By Helen Schary Motro
Friday, March 22, 2002
Women-led peace initiatives are fading as Palestinian women join the ranks of suicide bombers and the death toll among women on both sides of the conflict rises dramatically.
KFAR SHMARIAHU, Israel (WOMENSENEWS)--Before a suicide bomber positioned himself next to a group of mothers with baby carriages in Jerusalem on March 2 and pulled the detonator, killing 10 people, women caught in the violence between Israelis and Palestinians had not been killed because of their gender.
And before a Palestinian woman brandishing a knife tried to attack Israeli soldiers last August in Jerusalem, and two young Palestinian women in two separate instances blew themselves up in crowded, public settings, women and girls were not instigators in the conflict.
Of the 104 women and girls killed between October 2000 and February 2002, one-quarter of the deaths have occurred in the last 30 days, according to B'Tselem, a human rights organization in Jerusalem. Violence this month promises to balloon those figures.
According to Lior Yavne, a spokesman for B'Tselem, women are not being specifically targeted per se, but as the fighting becomes ever fiercer, with growing incursions into populated areas, women are randomly cut down as well as men.
Until the Intifada, the armed Palestinian uprising against Israel, broke out in October 2000, contacts between Israeli and Palestinian women in economic, artistic and social spheres were mushrooming. Women were reaching out to each other in a variety of projects.
Today the only initiatives are by tiny groups. On the Israeli side, these women are perceived as fringe elements on the extreme left. On the Arab side, they hardly exist. Women in the mainstream of both nationalities have, like men, adopted a garrison mentality.
"It's not that we tried to have more contact and were rebuffed, but the feeling is that there is no use making any efforts now," says Rutie Pilz-Burstein, chairwoman of the Israeli Federation for the Advancement of Women in Sport, which in 1999 organized a "Walk for Peace" along the Jordanian border. "Both sides see one another as enemies, not as partners for peace."
When three pregnant women--two Palestinian and one Jewish--were shot in the last week of February and gave birth to healthy daughters, they felt no kinship. "What we did was an accident. What they did is murder," said Tamara Lifshitz, the Jewish woman who lost her father in the incident.
Response of women's groups is muted, and even groups pushing for cooperation are hardly making contact with one another. Both Palestinian and Jewish women "should stand up and shout, 'Enough of this carnage!'" says Maha Abu Dayydh, director of the Arab Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling.
Psychologist Sanaa Watad, co-director of peace center Givat Haviva's "Women in Community," a three-year project that trains women to combat gender-based violence and work for women's rights in their communities, believes that Jewish women must speak out against the Israeli occupation. "I understand that defending their homeland is important to them, but this is the humiliation of another people," says Watad, an Israeli Arab whose organization is the leading group in Israel working toward Jewish and Arab cooperation and co-existence. Palestinian women, she says, "must support and take part in the struggle by any means they chose."
In an article in the Jerusalem Post, Israeli writer Naomi Regan has used the symbol of Jewish women victims to urge the Israeli government into a more hard-line stance: "How long can the freely elected government of a democratic state allow the murder of its women? . . . How long must such a nation cater to its disproven and delusional Left as its daughters, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, friends die, unprotected?"
Israeli women do have several peace organizations. One example of Arab and Jewish women working together is Bat Shalom, a 2,100-member Israeli feminist peace organization that is linked to the Palestinian Jerusalem Center for Women. On March 8, their Arab and Jewish representatives visited 40 foreign embassies and consulates in Israel to call for diplomatic initiatives and humanitarian intervention.
The Israel Women's Network, a non-partisan organization whose members hold a variety of perspectives, is affiliated with groups in the Israeli Arab sector. But maintaining ties has become strained, says Ella Gera, the network's executive director.
The network wants to expand its Hebrew hotline to include Arabic speakers to counsel callers about sexual harassment and family law, but despite widespread publicity, not one Arab woman has agreed to answer calls. "It is difficult for Palestinian women these days to keep in contact with an organization they view as Israeli, even if it is non-partisan," Gera says.
Bat Shalom Director Terry Greenblatt believes that prospects for peace may be dire because women are not among the Israeli and Palestinian leadership and are therefore excluded from the negotiating tables. "Even with the situation so horrific, nobody is standing up and saying, 'Hey, maybe women have something smart to say that could help us out of this mess,'" Greenblatt says. "Men may not be best to make peace. They know how to make war."
Mohammad Darawshe, spokesman for the still-active Givat Haviva, says that the spate of women fatalities "adds to frustrations and highlights a sense of vulnerability and insecurity" in a macho society.
But he believes that the violence could be a "motivating factor" for women "to turn the situation in the other direction and create an alternative reality.
"Women," he maintains, "are greater supporters of peace than the average man."
Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer living in Israel who writes a column for The Jerusalem Post.
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