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In his frequent televised appearances announcing the increasingly strict regulations to deal with the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the public to stay home, because our homes are the safest place to be.
But homes aren’t safe for everyone.
“The combination of being forced to stay at home, the financial pressures, the loss of structure to our day, and being home with the children—all this can lead to sexual and physical abuse of women,” says Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers.
At least three women have been murdered since the lockdown began in March: A woman was murdered by her domestic partner in Rishon L’Tzion; a 19-year-old woman was shot in the street in Umm al-Fahm; and an 84-year-old grandmother was killed in her home in the city of Tayibe. According to Maha Shehade, an attorney with Itach-Maaki, a feminist rights organization, the young woman, who had fled her abusive home and was living in another city, came back because of the quarantine regulations.
Indeed, all of the various hotlines are reporting an increase in calls regarding intimate partner violence. “We are seeing normative families reporting violence for the first time,” says Rivka Neuman, head of the women’s advancement division at WIZO, which operates two shelters and a hotline, as well as “ a worsening of the situation in families that have been in the cycle of violence.”
Several feminist Israeli organizations, in both the Arabic- and the Hebrew-speaking communities, maintain shelters to which women suffering from extreme violence can escape; some allow them to escape with children, as well. But as the Rape Crisis Centers’ Sulitzeanu notes, these shelters cannot provide a full response to the problem at this time. “Not only are the shelters 90 to 95 percent full at the best of times,” she says, “but now, since everyone is in lockdown, no one is leaving the shelters, and there is really no room.” The Ministry of Social Affairs is looking into opening additional shelters, possibly utilizing now-vacant boarding schools.
It’s likely the number of calls only partially reflects the actual scope of the violence. “Because they are home together all the time,” says Sulitzeanu, “many women will be afraid to call, for fear of angering their abusive partner.”
In response to a coordinated appeal from an ad-hoc coalition of feminist groups, Internal Security minister, Gilad Erdan, instructed the police to initiate calls to homes where violence is known to have taken place or where, according to the assessments of social services workers, it is likely to occur. However, Sulitzeanu notes, this solution could also put the victim in greater danger, since the abuser may be angered by the police officers’ visit.
Also, in response to demands by feminist organizations, social workers who specialize in domestic violence are continuing to work regularly after they were exempted from the emergency orders issued by the government.
Another feminist coalition, “Gun-Free Kitchen Tables,” which works to disarm the domestic sphere by restricting security guards’ guns to their work sites, was able to persuade Erdan to instruct all private security firms to collect the firearms of the workers that they have laid off.
According to Shehade, the situation is worse in the Arab community than in the Jewish community. “Levels of femicide are higher in the Arab sector for many reasons. There are also a tremendous number of weapons in Arab society, but almost all of it is illegal—so efforts such as those of ‘Gun-Free Kitchen Tables,’ do not provide solutions,” she explains.
Moreover, she adds, Arab families tend to be larger, and since the Arab population is, on average, much poorer than the Jewish population, their housing conditions are poorer and much more crowded.
“The needs of Arab women have long been neglected by the state authorities,” says Shehade. “Most of these problems are not new, but the corona crisis has both created new problems and placed a magnifying glass over the existing situation.”
The Israel Women’s Network, one of Israel’s most prominent feminist organizations, is demanding the establishment of an emergency command center to coordinate among the various ministries and organizations that are attempting to provide solutions for the women, to distribute information, and to assess various needs, such as availability of shelters, in different areas of the country. The group is also demanding immediate allocation of resources for the establishment of new shelters and funds for the staffing of emergency hotlines and professionals who can provide services to both abused women and abusive men.
As in most countries, however, the Israeli economy will be severely affected by this crisis. Given the almost-complete absence of women in high political and decision-making positions, and the low number of women recently elected to the Knesset, there is every reason to fear that women’s needs will not be high on the country’s list of priorities for the allocation of funds, during or after the crisis.