Impact of Israel’s Gaza War: “Jerusalem Is Completely Isolated”
The Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC) is an independent Palestinian nongovernmental organization that strives for a democratic Palestinian society based on the principles of gender equality and social justice. Founded in 1991, WCLAC works with women across the occupied Palestinian Territory (oPT) including East Jerusalem, providing legal aid to those suffering from domestic violence and supporting them with shelter and humanitarian aid.
Randa Siniora has served as General Director of WCLAC since 2015. She has dedicated her life to campaigning for women’s rights in Palestine and documenting human rights violations across the oPT. Siniora oversees the organization’s social legal aid services, works with victims of gender-based violence and supports women seeking divorce, child custody, and maintenance.
Jerusalem Story sat down with Siniora on November 2, 2023, to understand how Israel’s ongoing war is impacting Palestinian women in the oPT and her organization’s work.
Jerusalem Story: How are you and your colleagues faring during these difficult times?
Randa Siniora: It’s a heartbreaking situation and we can’t take it anymore. Everybody is affected. Everybody has somebody in Gaza—a friend, family member, colleague. What is happening is catastrophic and the international community’s position is really very frustrating. And like during each war on Gaza, what happens there impacts us in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Today, for example, Israeli forces raided the West Bank near our office in Ramallah. I was there, and I might cough during our interview because they dropped tear gas nearby. I have a headache from it.
JS: How has the work of WCLAC changed since the start of this war on October 7?
RS: It’s difficult to move around, so we decided that our colleagues should stay in the nearest offices to where they live. I’m staying in the office in Jerusalem as much as possible. We are going back to online consultations and focusing on the hotline for women, because courts in the West Bank are not functioning. Otherwise, the family and sharia courts in Jerusalem are open, so our lawyer is commuting from Ramallah to Jerusalem on a daily basis to follow up on cases in the courts.
Jerusalem is completely isolated, and nobody can obtain a permit to enter the city except Jerusalemites. The Qalandiya checkpoint is open for pedestrians with Israeli work permits for two hours in the morning and afternoon, but all other parts of the West Bank are completely sealed off. There are checkpoints everywhere on the roads, and Palestinians are harassed there, especially men and youth. This is also happening in Jerusalem. Israeli forces are checking people’s mobile phones to see if they support Hamas or show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Night raids are impacting everybody, and settlers in the West Bank have been given weapons with the complicity of the Israeli soldiers and police. They are attacking people during the olive harvest season.
So, our work has become focused on responding to emergency humanitarian situations. We developed a plan to shift our work to enable us to continue to serve women who are victims of gender-based violence, while keeping an eye on the disproportionate impact of the war on women and girls and the consequences of that. We are focused on providing psychosocial support with other organizations in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Hebron area. We are also reaching out to women and children with chronic diseases from Gaza who are here for medical reasons and have not been able to return.
We expect gender-based violence to increase, so we are ready and available with consultations and legal services. We pressed the official institutions in the West Bank to keep our shelters functioning, so our emergency shelter is still open.
JS: How do you expect your work will change after the war?
RS: We are building partnerships with feminist organizations in Gaza for the end of the war, in order to ensure the needs of displaced women are met. Sexual harassment and gender-based violence cases will increase. Economic hardships will cause additional problems for families, and poverty and unemployment will increase. We want women to be engaged in decision-making processes once the war ends, not as victims, but as members of society.
We plan to develop partnerships with grassroots organizations, volunteers, and youth clubs to ensure we can provide support to women in their own neighborhoods and communities. We are lobbying for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to adopt the Family Protection Bill1 and pushing for the PA to support the Palestinian people.
On top of that, partners we have worked with for 20 years or more have temporarily suspended funding to review it. Six Palestinian and five Israeli human rights organizations have had funds temporarily suspended by the Swiss Development Corporation. They want to check if we are supporting Hamas or not.
But feminist organizations like WCLAC are also attacked by Islamic fundamentalist groups. They say we are aligned with the Western agenda. And now, European states with supposed values rooted in human rights and humanitarian law are completely deviating from these values. So, this is impacting every aspect of our organization’s work.
We don’t know what will happen next. But what is happening in Gaza definitely impacts what is happening in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, and our partners have taken a political stance that does not conform with international humanitarian law. But we will not compromise on our rights, including our right to self-determination.
JS: Can you explain more about how this war is disproportionately impacting Palestinian women?
RS: Women must protect their children from Israeli military night raids and settler violence, and they must manage their homes with restrictions of movement and economic hardships. Many people are not working, so poverty rates are rising, which increases rates of gender-based violence. During the coronavirus pandemic, it was only when people started moving freely that we were able to understand the impact of the lockdowns on women. There was an alarming increase in gender-based violence. Because men intruded on women’s spaces, women had to endure the aggression of their husbands and male family members of their families all the time. So, while we might not know the full scope of the impact right now, we must continue to put women’s needs at the top of our agenda.
JS: How might this war impact Palestinian women in Jerusalem in particular?
RS: The isolation of Jerusalem is problematic. Freedom of expression and movement are restricted in Jerusalem, which disproportionately impacts women. For example, there have been mass arrests and intensified night raids across the city, and it’s always the responsibility of women to protect the children. They must make sure they are watching their children to make sure they are not detained or put under house arrest. If children are put under house arrest, women must abandon their jobs to become prison guards of their own children. And spending more time at home increases the risk of exposure to violence by male members of the family.
Women are afraid to send their children, sons especially, to schools and universities, and Israeli forces are entering Palestinian schools in Jerusalem, even checking teachers’ mobile phones. We are under constant surveillance. Israel is also restricting and revoking residency rights and citizenship rights to anyone who supports Palestinian resistance, so it has become harder to receive family unification stay permits. This means that women from the West Bank married and living in the city will have to endure violence at home, because if they leave the city, they will not be able to obtain stay permits to return.
JS: How will this war change life for women in Jerusalem and the West Bank in the longer term?
RS: Nothing will be the same. The more political and economic hardships increase, the higher the rates of gender-based violence and femicide. Last week, a woman was shot in Ramallah and her car fell into a valley. The man who shot her wanted to marry her, but she did not want to, so he killed her. And the first thing the news reported was that it was settler violence, but it turned out to be a domestic issue. So, the political influences the social, and cases can be covered up with other reasons. This example shows that family and community violence will not stop because of the war. Rather, it will increase.
We might expect the same as we saw in 2000 and 2001 during the Second Intifada, when Israel was invading every home, using excessive force, mass arrests, and bombardment of homes with heavy artillery. Without a political solution, the situation in the West Bank will worsen. Already, over 130 Palestinians have been killed in Jerusalem and the West Bank since October 7. Israel is not looking for a political solution, so we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of being attacked and the PA being abandoned. And what is happening in Gaza might result in a regional or even international war. So, we have to expect everything.
JS: Do you think international pressure will push Israel to find a peaceful resolution?
I hope so. It depends on what happens, but the only solution is a political one. The international community must help us move towards a just and durable solution to end Israel’s prolonged military occupation and its siege of Gaza, especially now with several Arab countries having normalized relations with Israel. But this Israeli government does not want to negotiate or come to peace. It doesn’t want to end its occupation. So, as long as Israel insists on this position and continues denying Palestinian rights to self-determination, there will be no end to the suffering.
Alice Austin, “The Many Missions of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC),” Jerusalem Story, September 2, 2023.