By Brenda Gazzar
Friday, August 4, 2006
Members of a newly formed group in Israel, Women Against War, say they can't abide the violence taking place in Lebanon and Gaza. Despite animosity and even death threats, they are protesting nearly every day in the northern city of Haifa.
HAIFA, Israel (WOMENSENEWS)--In recent weeks, Abir Kopty and Hannah Safran have demonstrated nearly every day against Israel's conflict in Lebanon and Gaza.
Even as the dreaded sirens have sounded warning of Hezbollah rocket attacks, Kopty, an Israeli Arab, and Safran, an Israeli Jew, remained on the streets in this northern city not far from the Lebanese border to urge their government to stop the war, enter into negotiations and exchange prisoners.
As founding members of Women Against War, formed a few days after Israel's current conflict with Hezbollah began, the two longtime peace activists are among a small, but dedicated cadre of women trying to end the latest wave of violence threatening to consume the entire region.
"It's not about blame. It's about stopping this war," said Kopty, a spokeswoman for an Israeli human rights organization that advocates for Arab citizens in the country. "We don't want to see any citizens on both sides killed because of an avoidable war. There is no sense in that."
Israel launched a limited but potent military operation in Lebanon after Hezbollah fired rockets on northern Israeli towns on July 12, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a raid along the Lebanese border. Hezbollah officials claimed they captured the soldiers in an effort to secure the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails from previous conflicts.
Hezbollah, an Islamist Shia organization in Lebanon that has parliament members and ministers in the government, is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the United States but is lauded as a legitimate resistance organization by many in the Arab world, who credit it with getting Israel to withdraw from South Lebanon in 2000 after more than two decades of occupation.
As of Thursday, the widening conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has claimed as many as 900 Lebanese lives--mostly civilians--according to Lebanese government officials, and more than 60 Israelis, including 28 civilians. The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that roughly one-third of those killed in Lebanon have been children.
On Wednesday, Israel sent 8,000 troops into southern Lebanon as part of a massive new ground attack aimed at removing Hezbollah combatants from the border as the radical Islamist group stepped up its rocket attacks on northern Israeli cities.
While the majority of Israeli citizens support the country's military operation against Hezbollah, Kopty and Safran say Israel's activities in Lebanon and Gaza and Hezbollah's continuous shelling of northern Israeli towns are too ruinous.
Safran says she has received death threats for expressing her views on the current conflict.
She and Kopty helped organize a July 29 anti-war march in Tel Aviv sponsored by women's peace groups that organizers say attracted as many as 3,000 people. Protestors began marching at Rabin Square, holding up signs that said "Stop Killing Citizens" and "Exchange Prisoners Now" while a few Israeli supporters shouted "traitors" and clashed with participants.
In addition to the women holding near-daily protests in Haifa, numerous other women's groups have held peace vigils and demonstrations around the country.
"Without this, I don't have a life. I am scared. I am desperate," said Safran, 56, who was making anti-war signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English at a women's center in Haifa days before the July 29 protest. "This is what gives me the ability to cope, the hope that we can change, that our life has meaning."
Another group, the International Women's Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace, issued an urgent appeal at its July 13 meeting in Athens to reject the use of force in Gaza, Israel and Lebanon.
The appeal called on the Middle East Quartet--the United States, Britain, Russia and the United Nations, which are mediating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process--to intervene immediately to stop the fighting and dispatch special envoys, including women, to mediate a truce and prisoner exchange, lead the parties back to political negotiations and address the root issues of the conflict. Their statement warned that this was the last chance for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
"Civilians, mainly women and children, are paying the price for this vicious cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation," the appeal said. "This is a time of great danger . . . If no action is taken today, tomorrow will be too late."
The International Women's Commission, created under the auspices of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, includes elected officials, academics and those from civil society who plan to meet with heads of state in the U.N. General Assembly in September. Members also plan to appear at the United Nations Security Council in October when Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for the greater involvement of women in conflict resolution and peace negotiations, is discussed.
"I would say we are really heavily involved in A, trying to end the fighting and B, trying to redraw attention to the core issue of what is going on, which we contend is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said Naomi Chazan, an Israeli commission member and former deputy speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
Hezbollah, she said, is using Israeli-Palestinian troubles to promote its own agenda, which includes expanding radical Islam, destroying Israel and weakening the United States. This distorts the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Chazan said. While Hezbollah and its allies want to destroy Israel, Palestinians and moderate Arab states want to find a way of achieving a comprehensive settlement, she said.
Chazan's Palestinian colleague in the commission, Lama Hourani, said life has been especially difficult in the Gaza Strip since late June, when Israel launched a military operation following the kidnapping of a soldier. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, more than 180 people have been killed in Gaza since the start of the operation, including 78 children. Israeli officials say their operations there are aimed at hurting terror organizations, led by Hamas, and rocket-launching cells.
Hourani, the Gaza coordinator of the Palestinian Working Women Society for Development, is living with irregular electricity and air conditioning since a major power station was hit several weeks ago by an Israeli strike. Since Hamas was elected as the majority party in the Palestinian parliament in March, she said, an international embargo has prevented Palestinian Authority employees from getting paid for several months. In addition, Hourani said she and other Gaza Strip residents are subjected to strict closures, daily bombardment, shelling, raids and killing.
"It's a terrible life," she said. "I don't wish anyone, even an enemy, to live like this."
Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.
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