Marathon with Hindrance: Palestinian Women’s Freedom of Movement – or Lack Thereof

This article was written as part of the Sharing for Empowerment project organized by the Lithuanian Center for Equality Advancement. Retaj women attended project workshops in Lithuania in September 2015.

For Palestinian women in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, one of the basic human rights – the right to freedom of movement – is denied by a complex system of physical obstacles, administrative barriers, and restrictive social norms.

Deema, a university student of French, first saw Yaffa – her parents’ Mediterranean hometown – halfway through her studies. “Yaffa is very beautiful,” Deema says. Beautiful, and only kilometres away from Balata refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Deema and her family lives. However, there awaits an exhausting bureaucratic marathon between the sea and Deema as well as thousands of other Palestinian women, in the form of Israeli permits to travel.

The Israeli army used to set up flying checkpoints right before the break of fast during Ramadan, to prevent us from coming back home on time to eat with our families. So we ate at the checkpoint,” says Hakima from a village near the city of Nablus. “They still do it today.”

Huwara checkpoint, the birthplace of Nahil’s baby, also became its grave. When the woman – seven months pregnant – started bleeding heavily, her husband took her to the nearest hospital but the family was stopped at a checkpoint and told to return. Nor were they allowed to pass through another checkpoint. Medics with a Palestinian ambulance, prevented from reaching the woman, were forced to watch her giving birth from afar.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, enshrined the right to freedom of movement.Article 13 states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement”. It also ensures that human rights apply to all human beings: “No distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

In the lives of Deema, Hakima, and Nahil these words are empty. Physical obstacles, administrative methods, and social barriers have created an oppressive system that restricts freedom of movement, thus violating the basic human rights of individuals and a people as a whole.

Israel’s Wall is one of the main physical obstacles to free movement in occupied Palestine. Despite the International Court of Justice ruling in 2004 to remove the illegal Wall, Israel continues with its construction in the name of security. Before the Wall Palestinians could reach the Mediterranean by road; since the Wall, they need a permit. Palestinians are also not allowed to use roads designated for the exclusive use of illegal Israeli colonists; taking side roads costs more and takes longer. Additionally, white Palestinian licence plates only allow their cars to travel in the West Bank; such restrictions don’t apply to the Israeli-registered yellow plates that are also less often stopped at checkpoints.

According to the UN, there are more than 500 Israeli checkpoints and road blocks in the West Bank. Apart from the permanent ones, flying checkpoints are set up on a daily basis. It is impossible to foresee such control mechanisms, nor to anticipate how long it would take to pass them. Constant anxiety and psychological pressure that it creates also negatively impact in the labour market, especially on women. “The uncertainty created in commuting time as a result of Israel’s movement restrictions makes it more difficult for women to seek employment outside their local communities thus reducing their work chances, even compared to men,” writes Samia al-Botmeh, assistant professor in economics.

Foreign lands are too often out of reach for Palestinian women, too. A sunburnt strip of land near Jericho, the world’s oldest city, separates the West and East banks of the river Jordan; at the same time it separates West Bank Palestinians from the world. Here lies King Hussein Bridge (Allenby Bridge), the only border crossing the Palestinians are allowed to use. They are forbidden to fly to or from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv; the only available option is Amman airport.

Administrative methods

Since Israel controls all ports of entry into the territory, Palestinians are required to get Israel’s permits to travel inside the area (for example, to Jerusalem or cities of historical Palestine – Yaffa, Haifa, Nazareth). The permit, if given, is usually valid for one day, normally from 7am to 7pm. Last summer, during the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Fitr, Palestinians over 40 years of age were allowed to enter Jerusalem without a permit; however the long and humiliating process of going through a checkpoint pushes some people away. “I’m not sure if I will go to pray in Al-Aqsa [Islam’s third holiest site] anytime soon,” says an elderly woman at Qalandia checkpoint that separates the West Bank from Jerusalem. “I can’t stand the soldiers screaming at me.” Another woman leaves Qalandia smiling, baby in her arms; today she will see Jerusalem and not even the half an hour delay at the checkpoint ruins her mood.

Every Palestinian has to carry their green IDs with them at any given time. Palestinians in Jerusalem are issued a blue one, which sits higher in this bureaucratic hierarchy and allows for less travel restrictions. The Palestinian Authority-issued passport is a rather useless document: it is at the very bottom of the Passport Index, which rates passports based on visas required of their holders. In comparison, the Lithuanian passport, with 132 points out of 147, is considered powerful.

Social norms

Neda, a 28-year-old university graduate, works for an NGO and financially supports her mother and sister. “Mum will worry if I don’t get back home before dark. Neighbours will start gossiping,” Neda says. “I’m so sick and tired of this conservative city!” In the West Bank, especially in rural areas, patriarchal attitudes dictate ‘acceptable’ behaviour norms applied to women; evening walks unaccompanied by children or family members are not among them. The reason? Woman’s honour: after sunset, public space belongs to men. “Belongs to me, too,” says Fenan, an architect in her late 20s who recently moved to Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s de facto capital. She won’t be going back to her hometown: “There, everyone knows where exactly you go and what you do.”

Apart from the family’s level of conservatism, social class also impacts on a woman’s right to freedom of movement. Aida, daughter of a well-off Jerusalem artist, drives a car and goes out with her friends at night. She also has less problems to visit Malta or Turkey for holiday, an option Neda would face numerous difficulties to implement.

A right for other rights

In the absence of freedom of movement, many other basic human rights cannot be implemented. Among them – the right to life, liberty and security (§3), to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (§18); the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (§20), to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment (§23); the right to education (§26), medical care and necessary social services (§25), to marriage (§16), property (§17), rest and leisure (§24), to enjoy the arts (§27). But how is one to realise their right to education, if the university is behind a concrete Wall?

When in March this year more than 3,000 people ran – in circles – the Bethlehem Marathon, their route followed Israel’s Wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. “The right to freedom of movement is the only [human] right that you can physically claim: you can put on your running shoes and just take it,” says Signe Fischer, one of the marathon’s organisers. The event’s aim – to claim the basic human right of freedom of movement and to challenge restrictions imposed on it – that March day was achieved. Yet daily life in Palestine is not a jogging activity, but rather an exhausting run with ever-multiplying hindrance.