By: Mai Abdul Rahman/Arab America Contributing Writer
Palestinian and Israeli women peace activists must become fully involved in shaping the peace they envision. Their shared outlook on the human cost of the Israeli military occupation on their young is an asset to Palestinians and Israelis. Had they been invited to participate, especially during the Oslo negotiations, Palestinians and Israelis would more likely be living as neighbors. But all is not lost.
Palestinian and Israeli women peace activists share a unique perspective on the impact of the Israeli military occupation. Their outlook on the human cost of the daily violence on their young transcends the general view held by the predominantly male political establishment within Israel and Palestine.
Women Peace Activists Surpass the Limits of their Political Landscape
In spite of their difficult political environment, Palestinian and Israeli women peace activists have managed to transcend their fractured communities. They have built trusting relationships to end the cyclical wars and senseless suffering. They are guided by one shared goal: realizing peace based on justice. Their absence in every major and minor development, as well as the decades-long, failed peace process has proved too costly. The relationships they built since the 1980s are an asset to Palestinians and Israelis.
The Making of Women Peace Activists
During the first Intifada (shaking off in Arabic) in the late 1980s, Palestinian women began organizing at the grassroots level with Israeli women. Many Israeli women lead protests against Israel’s occupation policies within Israel. Together, they collaborated in organizing events that involved information to Israelis about the occupation. Israeli women were actively involved with Palestinian women in planning and documenting Israel’s acts of violence, and participated in nonviolent direct action alongside Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Both parties understood the human cost of the occupation on their young, and both were driven to end it.
Palestinian-Israeli women activism took root during the first Intifada. Twenty years after Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, an Israeli military truck collided with cars carrying Palestinian laborers in the Jabalya refugee district of Gaza. Four Palestinians were left dead, and another 10 were wounded. A few hours later, Palestinians spontaneously poured into the streets of Gaza. The following day, on December 8, 1987, Israeli soldiers killed a 17 years old Palestinian protester, and injured 14 others including underage children, sparking the first Intifada.
Their exasperation of decades of Israeli occupation was mirrored across the Occupied Palestinian Territories. A massive nonviolent uprising soon spread throughout occupied Palestine. Israel’s brutal response towards the Palestinian protesters gave the impetus for Israeli women peace activists to mobilize against Israel’s military occupation and policies.
The Israeli military response to the unarmed protesters included a government-sanctioned policy of breaking the bones of Palestinians irrespective of their age rapidly increased the number of fatalities. For example, in one swoop, the entire young population in Amari refugee camp were “hopping on crutches or were in casts.” By any measure, this official Israeli response was too much to tolerate.
According to the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem, during the first Intifada alone, the Israeli forces killed 1,070 Palestinians, including 237 children, arrested and routinely tortured more than 175,000 Palestinians many of whom were underage children. To boot, Israel’s illegal settlers killed 254 Palestinians and injured countless others. In addition, Israel imposed long and recurring school suspensions (Kindergarten-college) and curfews and deported hundreds of household heads. Israel’s open hostility towards the Palestinian protesters evoked the compassion of most observers including some Israelis.
More critically, the First Intifada’s limited aim gained the support of Israeli women. Palestinians sought self-determination only within the Palestinian Territories, not all of historic Palestine wherefrom many of the protesters were forcefully expelled rendering them homeless stateless refugees. Their primary motivation was to divest from Israel’s military rule. The fierce desire of the approximately 1.7 million Palestinians, who had lived for two decades under the strict mandates of the Israeli military occupation to be free, made it possible for Israeli women to join the Palestinian call.
Also, during that period, Palestinian women’s collectives had multiplied across the occupied territories. These collectives were keenly interested in reaching out to Israeli women. This was a radical departure from the past. The goals of the Palestinian Women’s Action Committees, the Working Women’s Committees, the Union of Women’s Committees, and the Women’s Committee for Social Work included the engagement of Israeli women.
Within the Green Line (West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza), Palestinian women lost husbands of children, relatives, and communities. They witnessed unspeakable cruelty. In addition to confronting Israel’s daily violence on unarmed protesters, women faced family separation and food insecurity that affected them and psychologically traumatized their children. Their social structures were destroyed, their relationships and traditional networks were severed, and they were left to head their households and communities
Israel’s harsh measures left a leadership void in every Palestinian sector, which necessitated Palestinian women to step in. They took over top political positions, issuing directives to guide the Palestinian uprising and managed the daily needs of their communities. Palestinian women coordinated strike days, distributed secret leaflets outlining weekly protest strategies, organized tax revolts, operated underground schools, ran agricultural collectives, set up mobile clinics, victory gardens, and sanitation projects. The first Intifada showcased Palestinian women as leaders and organizers. Above all, their collaborative association with Israeli women across the Green Line changed perspectives in their own society.
On the other side of the Green Line, Israeli women began establishing women lead groups in support of the Palestinian demands. ‘Women in Black’ was organized in 1988 to protest Israel’s military occupation. Israeli women were also key players in forming several Israeli human rights organizations including ‘B’Tselem’ and the ‘Israeli- Palestinian Committee Confronting the Iron Fist’. Several female Israeli lawyers, most notably Felicia Langer and Leah Tsemel dedicated their time and legal practice to defending Palestinian activists and prisoners in Israeli courts.
Both were instrumental in calling attention to Israel’s mistreatment of underage children. All of which made it possible for Palestinians to distinguish between the Israeli State and its far-right politicians whose actions robbed them their freedoms and lands. In addition, Israel’s peace activists who rejected the actions of the Israeli State, its settlement enterprise, and political leaders. Their earnest dedication gained the respect of many Palestinians. It also opened the space for Israelis to question the human cost of Israel’s military policies.
The Budding of a Possible Peace and its Doom
While the mass mobilization during the First Intifada was not new for Palestinian women, the inclusion and cooperation of Israeli and Palestinian women at every level of society was distinctive. The collaborative efforts of Palestinian and Israeli schoolteachers, nurses, farmers, lawyers, and housewives played a central role in ushering the Madrid Conference and Oslo Accords.
During the peak of the First Intifada on November 15, 1988, the Palestinian National Assembly met in the Algerian capital where members endorsed the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. On May 22, 1989, the US Secretary of State, James Baker, addressed AIPAC. He told attendants Israel should end its expansionist policies.
This brought about renewed international interest in advancing the two-state solution. In 1991, President George H. Bush called on the Israeli government and Palestinian representatives to negotiate an end of the Israeli occupation.
However, the official Palestinian and Israeli delegation was largely made up of men. Half of the two populations were represented by two Palestinian women and one Israeli woman. Strikingly, the sole woman representative on the Israel negotiating team was the chair of the Likud in the Knesset, Sarah Doron.
Unfortunately, the Oslo signing (lead by the Madrid Conference) was an incomplete agreement. Soon after, it became clear ending Israel’s military occupation was “more distant” than before the first Intifada. The Oslo Accords entrenched Israel control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza by circumventing the economic and human rights of the Palestinians.
The Exclusion of the Palestinian and Israeli Women
Many have since argued that excluding the Palestinian and Israeli women peace activists may have doomed the peace negotiations from the onset. A recent study of 40-peace processes in 35 countries, found that when women activists were heavily involved, an agreement that satisfies both sides was more likely. The active participation and engagement of women resulted in long-lasting peace.
If the goal of a peace process is to build peace, then the individuals and groups who created bridges of understanding and brought the parties to negotiate peace should be represented. Both shared an interest in ending Israel’s military rule that exacts a heavy price on the young Israelis who administer Israel’s military policies as well as the Palestinians; the Accords were ultimately negotiated entirely by men. As time progressed, they even excluded the three women representatives from the discussions.
Research shows that if members of Israel’s peace movement that was dominated by women had the opportunity to participate, the terms of the agreement would have been different. Denying them their earned right to participate made it possible for Israel to dictate terms that helped the continuation of its occupation policies.
Similarly, the Palestinian women who bore the brunt of the first Intifada were largely absent. Their victimization, endurance, and skillful ability to reach across the Green Line were dismissed. Their active participation in the negotiations from beginning to end would have more likely produced sustainable outcomes.
Women participation in the peace process broaden the discussions on the needs of both parties. Their participation urges the two parties to address a wide range of social, economic, human rights, and security measures that protect the rights of all. However, men largely focus on their respective security fears, try to maintain their power and hold, and disregard the needs of the other party. From negotiation to implementation, the Oslo Accords are a case study on how to maintain the status quo.
The absence of the Palestinian and Israeli women peace activists was a significant contributing factor that produced the flawed Oslo Accords. The abundance of data on the role of women in building sustainable peace proves it. Excluding the Israeli and Palestinian women who desire peace resulted in the failure of the Oslo Accords. In fact, the Oslo Accords extended and entrenched Israel’s military occupation, and authorized the expansion of its settlements. These facts are irrefutable.
We may never know what could have been possible if the Israeli and Palestinian women activists and leaders were invited as full participants. However, there is a mountain of evidence that their participation could have produced a different outcome. Women participation is linked to expanding discussions on democracy, human rights, and mutual security, all of which would have changed the Oslo outcomes. More importantly, if the goal of a peace process is to build peace, then it makes sense that individuals and groups who seek and work for peace participate.
All is Not Lost
To date, Palestinian and Israeli women continue to collaborate and organize. Many are members and leaders of several NGO’s. They tirelessly advocate for the end of Israel’s military rule, organize, and participate in non-violent action against Israel’s settlement expansion schemes. While there is little both can do under Israel’s current political climate, they continue to operate under Israel’s severely restrictive military laws and military occupation.
Women in both societies are participating in nonviolent activism to push their political leaders toward a peaceful settlement, and call for equal rights in their own society and for their neighbors. In the meantime, past failures are informative.
While peace between Israelis and Palestinians may now seem a distant prospect, women’s leadership and involvement in grass-roots organizing, peace-building and nonviolent resistance on both sides of the Green Line are hopeful signs that deserve recognition. When the future presents another opportunity for meaningful peace negotiations among Israelis and Palestinians, the women peace activists must take their earned seats. With them, a wave of lasting peace is very likely.