.g., attacks on women's bodies and lives by soldiers or settlers)

•  The use of "emergency rules" against individuals and families (e.g., stop and frisk, the freeze on family unification, etc.)

•  Collective punishment (e.g., curfew, withholding the bodies of the dead, punitive demolitions, child arrest)

•  Trapping/imprisoning

The gendered price of surviving such a system of dispossession and entrapment is high, as militarized violence invades the most intimate spheres of women's lives—their family life, homes, bodies, and psyches. These women, our study found, have little faith in the Israeli justice system, no protection from the Palestinian Authority, and willful failure by the State of Israel in its obligations under international law and accountability. In this atmosphere, women turn to alternative measures to access justice, working to re-member what is dismembered.


Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!

Go to Top