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Israeli sex crime law condemned for giving Jews lesser punishment for rape

Bipartisan bill doubles penalties for Palestinians convicted of sexual assault or harassment if authorities deem there was a 'nationalistic' motive
Israeli authorities can give give Palestinian citizens double punishments for sexual assault (Reuters/file photo)
Israeli authorities can give Palestinian citizens double punishments for sexual assault (Reuters/file photo)
By Lubna Masarwa in Jerusalem and Katherine Hearst in London

Israel's parliament on Sunday passed a law that has been condemned for allowing Jewish Israelis to have a lesser punishment for rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment than Palestinian citizens.

The "sexual terrorism" law, which was passed by 39 MPs to seven, directly targets Palestinian citizens of Israel who have sexually assaulted or harassed Jewish women if authorities deem the motive as "nationalistic".

Penalties can now be doubled for convicted Palestinians, with the previous maximum penalty standing at 16 years.

Unusually, the bill was co-sponsored by a key part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, the far-right Jewish Power party, and a faction from the opposition, Yisrael Beiteinu.

At a time when Israeli politics is in crisis over highly controversial judicial reforms, the bill is a rare example of bipartisan support in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, but the latest in a string of legislation that has been accused of being discriminatory against Palestinians.

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Six of the MPs that voted against were Palestinian citizens of Israel, alongside just one Jewish lawmaker.

"This is not what an opposition looks like, this is not what a struggle for democracy looks like. Be ashamed," Israeli journalist Yisrael Frey tweeted in response.

The new legislation has drawn fierce criticism from commentators, politicians and women's rights activists, who say that it is tantamount to a race law that exploits victims of sexual violence and disproportionately impacts Palestinian citizens.

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MP Aida Touma-Suleiman of the left-wing Hadash party poured scorn over the prospect of judging an assailant on their identity, asking if it was reasonable for someone to prefer the suffering of a woman over another because of the identity of her rapist.

"This law will not prosecute Israeli officials harassing Palestinian women at checkpoints, nor Shin Bet interrogators who harass them during interrogations. It's custom-made only to be used against Arabs," Touma-Suleiman told Middle East Eye.

"Every sexual offender is despicable, filthy and should rot behind bars, regardless of the identity of their victim - whether she is Arab, Jew, of the left or right," she added.

"Shame on this government for exploiting the pain and suffering of sexual assaults victims to incite against Arabs."

Denial there is a 'growing phenomenon'

The bill's sponsors, Jewish Power's Limor Son Har-Melech and Yisrael Beiteinu's Yulia Malinovsky, said that the law was intended to combat what they described as a "growing phenomenon of nationalist terrorism" in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

During a debate on the law two weeks ago, Son Har-Melech said the bill provides "proper and correct treatment to female Jewish victims".

"It can't be the case that the honour of Jewish women is violated by miscreants who get away with no or ridiculous punishments," she said.

Son Har-Melech claimed to have heard "dozens" of testimonies from women travelling on buses in the occupied West Bank who faced sexual harassment "due to nationalistic context".

'They are essentially telling women that rape is allowed but not by a Palestinian... that the problem is not the crime but the identity of the perpetrator'

- Laila Jaroshy, Assiwar - Arab feminist movement

However, Palestinian and Israeli women's rights defenders have denied that sexual assault with so-called "nationalistic" motives is an issue.

Laila Jaroshy, an activist in the Assiwar -Arab feminist movement, said her group has never come across any case of "rape with nationalist motivation".

"Will they determine from a legal point of view what the motives for sexual assault are?" she asked.

Jaroshy told MEE that Israeli women should "take to the streets" as the law represented their "ultimate objectification".

"They are essentially telling women that rape is allowed but not by a Palestinian, and that the problem is not the crime itself but the identity of the perpetrator," she added.

"[This law] embodies the symbiosis between chauvinism and racism - two sides of the same coin… this is a blatant exploitation of women's bodies."

Orly Noy, writer and chair of B'Tselem, Israel's largest human rights group, said that the law's racial profiling has troubling connotations that even resemble the Nuremberg Laws of Germany in the 1930s, a comparison that is a highly charged accusation in Israel.

"This is another expression of the ideology of Jewish supremacy that dictates all of this dangerous government policy," Noy told MEE.

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"Instead of seriously fighting gender crime, they exploit the woman's body in favour of a nationalist and racist agenda, and turn it into another tool in the establishment of Jewish supremacy."

In May this year, Israel ranked last out of 38 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in its gender equality index.

The rise of extremist discourse and growing influence of the far right in Israeli politics has been connected to heightened discrimination against women in politics, the workforce and military.

In November 2022, a report by the Association of Rape Crisis Centres revealed a surge in sexual violence across the Israeli military, prisons service and police, concluding that the uptick was driven by the normalisation of "masculine" and "militaristic" hierarchies in these institutions.

In 2012, a Palestinian from the occupied West Bank was convicted of rape in a Tel Aviv assault that Israeli authorities said had political motivations.

The new bill stipulates that the justice and national security ministers must report the number of "nationalistically motivated" sexual assault investigations and cases filed annually to the National Security Committee.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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