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