Antonia Zerbisias and Pedophilia in Palestinian Society / Jonathan D.Halevi

Hamas wedding ceremony

Canadian journalist Antonia Zerbisias published an article in the Toronto Star (January 27, 2010) bearing the title Gazan Weddings Not About Pedophilia. In the beginning of the column, Zerbisias made it clear that she didn’t write it to defend Hamas, which she criticized for its unacceptably strict attitude towards women. She explained that her main intention was to rebut allegations disseminated like mushrooms after rain on the web and in emails accusing Hamas of organizing a mass marriage in July 2009 in which 10-year old girls were married to Palestinian men. Zerbisias contends that the little girls dressed like brides, as shown in the pictures and video clips documenting the mass marriage, were not the brides themselves, but relatives of the brides who were not exposed to the media for modesty reasons.

In her column, Zerbisias tries to find out the real motivation behind disseminating the false allegations on the pedophile mass marriage of Hamas. “That's because, despite mass Hamas weddings in the past, including one covered by the BBC in 2005, there were no previous accusations of pedophilia. It was only in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, which killed some 1,400 Gazans, including hundreds of children, that this lie began,” she wrote. [1]

An independent probe I’ve made of Palestinian open sources shows that Zerbisias’s first argument is very likely correct. The 10-year old girls were not the real brides. However, an official list of the brides’ names was never published by Hamas and there is no way to know for certain their exact age. Ahmed Jarbour, the Hamas official in Gaza responsible for social activity, told WND’s reporter Ahron Klein that the youngest girl who was married at the ceremony was 16 years old and most brides were above the age of 18. [2] It seems that those who published the allegation against Hamas were deluded by the misleading pictures of the event and did not conduct a thorough investigation.

Examining Zerbisias's second argument regarding the motivation of intentionally spreading out “the lie” after Operation Cast Lead brought about interesting findings. The phenomenon of early marriage was well known in Palestinian society long before the Israeli military operation in Gaza started on December 27, 2008. According the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 682 girls aged 14 and younger were legally married in 2000. Two of them were married to men who were 35 or older, 13 to men 30 to 34, 117 to men 25 to 29, 378 to men 20 to 24 and 172 to men 15 to 19. Child marriages of girls 14 and younger made up 2.9 per cent of the total number of registered marriages. In the same year, 13,163 Palestinian girls between 15 and 19 were legally married, surpassing 55 per cent of all registered marriages. [3]

Local human rights organizations are deeply concerned about child marriage in Palestinian society. Participants of a conference in Gaza dedicated to this issue in January 2008, organized by the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS), warned of the “significant rise in child marriage rate” and its severe psychological and physical implications on youth.[4] The phenomenon of early marriage was also discussed in April 2008 in another conference held by the Palestinian Red Crescent and Widad Society. [5]

The Palestinian law, amended in 2005 and valid in the Gaza Strip, set 18 as the minimum age for marriage. However, it gives authority to the Islamic court to approve marriages of minor females and males alike if the supreme judge of the Islamic court is convinced that they are mature physically and mentally. [6]

The power of the Islamic court in the Gaza Strip was reinforced after Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority institutions in a violent military coup in June 2007. The Arab daily Al Hayat reported in December 2008 , a few days before Operation Cast Lead, that the Hamas parliament in Gaza voted in favour of a law allowing courts to mete out sentences in accordance with Sharia law. According to the bill, if approved, courts would be able to condemn offenders to a series of violent punitive measures that include whipping, severing of hands, crucifixion and hanging. The bill reserves death sentences for people who negotiate with a foreign government "against Palestinian interests" and engage in any activity that can "hurt Palestinian morale." Hayat further reported that any Palestinian caught drinking or selling wine would suffer forty lashes at the whipping post if the bill passes. Convicted thieves would lose their right hand [7]. Since then, the Hamas government has slowly but gradually implemented a series of rules in accordance with Islamic law that affect many aspects of daily life, including the enforcement of a dress code for women on the street, in schools and in the courts and a prohibition against mixed-gender public ceremonies. [8]

The Kuwaiti Awan newspaper’s journalist, Shima Yusuf, investigated the phenomenon of child marriage in Gaza in light of reports on the flourishing import of young Egyptian girls from poor families for prostitution and slavery under the cover of marriage. In her article, published on December 28, 2009, Shima Yusuf writes the following:

“There was a series of accounts on a new commerce via the tunnels [of Rafah] in which minor Egyptian females from extremely poor families were brought to the Gaza Strip in a somehow dark game which ends in either their marriage, service in houses or working in the oldest profession in history!

“... one of the passengers [of the taxi in which the reporter drove] started talking of the golden solution via the tunnels, saying that it is possible to get an Egyptian woman for only $1,000 paid to the middleman at the tunnel’s entrance and handing him a copy of the groom’s identification card...

“Quick tour at Rafah’s tunnels reveals that the story I’ve heard in the taxi was not a joke... Abu Asi [40 year old, working in the tunnels] is saying fearlessly: “I’m married to three women. The first one is a Palestinian who lives in my house located in the eastern area of the city of Khan Yunis [south of Gaza] and raises the children. The second and the third are Egyptians and were brought during my many shuttles in the tunnels between Egypt and Rafah. I persuaded them to marry me because of their extreme poverty.

“Later I decided to make this marriage an investment [business] by purchasing a house in Egyptian Rafah [Rafah is divided between Egypt and the Gaza Strip] in which my two wives are living and helping me in bringing young girls from the communities adjacent to Rafah, and particularly from the villages of Al-Sharqia district [of Egyprt]. That is done by convincing the families of the poor young girls to marry their daughters to Palestinian men.

“Giving his consent to marry his daughter [to a Palestinian man] the father receives an amount that does not surpass 1,000 Egyptian pounds [193 CAD] and a copy of the groom’s ID and his phone number, and then the brides lodge in my house in Rafah and the suitable husband is found for them. After finding the husband from whom I receive 1,000 USD, I send a copy of his ID and his phone number to my two wives and they in their turn send it to brides’ families. Then the brides are smuggled via the tunnels and handed to their grooms at the entrance of the tunnel in the Palestinian Rafah”.

“When asked on the fate of the young girls brought by him, Abu Asi said: “I don’t care what happens with them. The most important thing to me is closing the deal, even knowing that some of them will be married, some will be sent for working in rich people's houses in Gaza and others are destined for the many drug dealers and pimps operating in area of south eastern Gaza.

“I asked Abu Asi on the number of minor girls lodged in his house. He said: “the number is beyond my expectations and that is an indication to the professionalism of my two wives and their capability of persuasion which made me renting more than a house as the number of the young girls reached now hundreds”. [9]

In conclusion, 16-year old females, minors by Western standards, were married in the mass wedding held by Hamas in July 2009. However, the report regarding 10-year old brides is groundless. Probing the wide spectrum of this issue reveals that child marriage is well known and rooted in Palestinian society based on its culture and religion. Disturbing media accounts shed light on the “prosperous import” of minor females from Egypt via Rafah tunnels for slavery and prostitution. The abundant information on child marriage originates from Palestinian sources and has nothing to do with Operation Cast Lead.







[7] Al-Hayat (London), December 24, 2008




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