Speaking Through Walls
In August 2002, a group of nine Canadian women travelled to Israel and Palestine to learn about the role of women as peace builders in the region and to understand the impact of war and occupation on women and families. While it is certainly not unusual for Canadians to travel to Israel and Palestine, or to document their experiences there, this Canadian mission was unique: the group consisted for the most part of women of Arab and Jewish heritage who are deeply committed to their respective backgrounds yet who also understand the pressing need not to remain trapped by culture, religion or history. The Arab and Jewish women in the group were Reem Bahdi, Kathy Wazana, Leilani Farha, Isabelle Helal, Audrey Macklin, Rula Sharkawi, Judith Weisman and Hanadi Loubani. We were joined by Kemi Jacobs, a Canadian of African-Carribean heritage whose knowledge of and dedication to social justice knows no borders.
Some of the women who journeyed to Palestine and Israel were long-time friends and colleagues. Others met for the first time prior to travelling to the region. One team member went ahead of the mission to liaise with our partners on the ground, Bat Shalom (Israel) and the Jerusalem Centre for Women (Palestine) and coordinate our itinerary, and remained in the region for several months. Others were able to extend their stay and pursue meetings and videotaped interviews with key Israeli and Palestinian politicians and activists. We arrived in Palestine and Israel with the hopes of bringing back to Canada written and visual documentation of our meetings with Palestinian and Israeli women who are engaged in peacebuilding efforts, be it on the political front or at the community level. Our visit proved to be both more far-reaching and more productive than we could have hoped.
The composition of the mission group itself was remarkable and as a result, opened up many more avenues for a multidimensional examination of the issues underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the short time we were there and in follow-up meetings that some of us have had and continue to have, we met with a good number of representatives from the Israeli and Palestinian peace landscape. Some of the women we met have been successful in crossing the divides imposed on them by years of mistrust, fear and also by physical and legal barriers. Dr. Sumaya Farhat Nasser has travelled, at some risk to herself and those accompanying her, to share with Israeli audiences her personal experiences of the occupation and her relentless efforts to maintain a fruitful dialogue with Israeli women wherever the opportunity presented itself. Neta Golan, a Jewish Canadian-Israeli, has been living in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus for the last three years in an act of solidarity with the Palestinians living under siege.
Other women whom we met have been actively building links between the two communities through concrete joint projects and also working within their respective communities to broaden the debates on the possibilities for peace in the region. The women of Bat Shalom and the Jerusalem Centre for Women have, in defiance of military, political and social pressures, continued to meet, to dialogue, and to try to hear and understand one another. Their joint projects are also aimed at bridging the gaps between Israel and Palestinian women as well building trust. At the same time, some of the Palestinian citizens of Israel whom we met, like the women of ASSIWAR, expressed to us a sense of isolation from the Israeli, Palestinian, and international peace camps.
We also met with grassroots activists whose work has been instrumental in giving the voices of co-existence an international platform. Terry Greenblatt and Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas delivered an urgent call for peace in a joint statement to members of the UN Security Council last April (their statements are attached under Appendix 4). In follow-up meetings with UN and European Union officials, they have made some progress in lobbying for the creation of an International Women’s Commission on Peace in the Middle East at the United Nations (see Terry Greenblatt speech to a conference of Jewish Voices for Peace in Toronto, June 8, 2003, attached as Appendix 5).
At the formal political level, Hanan Ashrawi, Zahira Kamal, Tamar Gozanski and Naomi Chazan stand out as steadfast interlocutors for peace: they continually lobby their respective government/authority to expand the definitions and institutions of democracy which is a building block in any attempt to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.
Throughout this mission we felt both inspired and motivated. Inspired by the women whose courage is challenging dominant perceptions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as essentially violent and as perpetual and interminable. These women are a living testimony that the road to a peaceful solution is both possible and open. We were witness to relentless efforts to break the stranglehold of the discourse of militarism inflicted on both the Israeli and Palestinian populations. During a recent visit to document the contribution of Canadian women to the International Women’s Peace Service in the West Bank village of Hares, one of our members attended a groundbreaking gathering of the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps in Ramallah which, though not organized exclusively by women, was attended by many of the women we met including Hanan Ashrawi, Zahira Kamal, Tamar Gozanski, Wafa Abed Rahman, Maha Abu- Dayyeh Shamas, Dorothy Naor from New Profile, and several members of Bat Shalom. These women were key signatories of the grassroots Joint Palestinian-Israeli Call for Peace and Joint Action that was published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz April 16, 2003(attached as Appendix 8). They were also among the organizers and speakers at the Founding Conference of the Joint Palestinian - Israeli action framework that followed, on June 28, 2003, in Ramallah.
The women we met repeatedly told us that we had an obligation to return to Canada and tell others about their work and their vision for co-existence. They noted that men tend to dominate the Western media when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a result, the impact of the conflict on women and women’s contributions to building the conditions for co-existence tend to be ignored. Accordingly, we have an obligation to disseminate the insights that we have gained, to retell the stories that we heard, and to share with the Canadian public the vision of peace that these women shared with us.
The following pages attempt to encapsulate our analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and women’s place within it. This is not a complete report. It cannot do justice to the work of the women we met, nor to our own experiences, either individually or collectively. There remain also a good number of individuals and organizations with whom we could not meet as a group because time or circumstances did not permit. At most, we offer a slice of our experiences and hope that this report will encourage others to seek out and understand the work of the women we met who struggle seemingly against all odds to maintain a space for “the other” in Israel and Palestine.
In addition to producing this report, members of the mission have participated in various conferences to help raise the profile, within Canadian society, of the women we met and the work that they do. We will continue to do so. Extensive videotaped documentation of interviews, dialogues, presentations and conferences conducted or attended by all or some members of our group, during and in the months following the mission, may be available for briefing and background purposes. (Appendix 1 contains brief biographies of the mission members and how to reach them.)