SAY WHAT you want about the in­tractabil­ity of the Arab Is­raeli-con­flict but there’s no short­age of peace groups com­mit­ted to find­ing a so­lu­tion. How­ever well-in­ten­tioned, does the world re­ally need an­other? “We’re dif­fer­ent,” Dina BenYakir, a na­tional or­gan­iser for the fledg­ling Is­raeli cam­paign group Women Wage Peace as­sures me. “We’re like a start-up, some­thing that’s never been done be­fore. First of all, we are women and, sec­ond, we don’t be­long to the left, which most of the peace or­gan­i­sa­tions are iden­ti­fied with.” Rather than po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy, she tells me, they are mo­ti­vated by a be­lief that a dif­fer­ent re­al­ity in the Mid­dle East is fea­si­ble and that, across the re­gion, women — moth­ers, grand­moth­ers, sis­ters and daugh­ters — are cry­ing out for a new ap­proach.

It’s In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day when I meet Ben-Yakir, who is with Huda Abu Arqoub, re­gional di­rec­tor of the Al­liance for Mid­dle East Peace and an ad­viser to Women Wage Peace. They’ve been brought over by Yachad for a whirl­wind tour. De­spite a non-stop few days, their en­thu­si­asm for ex­plain­ing why women must be at the heart of the peace process is undi­min­ished.

Not yet three years old, Women Wage Peace al­ready has 12,000 mem­bers, 15 per cent male, en­com­pass­ing Jewish, Arab, Druze and Be­douin, re­li­gious and sec­u­lar, those from the set­tle­ments and those from “pe­riph­ery” com­mu­ni­ties. “It’s in­cred­i­bly di­verse,” says Abu Arquob. “Its strength comes from the fact that it knocked at ev­ery door in Is­rael and has space for women from all walks of life.”

Last au­tumn, mem­bers em­barked on a two-week “March of Hope”, start­ing in Rosh Hanikra in the north and walk­ing the 120-odd miles to Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s res­i­dence in Jerusalem.

A core group marched the en­tire length; many more joined at dif­fer­ent points (they claim they at­tracted 30,000 over­all, although other ac­counts sug­gest lower num­bers). “I think one day they will learn it in school,” Ben-Yakir says proudly.

Around 1,000 Pales­tinian women par­tic­i­pated. “We didn’t need to con­vince them,” says Abu Arqoub. “They got on buses, in the mid­dle of the week, to meet Is­raeli women, be­cause ev­ery­one is tired of the sta­tus quo. Ev­ery­one is tired of the fact we are los­ing chil­dren on both sides to this con­flict, and our lead­ers are not do­ing any­thing.”

The move­ment was set up in the wake of the 2014 Gaza war, when there seemed to be no respite from the rock­ets aimed at Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities. Ben Yakir, a mother her­self from Ei­lat, says that sum­mer was a turn­ing point:

“That was the mo­ment that many, many women, es­pe­cially women with chil­dren in that war, de­cided to raise our voice,” she says. “This move­ment was cre­ated from the needs of mil­lions of women in Is­rael, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing hor­ri­fy­ing days know­ing their chil­dren were in ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tions, un­able to sleep, liv­ing on the edge.”

The march aside, Women Wage Peace is rel­a­tively dis­parate, with grass­roots or­gan­is­ers ar­rang­ing ev­ery­thing from weekly demon­stra­tions out­side the Knes­set, to ses­sions with Pales­tinian teens in Is­raeli schools, or Jewish-Arab cook­ing evenings. Last month, they spear­headed the launch of the Knes­set’s first Women’s Cau­cus for Peace and Se­cu­rity, at­tended by Knes­set mem­bers from both sides, draw­ing un­likely sup­port such as from Tem­ple Mount ac­tivist and Likud MK Ye­huda Glick.

Such ac­tiv­i­ties are in­tended as a start­ing point. “Firstly, we are try­ing to in­crease the num­bers to be a big mass of peo­ple, be­cause a big mass can af­fect lead­ers,” says Ben-Yakir. “It’s not just do­ing the cook­ing and the paint­ing and the sew­ing to­gether; it’s about the con­ver­sa­tions that hap­pen,” echoes Abu Arqoub. “It’s about women em­pow­ered to start a con­ver­sa­tion about peace.”

If the or­gan­i­sa­tion is neb­u­lous, its guid­ing prin­ci­ples are clear, specif­i­cally fem­i­nist in­clu­sive po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism, and UN res­o­lu­tion 1325, which reaf­firms the role of women in con­flict pre­ven­tion and res­o­lu­tion. Mainly, they want to en­cour­age lead­ers to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, and they want the voice of women — or­di­nary women — to be heard there. “We are 51 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion,” says Ben-Yakir. “We should be en­gaged in the im­por­tant de­ci­sions for our fu­ture, for our chil­dren, for our grand­chil­dren.”

Rather than en­dors­ing a spe­cific peace deal, they say trust-build­ing must come first, be­tween women across Is­raeli so­ci­ety and be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans. As Abu Arqoub ex­plains, that means chang­ing the un­der­stand­ing of se­cu­rity “to a mu­tual need of ev­ery­one liv­ing in the con­flict zone”. For too long, she says, se­cu­rity has been “a po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion ma­nip­u­lated by fear and by views of the Other be­ing the enemy”, with Is­raelis be­liev­ing that Pales­tinian youth are be­ing raised on hate. But when Is­raeli women meet Pales­tinian women like her, in sit­u­a­tions en­gi­neered by Women Wage Peace, the con­ver­sa­tion switches to mu­tual need. “This changes the whole con­cept of the Other.”

The guid­ing light of Women Wage Peace is No­bel lau­re­ate Leymah Gbowee, founder of the peace­ful, prayer-fo­cused cam­paign Women of Liberia Mass Ac­tion for Peace, which helped end that coun­try’s bru­tal civil war. Gbowee’s story was told in a doc­u­men­tary, Pray The Devil Back To Hell, which, to drum up sup­port, Women Wage Peace has been screen­ing across Is­rael.

Cru­cially, they think the peace move­ment went off track, trapped by the po­larised na­ture of Is­raeli so­ci­ety, and that Women Wage Peace can help re­fresh it. “The word ‘peace’ has lost its hon­our in Is­rael,” says Ben-Yakir, ex­plain­ing that the lan­guage they use is “for, not against”. “We We have right, left and cen­tre peo­ple’ have right, left and cen­tre peo­ple, be­cause we are talk­ing from the com­mon ground of women, we’re not talk­ing pol­i­tics,” she says.

Since their for­ma­tion, Ben-Yakir says mem­bers of other peace groups have got in touch. “They say it feels like they’re wak­ing up again. They re­alise it’s not help­ing any more to be on one side.”

Women Wage Peace’s fem­i­nism, she sug­gests, also makes it dif­fer­ent. She thinks women are nat­u­rally more dis­posed to peace, con­stantly me­di­at­ing, even if sim­ply be­tween chil­dren. But Is­rael has had no short­age of fe­male politi­cians, in­clud­ing a fe­male prime min­is­ter long be­fore most na­tions?

Their view is that just hav­ing a woman in charge isn’t the point, it’s about chang­ing the per­spec­tive of who­ever’s in charge. “Although of course we’d be happy with a woman,” smiles Ben-Yakir. They want to show that char­ac­ter­is­tics like com­pas­sion are signs of strength. “Our goal is to foster any ef­fort to bring the lead­ers to­gether, and use fem­i­nist lan­guage in­stead of ex­clu­sive, dis­crim­i­na­tive, ‘blam­ing’ lan­guage.”

How does this square with re­cent de­vel­op­ments in Is­rael, such as the law aimed at pre­vent­ing boy­cotters from en­ter­ing Is­rael, or on­go­ing set­tle­ment con­struc­tion? The mood, un­der Ne­tanyahu and with Don­ald Trump in the White House, hardly seems con­cil­ia­tory. Both women nod, but Abu Arqoub draws a com­par­i­son with the US, not­ing that it took Trump’s elec­tion to bring Jews and Mus­lims to­gether. “Even with a very bad po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere, we have faith in peo­ple re­sist­ing in a non-con­fronta­tional, non-vi­o­lent way,” she says. In the face of re­stric­tive poli­cies, they are wit­ness­ing “more in­ter­est in meet­ing the Other”.

As pos­i­tive as Women Wage Peace’s jour­ney so far has been, both ac­knowl­edge that the road ahead is tough.

They cite Gbowee’s ad­vice when she joined them on their march:

“Her first com­ment was, ‘do not be happy about what you have done now. The real work starts now.’”


Is­raeli, for­eign and Pales­tinian ac­tivists on the March of Hope

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