The world has taken a keen interest lately in the status of women in the Middle East. Initially, the emphasis seems to have followed the Western narrative that Arab men inherently hate Arab women. The discourse, however, is shifting rapidly as more and more people are beginning to identify the sources—overwhelmingly institutional and political rather than religious—of gender inequity. So why aren’t people calling into question Israel’s treatment of Arab women? Does this flagrant dismissal of the female agency not qualify for anything? Samah Isbeh’s disturbing experience in the pit of an Israeli jail forces open these questions once and for all.
Samah Isbeh, now 28, was arrested and detained six years ago by Israeli authorities for participating in student protests in the Islamic University. She was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and her husband, who played no role in the protests, was arrested two days later and sentenced to nine months behind bars.
Samah and her Tulkarm-based husband married just three months before their incarcerations. Samah was a few weeks into her first pregnancy when Israeli soldiers entered her husband’s home and carried her away.
For 66 days, Samah was held in an underground cell in solitary confinement. According to her interview with RT News, she was tortured and humiliated in a variety of ways. At times, the cell was made unbearably cold, posing a severe health risk to Samah and her unborn child. Israeli prison guards also forced her to “balance” on a children’s chair. Although “balance” is unspecified, it is logical to assume it was uncomfortable and dehumanizing. Maybe it was a sick joke, having a pregnant woman interact with children’s toys that her unborn child might never get a chance to play with if her abusers continued unchecked.
Fortunately, the systematic abuse of her body did not appear to take a toll on Samah’s pregnancy. However, when she went into labor, her hands and feet were tied. What could have been a natural vaginal birth was now a mess of complications. Prison doctors chose to deliver the baby through C-section. Its mother would not be able to hold it, mostly because her limbs were tied but also because the procedure would endanger her overall state of health to the point where a total decline seemed as imminent for her as it did for her child.
In time, the mother was joined with her baby. But the punishment and abuse transferred to the newborn as well. Israeli prison guards prevented Samah from using or accessing diapers and the only milk that was made available for the child was spoiled.
The conditions for herself and her child, Samah says, were terrible and they remained that way well after her forced C-section. Both Samah and her child were denied any outdoor privileges and whenever either of them fell ill, the only drug administered to them was Paracetamol, an over-the-counter fever reliever often found in mild cold medicines.
Samah was deported to the Gaza Strip and her child was sent to her husband in the West Bank. Because Israel refuses to grant her entry into the West Bank, she can no longer see her husband or the child she struggled so hard to raise while confined behind Israel’s prison walls.
Samah’s story reflects a deep-seated negligence not just towards the Palestinian people but to women as well. During her time in an Israeli prison, she was humiliated, mistreated, exposed to situations that endangered her life and her unborn child’s life. She was tied like a farm animal. Her first childbirth—to most, a memorable moment and cause for celebration—was at the mercy of hostile prison officials. She had no control over her body or over the treatment of her newborn. Ultimately, she was robbed of her motherhood and stripped of her rights.
But Samah’s story isn’t the most unique. It fits a storyline of perpetual Israeli abuse towards Palestinian women. Between 2000 and 2005, at least 60 Palestinian women gave birth at Israeli checkpoints after they were denied safe passage to nearby hospitals. A total of 36 children died as a result.
In March 2012, nine Palestinian women filed formal complaints against the Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent of the CIA, for the abuse they experienced during prolonged interrogations. One complaint cited that one detainee was forced to change into mens underwear before she was handcuffed behind her back and forced to sit in uncomfortable positions. Another complaint reported that a second detainee was denied any sanitary toiletries after she was strip-searched while on her menstrual cycle. Other complaints cited repeated strip-searches, mostly carried out by men who, in at least one case, felt it was appropriate enough to grope the female detainees because she was “not religious”.
And in a video made public in 2010, an unidentified Israeli soldier belly dances on and around a blindfolded and handcuffed Palestinian woman. (The footage can be found at the bottom of this article.)
Samah’s experiences reflect an institutionalized and systematic abuse of Palestinian women at the hands of an occupying force. It has flown under the radar for far too long. But why? Does this not merit investigation? Does this not stain today’s discussions or hinder tomorrow’s advancement of women’s rights, both in the Middle East and abroad? This is a disease, a cancer, and if the world is ever going to overcome gender inequity, it has to be recognized everywhere it exists, including but not limited to Israel’s underground prison cells.