Sex is a taboo topic in the conservative Palestinian society. So it came as a nasty surprise to many when the rampant sexual harassment in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip was recently brought to public attention.
A damning report, entitled "Gaza: Sexual Harassment and Bribery Chase Job-Seekers," was published in the Beirut-based, Hezbollah-affiliated newspaper Al-Akhbar. Amjad Yaghi, the young Palestinian journalist who wrote the exposé, showed extraordinary courage in doing so.
Hamas, needless to say, was not amused.
Yaghi wrote that
"[some] public personalities in the Gaza Strip are no longer abiding by the professional standards of their moral work after being overcome by their sexual instincts and professional duties. They are exploiting their status, especially their decision-making regarding employment, appointments and providing services and funds to projects in light of the absence of working opportunities for women."
According to Yaghi, the report was published in a Lebanese newspaper because the Palestinian media forbids stories that might enrage the public and "harm" Palestinian traditions and morals.
Yaghi sets out clearly the Catch-22:
"The victims do not have the freedom to talk about their experiences and that is why most of the women who are subjected to sexual harassment remain silent. ... They are afraid that they could be deprived of new employment or that their reputation would be affected."
The report found at least 36 Palestinian women working in various fields who had fallen victim to sexual harassment and exploitation. Reflecting Yaghi's description of their dilemma, 25 of the victims refused to provide full details about their experiences, and the remaining 11 agreed to talk openly about the problem only on condition of anonymity.
Sexual crimes of various sorts were reported. Twenty of the women reported experiencing sexual harassment at their workplaces, while ten others said they were asked to provide "sexual bribes." Six of the women told Yaghi that they had been sexually assaulted at work.
A 27-year-old female journalist told the Yaghi that a Palestinian official working for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) invited her to his office for a job interview:
"When she came to his office, the official tried to approach and touch her, but she walked away and left the office... The following day, the official was more honest with her; he offered her the job in return for having sexual intercourse with him. She was shocked and stopped talking to him."
The woman believes that the senior status of the official who sexually harassed her will protect him from being held accountable for his behavior. She also alluded to a larger and deeper problem in the Arab and Islamic world: "Our society doubts the integrity of a woman who talks about honor." As a third obstacle to prosecution, she noted that under Palestinian law, UNRWA officials enjoy immunity from being prosecuted.
Immunity from prosecution for sexual crimes, however, apparently does not apply to the top echelons of internationally funded organizations. For example, the director of an international aid organization in the Gaza Strip, who purportedly offered a 28-year-old job applicant a highly-paid position in return for sex.
Lawyers in the Gaza Strip would seem to have enough to do without sexually harassing their employees. But a 23-year-old female legal trainee told the investigative journalist that her boss, a 45-year-old male attorney, made sexual advances to her and to three of her female colleagues. Another male lawyer offered a female colleague 50 shekels ($12) if she allowed him to touch her body.
According to the report, 13 female journalists in the Gaza Strip have also faced sexual harassment and assault in recent years.
Yaghi found that the Palestinian Basic Law does not tackle the issue of sexual harassment in Palestinian society. While the law does refer to corruption in the workplace, sexual harassment is not detailed as a form of corruption.
Much has been written recently about the widespread increase in child abuse in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where children are exposed to constant brainwashing by armed groups. Last week, a new video surfaced of how the radical Islamist groups in the Gaza Strip incite Palestinian children. The video features children dressed as Islamic Jihad militiamen, play-acting the detonation of a bomb near an Israeli tank. The audience, the parents of these child actors, can be heard cheering and applauding.
In a society where children are indoctrinated to murder Jews, it comes as no surprise that women are victims of different kinds of exploitation as well.
Yaghi keeps the identities of the male offenders out of the public eye. Yet these are clearly senior officials working in the private and public sectors. Just as clearly, the sexual harassment victim of the UNRWA official was right: the Hamas connections of these criminals will no doubt keep them out of jail and in positions of power.
Where are the women's rights organizations now? And where are the European and American overseers of the international human rights organizations in the Gaza Strip? Could it be that these worthy watchdogs only awaken from their slumber when they smell fresh Israeli meat? Meanwhile, how many women will be sexually assaulted and harassed while these watchdogs sleep?
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem.