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Israeli women battle for their rights

The once sleepy, largely secular city, Beit Shemesh, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, has become the premier battleground between ultra-Orthodox, secular and modern Orthodox Jews. At the forefront are its women.

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Middle East

PAULA SLIER and GABRIELLE INHOFE

In the past two decades, the city’s ultra-Orthodox community has more than doubled, spurring turf wars marked by verbal and physical harassment of female citizens. Placards urging modest dress have sprung up mainly along the border with the more lenient modern Orthodox community. Young girls from such families have been harassed, spat at and insulted – called “shiksa” and “whore” – as they walk to school.

According to activist Nili Philipp, a Canadian-born resident of the city, “the signs demarcate territory where democracy ends”.

In 2011, ultra-Orthodox men threw rocks at Philipp as she rode her bicycle because they believed she was dressed immodestly. The harrowing incident led her to become more active in the struggle “against those trying to impose their religious mores on the rest of the city’s population”.

Philipp says women in Beit Shemesh have been categorically eliminated from the public sphere and their images have noticeably disappeared from all advertising. This has resulted in – albeit unofficially – men’s-only sidewalks and women even being forced to sit in the back of buses.

“The elimination of women’s voices and imagery has less to do with inciting lust, as the ultra-Orthodox men claim the so-called immodest dress does, and everything to do with consolidating male, ultra-Orthodox power,” says British-born resident and activist Alisa Coleman. “It isn’t about dress and religion. It’s about power and territory.”

Led by Orly Erez-Livhovski, a lawyer for the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the women have sued the city numerous times to remove the signs. In January 2015, the case was decided in IRAC’s favour. But the signs remained until an administrative order was issued five months later. Still, this resulted in only a partial removal.

The legal battle continued and, although the Jerusalem District Court issued a final order to remove the signs in June 2016, seven months later, they remained.

Despite the setbacks, the women of Beit Shemesh say they won’t give up. Doing so, Coleman believes, would lead to laws being increasingly enforced in different areas, leaving the door open to more incursions against women’s rights.

“[We have to] go to the courts, to keep fighting,” Coleman says, insisting that the way the girls dress is not immodest and that targeting them is simply a way of establishing cultural and territorial hegemony. “We’re patient and determined,” she adds.

In early 2017, IRAC was granted a contempt order, but the municipality appealed on the grounds that removal of the signs was unsafe. Security cameras were installed and the signs were taken down, only to be replaced a few days later.

At the end of last year, another Supreme Court order to remove the signs was met with an outbreak of violence. In defiance, other signs calling for modest dress appeared at dozens of other sites. More troublesome, however, was that the plaintiffs’ personal details, including telephone numbers, addresses and ID numbers, were published. The women received hordes of harassing calls.

These increasing incidents of intimidation and violence led Philipp and four other women to file another lawsuit. Regardless of the case’s development, the emotional damage has been done, Philipp says. The signs’ message, combined with verbal and physical abuse, have socialised young girls into thinking they have no voice of their own.

“Girls are raised in an environment where they think it’s legitimate… that other people can dictate and have control over their… bodies, the way they dress, who they are,” says Philipp. And that is “unforgiveable”.

But Beit Shemesh is not an isolated example. Ultra-Orthodox influences around Israel have been growing in recent years as the community’s population and confidence mushrooms. In Jerusalem, ads featuring women have all but disappeared. A hamburger chain chose to show a family of burgers, rather than an actual family where they would have had to show a mother enjoying the meal with her husband and children.

During Sukkot in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood a few years ago, men tried to bar women from entering an entire street.

Beit Shemesh is just the floodgate for the rest of the country, says Philipp. If it can win its battle against the ultra-Orthodox infringements on women’s freedom, other Israeli cities can too. But if they are unable to do so, that defeat will spread to other parts of the country.

The ultra-Orthodox maintain that gender segregation and modesty is important to their fundamental values. To resist these values is to be culturally insensitive, a negation of their right to expression.

And while some ultra-Orthodox women may privately support change, they have fewer platforms from where they can speak out. They also fear repercussions. There have been several vocal ultra-Orthodox women fighting for equal rights – some even running for public office – but these instances are few and far between.

“The problem is the silence that allows it to happen,” says Coleman.

Sometimes it seems to these modern Orthodox women that they are the only ones stemming the tide of what they call religious fanaticism, with the secular community too “quick and eager” to appease the ultra-Orthodox.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government hinges upon their support. “Misogyny, chauvinism – I don’t have to be sensitive to that. Don’t try to corner me into that nonsense,” insists Philipp.

 

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Middle East

True relevance of the anniversary of the Islamic revolution

This week, 40 years ago, Iran’s military stood down, guaranteeing the Islamic Revolution’s success.

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PAULA SLIER

After months of unrest and protests in cities across the country, a secular monarchy headed by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, colloquially known as the Shah, was overthrown.

This dramatic turn-of-events would reshape the Middle East for decades to come, introducing a string of events, the implications of which are still being felt today.

Before the 1979 revolution, the Shah used much of the country’s oil and gas money to modernise the capital, Tehran. He largely ignored those living in the countryside, and came under increasing criticism for being out of touch with citizens, and serving as a puppet of Western governments.

It was a recipe bound for failure. The devout and the clergy became increasingly frustrated with his changes, and the expectations of the burgeoning middle class, especially students, could never be completely fulfilled.

In spite of the many reforms the Shah introduced, he could not stem the nationwide protests. In response, government forces killed thousands of demonstrators.

Although the unrest was initiated by radical student groups, religious fundamentalists gradually gained the upper hand. They rallied around the Shah’s primary critic, Islamic cleric Ruhollah Khomeini, who stood for everything the Shah did not. Khomeini envisaged an Iranian government founded on the principles of Islam, which was deeply opposed to the West. When he returned to Tehran from exile on 1 February 1979, he received a rapturous welcome.

Understanding what led to the revolution and the changes the country has undergone since is important in trying to map out future relations between Iran and Israel.

In a recent interview, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “We think of Iran as a state with an ideology, but actually Iran really is an ideology with a state.”

The cornerstone of the Iranian revolution, and one of its most important goals was the exportation of Shia Islam outside the country’s borders. Becoming a regional powerhouse remains one of the Islamic Republic’s overriding priorities. Even today, in spite of the country’s massive economic problems, in an effort to gain regional hegemony, it continues to prop up its proxies in Lebanon via Hezbollah (which it created), and in Gaza via Hamas.

This is also the most opportune way to attack Israel, a country Khomeini described in 1971 as having “penetrated all the economic, military, and political affairs” of Iran and turning it into “a military base for Israel”. The Iranian regime is relentlessly devoted to the destruction of the Jewish state.

It’s a far cry from pre-revolution days. Like the United States, Israel was closely allied to the Shah and before February 1979, the countries shared diplomatic and even some national security relations. Khomeini used this relationship to his advantage, arguing that Israel was a Western intrusion, and he was freeing the region from “imperialist” Israeli oppression. One of the first things he did after assuming power was abruptly to sever diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.

This past Monday, hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the country’s streets to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the revolution. They chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, while burning US and Israeli flags. A commander from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps threatened to “raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground” in the event of an American attack on the country.

Quick to respond, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that this would be Iran’s last anniversary of the revolution if it attacked any Israeli cities.

This trading of barbs is nothing new. The question, of course, is whether either side is willing to make true on its threats.

Some experts say Iran is willing to risk its own destruction to fight Israel. Others believe Tehran would never go that far and would rather continue to pour money into its proxy armies.

These experts back up their arguments by pointing out that in spite of the recent humiliations Tehran has suffered in Syria from Israeli airstrikes, it has avoided any major confrontation with the Jewish state.

In its heyday, the relationship with Iran formed part of Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion’s, vision of cultivating relations with the non-Arab, mostly Muslim, enemies of its enemies.

Known as the “periphery doctrine”, chief among these Israeli partners were Turkey and pre-revolution Iran.

Nowadays Israel has a “reverse periphery doctrine”, forging alliances with major Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. The logic is the same – but in reverse. These countries share a common enemy in Iran.

But, it doesn’t alleviate the very real threat Tehran continues to pose. The country is developing longer range and more sophisticated missiles that can reach American and Israeli targets. It is building weapons factories in Syria in the hope of establishing a permanent military presence near Israel’s northern border. Like the revolution that heralded the current leadership four decades ago, Iran’s rulers are intent on sponsoring their proxies, and destroying Israel.

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Middle East

How kite flying turned into all-out warfare

It was less than three years ago that a wave of stabbings engulfed the streets of Israel – particularly Jerusalem and the West Bank – prompting many to refer to the flare-up in violence as a “knife intifada”. Now, it looks like a “kite intifada” is on the cards.

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PAULA SLIER

It is ironic that Israel has some of the world’s most sophisticated air defence systems, but it hasn’t been able to stop these kites – a relatively simple phenomenon of kites dangling burning cloth or embers – from being flown into Israel.

It’s reminiscent of when Palestinian militants first started using Qassam rockets in the early 2000s. The “homemade bottle rocket” took the Israeli army by surprise, especially as it was something that could be made in a kitchen.

The great Israel Defence Forces (IDF) struggled to contain the threat of what is effectively sugar, smuggled or scavenged TNT, along with potassium and urea nitrate – both widely available fertilizers.

It was only much later that it deployed the “Red Alert” early warning system, made up of advanced radar, which detected rockets as they were being launched. Since March 2011, the Iron Dome has entered the fray, intercepting rockets before they can hit their targets.

Now again, like in the early years of the Qassam rocket, Israeli military figures are scratching their heads over how to stop kite and balloon warfare. While the IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is against firing at the teenage flyers, many in the political echelon support it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the IDF to stop the firebombs – reportedly giving Friday as the deadline. This raises concerns that if it doesn’t happen, another Gaza war could be on the cards.

Kites have long been a big deal in Gaza. Seven years ago, Palestinian children set the world record for flying the most number of kites at one time. The ones they built had slogans on them calling for a lasting peace with Israel, in which Palestinian children could live in safety and security.

The message today is very different. The kite flyers have admitted to stumbling upon the idea. Wanting to provoke Israeli soldiers, they say they attached a burning rag to a one-dollar kite and were delighted when it fell on the other side of the border and started a fire.

This incendiary kite flying is relatively new to Gaza. However, over the past few months, thousands of kites and balloons – about 20 a day – have landed in Israel. They have been attached to firebombs and Molotov cocktails in order to inflict maximum damage.

According to the Israel’s foreign ministry, more than 400 fires were started on Israeli farmlands and nature reserves, destroying more than an estimated 7 000 acres of land and costing more than $2 million (R26 million) in damages. A huge number of wildlife have been killed and experts say it will take many years, if at all, for the ecosystem of plants, predators and prey to fully recover.

Not all the kites have caused fires and there haven’t been any fatalities on the Israeli side. Nevertheless, they’ve certainly put psychological stress on the communities living in southern Israel. They’ve in turn increasingly put pressure on the Israeli government to do something.

For the first time since the phenomenon started, Netanyahu visited the southern Israeli city of Sderot on Monday.

Until now he’s been more focused on the country’s northern border, where he’s trying to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military foothold in Syria.

Netanyahu is wary of escalating tensions on the Gaza border. However, last weekend more than 200 rockets and mortars were fired by Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Israel responded with its largest airstrike in the coastal strip since 2014. In a rare admission, Hamas said it had sent the rockets and mortars to deter Israel from more attacks.

Also known as Operation Protective Edge, that 2014 war started this month four years ago. Still, Israeli residents on the border find themselves living in as precarious a situation now as then.

At the time of writing, a ceasefire brokered by Egypt between the sides is holding, but tensions are high. The United Nations special envoy says an all-out war was narrowly averted. Jerusalem insists the kite flying must stop for the truce to sustain itself. However, Hamas earlier threatened that if the kite flyers are attacked, they’ll “go back to rockets”.

For this reason, the Israeli military urged the Cabinet “not to cross the line: not to try to kill the organisers, lest it trigger a general escalation on the border”.

And so Israel has drafted civilian drone enthusiasts as army reservists and instructed them to fly their remote-controlled aircraft into the kites. The army has also deployed a number of companies along the Gaza border to monitor the skies and quickly put out the fires.

The good news is that their effect is being felt. In recent weeks, there has been a steady decline in the size of the areas damaged by ensuing fires.

But just like with the Qassam rockets, a long-term effective means to stop the kites has yet to be found. As for the balloons, they are flown from deeper inside Gaza, often at a height of more than a kilometre, and are hard to spot with the naked eye before landing and starting a fire.

Then there’s the added problem of how the international community and media judge any Israeli response.

The recent six-week “Great March of Return”, in which more than 130 Palestinians were killed in protests along the border, is still seen by many in the global community as a “disproportionate” Israeli response to “unarmed” Palestinian protesters. That is despite all Israeli arguments to the contrary.

There will be little to no sympathy if the IDF now kills children flying kites and balloons because of some fires near the Gaza Strip. It will also be seen as immoral.

When Jerusalem finally gets a handle on the “kite intifada”, there will no doubt be something new in the pipeline that will terrorise the Israeli public. The cycle will continue for as long as the two million Gazans feel compelled to search for desperate measures to break the decade-long blockade imposed on them by Israel and Egypt. And, for as long as they search, Israelis will continue seeing their response as another form of Palestinian terrorism.

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Israel’s diplomacy with Russia reaps benefits in Syria

Media reports suggest that Iranian forces, assisted by Hezbollah and Shia militias, are to withdraw from the areas they currently occupy near the Golan Heights in southern Syria.

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PAULA SLIER

This is a huge victory for Israel, whose position has been consistent: not to allow any kind of Iranian military camps to be set up near Israel’s northern border with Syria.

The Israelis have achieved this by getting Moscow on their side. After all, it is Russia who calls the shots in Syria. It has been doing so ever since September 2015, when it was invited by the Damascus government to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

In the past week, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited the Russian capital, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a telephone discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Reports suggest that both sides agreed that Moscow would allow Jerusalem – albeit tacitly – to attack Iranian sites in Syria, as long as they were not tied to the Damascus government, which Russia supports.

Netanyahu is all smiles. Repeatedly he’s made his position clear: allowing Iran to set up military bases in Syria is a red line from which he won’t budge. And since May, there has certainly been a change in Russia’s behaviour towards Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

Think back to February, when the Israeli air force shot down an Iranian drone that had entered Israeli territory. Jerusalem responded with two waves of aerial bombardments that destroyed almost half of Syria’s air defence systems.

In a foreign ministry statement, Moscow objected to Israel’s violation of Syrian sovereignty, while ignoring Tehran’s provocation by sending in the drone in the first place.

Moscow would have known when the Iranian drone took off, as it was very close to its air-control centre in the Syrian city of Palmyra. Moscow chose not to give the Israelis any warning.

At the time, there was a lot of discussion and analysis about whether Russia had taken Iran’s side in the conflagration.

Compare this to last month’s 9 May Victory Day celebrations, when Netanyahu had pride of place, walking alongside Putin in Red Square during the ceremonial military parade. The following night, the Israeli air force carried out massive attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, it’s largest action there in decades.

This time, the Russians did not issue a strong statement of criticism against Jerusalem – and in so doing sent a tacit message to both the Israelis and the Iranians. The message: Russia is not in the pocket of Iran, and is prepared to turn the cheek when Israel strikes Iranian sites in Syria.

Jerusalem has repeatedly vowed to prevent Tehran establishing a permanent presence in Syria. In recent months, Jerusalem has carried out dozens of air strikes against Iran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Should the Russians have chosen to do so, they would have had the ability to protect such targets with their own air force and air defence systems inside Syria. But clearly they’ve chosen not to.

Israel has always respected Russia’s involvement in Syria, presumably because she sees it as a means of stabilising her northern neighbour. In return, Russia understands Israel’s security concerns.

Netanyahu has made it abundantly clear on repeated occasions that he will not shy away from using military force to keep Iran out of Syria.

No doubt, Moscow wants to avoid a military confrontation between Russia and Israel that would risk a direct clash with American President Donald Trump, who sits squarely behind Jerusalem.

Now, as the war in Syria winds down, Moscow is pushing for a peace settlement to be hammered out as soon as possible. Iranian advancement in Syria destabilises the chances of success. What’s more, the Russians are distrustful of Tehran.

The countries share a complicated and uneasy history. Moscow’s standing in the Middle East is the strongest it’s been in decades. It doesn’t want to upset relationships it’s worked hard to cultivate with other major powers in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis.

Politically, Putin doesn’t need the war in Syria to earn him brownie points back home. He campaigned heavily on his foreign policy achievements in the Middle East and North Africa ahead of the Russian presidential elections in March. However, now that he’s secured a fourth term in office, his attentions have turned elsewhere.

Iran, meanwhile, says it won’t withdraw its troops from Syria, arguing that, like Russia, it is in the war-torn country at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But it’s questionable what the Iranians could do should Moscow pressure them to leave. Assad would listen to Moscow; and ultimately the Iranians would follow suit.

This week, Tehran announced that it was working to increase its uranium enrichment capacity in a threat to European powers who are desperately trying to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal after the Trump administration withdrew from it.

The country is trying to save face in what was a huge blow, not only for Iranian reformists, but also for the Iranian economy which is now bracing for crippling sanctions.

For Tehran to have to withdraw from Syria would be another major setback to the country’s prestige. It would also hinder the establishment of an overland stretch of influence from Iran to southern Lebanon.

It’s still too early to say whether Israel’s diplomacy with Russia will result in the complete removal of Iran from Syria. Israel’s success so far seems to have been only to keep Iranian forces away from her border.

The next step will be for Netanyahu to convince Putin that Iranian forces must leave Syria completely. It remains to be seen whether he can succeed.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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