Jaffa, Israel – “I think twice before going out to Tel Aviv. I calculate how long the trip is, how long it will take, what the route is,” said Sawsan Kurdi, a 53-year-old mother of six from Jaffa.
“We’re talking about traditional women with a headscarf,” she added. “If you get on a bus, they might ask you to leave. Or they might try to take your scarf off.”
One of the oldest port cities in the world, Jaffa was the centre of Palestinian life before 1948. Today, the city is part of the Tel Aviv municipality and is fast being gentrified. Around 20,000 Palestinians remain, comprising a third of Jaffa’s inhabitants.
Sawsan, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, said that health clinics in Jaffa are far too few to serve the needs of the population, so she travels to Tel Aviv for this purpose. But although the city is only a short distance by bus, she tries to avoid the trip unless absolutely necessary.
“Sometimes I take my son or daughter with me; other times I don’t go at all,” she told Al Jazeera.
We're talking about traditional women with a headscarf. If you get on a bus, they might ask you to leave. Or they might try to take your scarf off.
A recent survey by the Knesset Research and Information Center that dealt with perceptions of personal security among residents of Israel – from economics, to health, to employment, to feelings of safety in public spaces – found Palestinian women were by far the most vulnerable group.
The survey, conducted in February and released in March, found that overall women’s sense of personal security was lower than men’s. It divided the Israeli population into four groups: Israeli-born Jewish citizens, Russian immigrants, Haredi and Arabs. Among women, Arabs were found to feel the least secure, with 73 percent of Palestinian women fearing discrimination due to their identity, followed by Haredi women at just over 30 percent.
While 30 percent of men and women overall said that fears of arrest or interrogation had affected their sense of personal security, the number rose to 79 percent among Arab women, who were also the group most afraid of being harmed because of their appearance.
“In Jaffa, we feel safe; it is our home,” said Safa Younes, the founder of Arous Elbahar, a centre that works to empower Palestinian women in Jaffa. “But most women don’t feel comfortable going out – especially older women, those who don’t work outside the house. I heard stories of women being verbally abused, or someone might try to pull their hijab.”
Such concerns have been magnified amid a worsening security climate. Since October 1, Israeli forces or settlers have killed 199 Palestinians, including unarmed demonstrators, bystanders and alleged attackers throughout the occupied West Bank, Israel and Gaza. At least 28 Israelis, including soldiers, were killed, mostly in stabbing attacks.
Palestinians blame the violence on Israeli occupation, oppression and deep disillusionment after peace negotiations collapsed two years ago.
“Arabs have now become the enemy inside Israeli society,” said Samah Salaime, a writer and social worker who runs a centre for female victims of violence in Lyd and Ramla, two poor, mixed cities near Tel Aviv, where Palestinians and Jewish Israelis live in ghettoised neighbourhoods.
“If there was a difference between Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and Palestinians from the occupied territories, that difference has now blurred,” Salaime told Al Jazeera.
Human rights groups and Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset have repeatedly accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of inciting against its own Palestinian citizens.
“These days, it is enough for a Jewish man to say a woman has a knife in her bag,” Salaime said. “That’s what happened in Lyd. When Fauzya Jamal was attacked, they called the police and the police beat up the woman and her daughter in front of everybody. When they searched her, they didn’t find anything in her bag.”
Incidents like these – as well as more high-profile cases, such as that of Israa Abed, who was shot amid allegations that she intended to carry out a stabbing attack, an accusation that was later shown to be untrue – have worsened an already difficult environment for Palestinian women in Israel, Salaime said.
“The security institutions … are supposed to protect women, not injure them,” she said. “The Arab population [has] lost security and trust in the system.”
Trust was never high to begin with. The Women’s Security Index, a coalition of women’s groups, releases research every year that analyses women’s security from different perspectives. In 2013, it found that Palestinian women were almost twice as likely to fear government institutions – both security and civil – than Israeli women.
The recent survey showed that more than half of all respondents were worried about being harmed by government institutions – a figure that leaped to 74 percent among Arab women.
According to rights group Adalah, since 1948, Israel has passed more than 50 laws that directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who comprise 1.8 million people, or 20 percent of the population. A 2003 amendment to the citizenship law, banning family unification where one spouse is an Israeli and the other is from the West Bank or Gaza, has had a particularly detrimental effect on women. Most of the estimated 8,000 cases of spouses living illegally in Israel are women, said Sawsan Zaher, a senior lawyer at Adalah.
“On top of that, those who got married and do have a permit, depend on it. If they divorce, they must get out. There are women trapped in marriage, and of course victims of violence,” Zaher told Al Jazeera.
Aida Touma Suliman, a Knesset member for the communist-socialist Hadash party, part of the Joint List, said that as institutions get “more violent, more discriminatory”, women have felt the effects particularly badly.
Suliman – who heads the Knesset committee on the status of women and gender equality, which commissioned the survey – said Palestinian women are subject to discrimination both at the gender level, and at the national level.
“The fact that the institutions are not dealing seriously with gender-based violence inside the society enables the perpetrators to continue to do whatever they are doing because they are not afraid,” Suliman added. “Look at the murder cases. Most cases that involve Jewish women are solved, while more than 50 percent of Arab women’s murders are not investigated.”
Naila Awwad, the coordinator of Women Against Violence, an organisation that supports Palestinian women living in Israel, told Al Jazeera that before October 2000, 40 percent of women coming to her group’s domestic-violence shelter had filed a police report. The number has since fallen to 20 percent.
“I myself am careful about speaking Arabic in public, or opening my bag,” Salaime told Al Jazeera. “Some women avoid answering the phone in public; others have started changing their clothes, wearing their headscarf differently. Security and police are not predictable.”