Rape in the practice and the culture of Israeli settler colonialism

Rape in the practice and the culture of Israeli settler colonialism

Category: A colonial project

PALESTINE: Sexual Violence, Women`s Bodies, and Israeli Settler Colonialism
by Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Sarah Ihmoud and Suhad Dahir-Nashif
17 November 2014

“They not only invaded our home, took over our space, and evicted us—they even arrested me and took me to the Maskubya—the police station.  I was put in room number four, alone, for a long time.  Then, a big and tall man, a police officer, entered the interrogation room.  I was alone, and started shivering from fear as he closed the door, started moving things around in the room and examining me from head to toe.  I was terrorized, and my heart was beating so fast.  His eyes penetrated my body, as he was opening the drawers looking for something.  Then, he left the room and came back five minutes later holding a box.  He pulled out a pair of blue plastic gloves, and put one on each of his hands, while looking at me and saying “…Come here…” I must tell you that I was terrorized when they invaded the house and evicted us. I was extremely anxious when they arrested my son. But my fears of ‘you know what’…You know…being abused…being raped by his blue big hands and more…were the most terrifying moments of my life”.[1]
These were the words of Sama, a thirty-six-year-old Palestinian woman who lost the intimate familial and physical space of her home, only to experience further terror with the threat of sexual abuse.  Sama’s narrative is not uncommon, as colonized women living under severe deprivation and dispossession are subject to daily attacks against their sexuality and bodily rights. Sexual violence is central to the larger structure of colonial power, its racialized machinery of domination, and its logic of elimination.  This is readily apparent in the history of Rape as a military tactic
settler colonial contexts, where the machinery of violence explicitly targets native women’s sexuality and bodily safety as biologized “internal enemies” since they are the producers of the next generation.

Settler colonialism, as a “structure, not an event” operates through a “logic of elimination” that seeks to erase indigenous presence on a specific territory (settler colonialism’s “irreducible element”). Settler colonialism “destroys in order to replace.” The invasion of indigenous land seeks to permanently erase the indigenous presence on the land, in order to replace it with the new settler society and polity. Scholars have argued that settler colonialism’s logic of elimination may culminate in indigenous genocide. In its European formations, both settler colonialism and genocide have “employed the organizing grammar of race.” Since its inception, the Jewish state has been embedded in a racialized colonial logic. This logic constructs the Palestinian as a dangerous other in opposition to the white/Jewish subject and polis. As numerous authors have noted, this racial configuration is articulated through early Zionist thinkers’ Orientalist ideology that framed the Jewish people as bearers of European civilization in the face of a culturally backward region and people. Such a “modernizing” project or “civilizing” mission relied on a Zionist imaginary of exclusively Jewish labor cultivating an empty, uncultivated land, and “making the desert bloom.” Early Zionist leadership attempted to actualize the foundational Zionist myth of a “land without people for a people without land” through systematic ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians in 1948.  The Zionist entity continues to evict native Palestinians today.  The massacres in Gaza of July- August 2014, and the repressive “iron fist” policies targeting Palestinian Jerusalemites at the time we write this article, are contemporary modes of settler colonial eviction of the Palestinian native.

The targeting of Palestinian women’s bodies and sexuality, we contend, is structural to the Israeli settler colonial project’s racialized logic of elimination.  Rape and other forms of sexual violence against Palestinian women have always been an element of the settler colonial state’s attempts to destroy and eliminate indigenous Palestinians from their land. In addition to rape and other forms of sexual violence, the racialized logic of sexual violence energizes the very imaginary and project of conquering and cultivating Palestinian land, in transforming it into the Jewish polis.  Hence, our discussion of sexual violence is embedded not only in the sexualized practices and politics of the Zionist state, but also in the nature of Israeli settler colonial violence itself.

As Palestinian feminists, we assert that the Zionist movement’s imaginary of conquering and settling the Palestinian body is inseparable from the project of conquering and settling Palestinian land, and erasing indigenous presence. Here, we build on native scholar Andrea Smith’s assertion that the logic of colonial sexual violence “establishes the ideology that Native bodies are inherently violable—and by extension, that Native lands are also inherently violable.” It is the logic of settler colonial sexual violence that we center in our analysis of the continuous Nakba that targets our people. We trace the logic of sexual violence, in its historical and present context, as machinery, hidden and apparent, of colonial patriarchy against indigenous communities in Palestine. The logic of sexual violence attempts to fragment Palestinian family and communal life, as it severs the connection to the Palestinian homeland.  The Zionist project is inherently based on the destruction of Palestinian native bodies and land, which cannot be separated from the colonial logic of elimination. Sexual violence is not simply a byproduct of colonialism, rather “colonialism is itself structured by the logic of sexual violence.

Sexual Violence and Palestinian Genocide Since the Nakba

Understanding the intensified attacks on Palestinian women’s bodies in times of heightened attacks by the settler colonial regime requires a feminist analysis. Such an analysis takes the Nakba as its analytical point of departure. Israel was built on the ruins of the Palestinian homeland, on its land, pain, and displacement.  It was built on the destruction of our communal social ties, the violation and invasion of our homes and bodies.

Rape and killing of Palestinian women was a central aspect of Israeli troops’ systematic massacres and evictions during the destruction of Palestinian villages in 1948. During the Deir Yassin massacre, for instance:

Familt photo, Deir Yassin 1927All the inhabitants were ordered into the village square. Here, they were lined up against a wall and shot.  One eyewitness said her sister, who was nine months pregnant, was shot in the back of the neck. Her assailants then cut open her stomach with a butcher’s knife and extracted the unborn baby. When an Arab woman tried to take the baby, she was shot…Women were raped before the eyes of their children before being murdered and dumped down the well.

David Ben Gurion, like other Zionist leaders, openly discussed the rape and sexual torture of Palestinian women in his diary entries during 1948. At the same time that he advocated the killing of Palestinian women and children, constructing them as a threat to the Jewish settler polity, he awarded a prize to every Jewish mother on her tenth child. Ben Gurion ensured that the Jewish Agency, not the state, administered such pronatal incentives in order to guarantee the exclusion of Arabs.[2] The fetishization of fertility has made Palestinians, especially women, targets of nationalist rhetoric that deeply politicizes their reproduction. For Zionists, Palestinian women have always been, and continue to be, as we have seen in the latest attacks on Gaza, targets of the Zionist killing machine.

Feminist scholars have also suggested that the Zionist state mobilizes violence against Palestinian women’s bodies and sexuality to strengthen indigenous patriarchal structures and aid in the eviction of Palestinians from their land.  Militarized sexual abuse has been rampant under Israeli occupation. The Israeli state and military forces have exploited the threat of sexual violence against Palestinian women, and patriarchal perceptions of sexuality and “honor” to “recruit Palestinians as collaborators” during periods of uprisings and deter attempts at organized resistance.  This practice has been so historically prevalent that it gained its own term in the Arabic language as isqat siyassy, meaning the sexual abuse of Palestinians for political reasons. The state’s security apparatus continues to use Palestinians’ sexual identities and Orientalist conceptions of “Arab culture” to recruit collaborators and fragment Palestinian society. Recent revelations by Israel’s secret military intelligence Unit 8200 have revisited this fact. The literal and figurative “rape” of Palestinian women’s bodies, framed as inherently violable by the Zionist entity, is inherently structured by the same logic of sexual violence that energizes the settler colonial project’s violation and continued confiscation of Palestinian natives’ land.

Unmasking the Logic of Sexual Violence

The silence on the Zionist machinery’s use of sexual violence against Palestinian women[3] and their communities has been further revealed since the inception of the state’s most recent military operations.  The logic of sexualized violence that structures the Israeli settler colonial project has become more visible during the last period of military invasion. Slogans such as “Death to Arabs” and “Arabs out” have become more usable and tolerable in the Israeli public sphere, exposing the necropolitical drive against Palestinian natives at the core of the so-called Jewish democracy.

On 1 July, just after discovery of the bodies of three Jewish settler youth who had gone missing in the occupied West Bank, Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies remarked on public radio: “the only deterrent for … those who kidnapped the [Israeli] children and killed them, the only way to deter them is their knowledge that either their sister or their mother will be raped if they are caught … this is the culture of the Middle East.” His comments suggested that raping Palestinian women was the only deterrent to Palestinian resistance and “terrorism.”

We as Palestinian feminists were not surprised to hear Kedar advocating rape as an antidote to anti-colonial resistance. Making such comments on public radio, in the open, where it would be heard by a wide Israeli Jewish public, women as well as men, including Israeli Jewish feminists, reflects the settler’s mentality and socialization towards Palestinians. Discussing the rape of Palestinian women as a military strategy by a so-called scholar from one of the prominent universities in Israel reveals the mode in which colonizers portray colonized women. The presentation of a sexualized Orientalist discourse positions Palestinians as culturally “backward,” non-human Others.

Lest the sexualized discourses Kedar mobilized appear an aberration, it is important to note that he was not the only performer in this latest theater of sexualized violence.  Israeli soldiers on their way to killing Palestinians in Gaza read slogans of support prepared by their fellow Jewish-Israeli civilians stating: “Go pound their mothers, and come back to your mother.” Israeli Jews gathered on hillsides to watch and cheer as the military dropped bombs on Gaza. One young Jewish woman’s Facebook post summed up the sexualized pleasure they received in spectatorship of our collective lynching:  “What an orgasm to see the Israeli Defense Forces bomb buildings in Gaza with children and families at the same time. Boom boom.” Even their Prime Minister Netanyahu received a post, which circulated widely among the Israeli public via social media, showing a veiled woman labeled “Gaza,” naked from the waist down, holding a message: “Bibi, finish inside this time!  Signed, citizens in favor of a ground assault.” This is in addition to Knesset member Ayelet Shaked’s public declaration that Palestinian mothers should be killed.

The rape of the land as the rape of women’s bodies has thus come to the fore in Israel’s most recent eliminatory attacks against the Palestinian people. As the massacres of the Palestinian people in Gaza continued, the sexualized nature of Israeli invasion and racial terror against Palestinian natives came to the forefront of nationalist politics and discussion among the public sphere within 1948 Palestine as well. Palestinian women took to the streets with their communities throughout historic Palestine to demonstrate against the continuous massacres in Gaza. Public demonstrations took a sexualized turn, as crowds’ calls for “death to Arabs” quickly turned to chanting “Haneen Zoabi is a whore!” naming a female Palestinian  member of the Israeli parliament who stood up for her people’s right to life. Israeli police attacked Palestinian women’s bodies, along with their male counterparts, and dragged them out of protests in Haifa and Nazareth, where they were arrested or beaten by racist crowds. Leading religious and military figures on the state’s payroll issued religious edicts which stated that during times of war it is permissible to bomb Palestinian civilians in order to “exterminate the enemy.” The city council of Or Yehuda, a settlement in Israel’s coastal region, hung a banner supporting Israeli soldiers that suggested the rape of Palestinian women:  “Israeli soldiers, the residents of Or Yehuda are with you!  Pound their mother and come back home safely to your mother.” [4]

We argue that the logic of sexual violence exhibited during attacks on indigenous Palestinians throughout historic Palestine, both historically and during the Israeli state’s most recent attacks, pervades both the Israeli settler state and settler society.  Indeed, the state and settler society are inseparable entities, connected through a visceral psychological and political imaginary that exceeds the commonly framed state/civil society divide.  As Lorenzo Veracini notes, settlers “carry their sovereignty with them.” Both the state apparatuses (including public elected officials, academic and military institutions) and settler society (including Israeli publics—situated along the continuum of Zionist ideology) embody the machinery of settler colonial violence. It is no surprise then, that both the official state apparatuses and unofficial settler spheres have exhibited grave attacks on Palestinian women’s sexuality, bodies, and lives in the context of the latest invasions of our people in Gaza, in the daily attacks today in Jerusalem, and throughout historic Palestine.

Israeli officials’ repressive policies and incitement against the Palestinian people work to empower and embolden Israeli settler society to embody the power of the state and viciously attack Palestinians.  This is clearly exhibited in the attacks on Palestinian women’s bodies inside Al Aqsa mosque these last weeks in Jerusalem, by both settler publics empowered by the state’s military protection, and members of the state security forces. A recent example of the daily scene of sexual violence is Israeli border police’s violent beating and arrest of Aida, a Palestinian woman from the old city of Jerusalem.  When she tried to enter Al-Aqsa mosque, border police attacked and brutally beat Aida. They tore off her hijab and pulled her by her hair, as they continued to beat her through the streets of the old city, and dragged her into the police car. She was then taken to the police station, where she was violently interrogated, further beaten and accused of attacking a police officer.  Security forces’ brutalization and violation of Aida’s body, and attempts to mark her as an inherently criminal other, are a form of gendered and sexual violence.  The legalization of such forms of violence marks the Israeli legal system itself as deeply embedded in the settler colonial project’s machinery of elimination.

Palestinian women’s brutalization and violation by the settler colonial state also takes on more mundane forms. When Samera was arrested for participating in a demonstration in occupied East Jerusalem, her release by authorities was conditional upon her completing what they termed “community service.”  Samera’s “community service” required her to scrub the bathrooms of a facility for Israeli border police and soldiers.  As she explained to us:

I could not afford to pay the huge fine, and needed to be released [from prison] to go back to my kids.  I had no other choice but to scrub their bathrooms….Just by being there, in men’s bathrooms, in the Israeli men’s toilets felt like rape. I did it to avoid payment, but I can’t avoid feeling that I allowed them to keep me there, in their bathrooms, in a constant state of terror, fearing being sexually abused, then trashed like we trash toilet paper in toilets.

Samera’s words and analysis further illustrate the gendered and sexualized aspects of the complex machinery of settler colonial violence.  Yet as Samera concluded:  “Sometimes I feel I was their slave, but some other times I tell myself no, this is resistance, this is sumud, this is power…I did what was needed to come back to my children, without being touched or violated sexually….yes hard, complex…our situation is complex.” Even in the face of such violent inscription of settler colonial violence, Palestinian women’s daily acts of resistance and survival demonstrate their power and sumud, or steadfastness.

In sum, sexual and gender violence are not merely a tool of patriarchal control, the byproduct of war or intensified conflict.  Colonial relationships are themselves gendered and sexualized.  We contend that sexual violence, a logic embedded in the Israeli settler colonial project, follows two contradictory principles that operate simultaneously: invasion/violation/occupation and supremacy/purification/demarcation. That is, the Zionist settler colonial project’s invasion, violation, and occupation of indigenous Palestinians’ bodies, lives, and land is intimately intertwined with its demarcation of racialized geographical and physical boundaries between Jewish citizenry and Palestinian natives as well as attempts to “purify” the Jewish national body of the Palestinian body, which is framed as a biopolitical contaminant.  It is thus that the logic of sexual violence, embedded in the Zionist regime, energizes historical and continuous attacks on Palestinian bodies and lives.

Thus our struggle for indigenous sovereignty within anti-colonial activism as feminists is necessarily situated in the protection of Palestinian women’s bodily safety and sexuality, family, and communal right to life. It is a struggle against the hypermasculine Zionist military and settler apparatuses that frame Palestinian women as inherently threatening racialized Others whose bodies must be violated and destroyed as the internal enemy and “reproducers of Palestinians.” This logic is inseparable from the settler colonial logic of elimination.

As Palestinian feminists concerned about the safety of women’s bodies and lives, the continuity of our people and our future generations, we call on local and international feminists to join our struggle, challenge the settler colonial culture of impunity and raise their voices against the ongoing Israeli state crimes.


[1] This quote was taken from a group discussion with Palestinian women in Jerusalem, 2014.

[2] In the 1950s Ben Gurion, as the first prime minister of Israel, turned the issue of women’s fertility into national priority, arguing that “increasing the Jewish birthrate is a vital need for the existence of Israel” and that “a Jewish woman who does not bring at least four children into the world is defrauding the Jewish mission.” See Sharoni, S. (1995). Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: the Politics of Women’s Resistance. Syracuse University Press.  Also see Davis, U. & Lehn, W. (1983). “And the Fund Still Lives: The Role of the Jewish International Fund in the Determination of Israel’s Land Policies”, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 7 (4), p.3, at pp.4-6(1978).

[3] While centering our analysis on Palestinian women, we also note the Zionist state’s use of sexual violence as a tactic to curb the “demographic threat” over some Jewish women’s bodies, including black women (from the Ethiopian community) and women from impoverished backgrounds. While attempting to curb the birth rates of black and/or poor Jewish women, a practice we analyze as connected to the racialized project of curbing Palestinian reproduction and life, Israel has simultaneously sought to increase European Jewish birth through modernized practices such as buying ovum for human reproductive cloning from poor, Eastern European women.  Besides, the Israeli state suggested that the law for preventing human reproductive cloning (1999) had expired and many of Israel’s physicians, politicians and social researchers are embracing this practice as yet another strategy for maintaining a Jewish demographic advantage on the land of Palestine.

[4] In addition to the posts and declarations against Palestinian mothers, Jewish girls and women encouraged men serving in the Israeli Occupation Forces by sending them semi-nude or pornographic pictures as an expression of love and support (see http://www.pitria.com/israeli-girls-support-zahal).

Source: jadaliyya

By piotrbein