Asia Istoshina, left, and Zahava Galon

JERUSALEM, Israel (WOMENSENEWS)–"Security for Whom?"

That’s the question that two women’s organizations will be asking for the second year in a row next week as they meet on the sidelines of a prestigious security conference held annually since 2000 in the scenic coastal city of Herziliya.

The central four-day Herziliya conference, which starts Jan. 21, will feature speakers such as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, former CIA director James Woolsey and former Prime Minister of Spain Jose Maria Aznar.

Discussions will include the direction of the Israeli Defense Forces in the wake of the Second Lebanon War and coping with a "nuclearizing" Iran.

The women’s meeting, organized by Isha L’isha: Haifa Feminist Center and the Coalition of Women for Peace, will echo the major agenda with panels on the effects of war and conflict on Israeli, Lebanese and Palestinian women; the security and environmental risks of nuclear weapons in Israel and in the Middle East; and how "militaristic and nationalistic agendas" undermine civil society.

"Last year, we said security is not only having a strong military and planning the next wars, it’s also other things," said Adi Dagan, spokesperson of the Coalition of Women for Peace, which includes nine Israeli feminist groups. "This year, we’re looking more specifically about the ‘security’ policies and strategies, the things the Herziliya conference is talking about–the Lebanon war and nuclear weapons–and we will try to show how this kind of security harms us."

The alternative half-day conference on Jan. 23 is part of the Coalition of Women for Peace’s campaign to broaden security discourse in Israel to include aspects of "human security," such as economic, social, environmental and gender-related issues. The campaign is supported by a grant the coalition received this summer of about $320,000, mostly from the European Union and also from foundations.

Report on Disadvantaged Women

The Haifa-based Mahut Center, which helps women with limited opportunities find employment, will report findings that disadvantaged Israeli women in the North–who have difficulty finding employment under normal circumstances–lost jobs during the war and could not get compensated by the government for lost wages because of the cash-basis nature of much of their work, such as house-cleaning and child care. They are now having an even harder time trying to return to or enter the job market as the local economy recovers from economic losses.

The report, which relies on informal discussions during the war with 130 disadvantaged women from Haifa and surrounding towns as well as a focus group of 15 women and a questionnaire with 31 women conducted after the war, recognizes that last summer’s conflict was experienced differently by men and women and aims to offer a gender perspective.

For example, many disadvantaged women said that they could not leave their homes to buy food for their families due to fear from rockets, lack of transportation options, financial obstacles or having to tend to dependents. As a result, these women sometimes went hungry or had to rely on food donations. The Mahut Center provided 51 out of 130 clients with food packages during the war. Ruth Preser, development coordinator for the Mahut Center, said women received food donations mostly from nonprofit groups and donors rather than from the government.

Women who were unable to flee to safer parts of the country for financial or other reasons were exposed to a disproportionate amount of danger and anxiety and were more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, Preser said.

‘Shaken Economic Balance’

"A very fragile economic balance was shaken for poor people," said Preser, adding that the conflict disrupted employment in the war-affected area for over a month and created additional expenses. Since women form a larger percentage of the poor in Israel–as in most societies–Preser said women were therefore disproportionately hurt.

About 80 percent of the participants said their financial situation worsened during and after the war, when the bustling port city of Haifa in northern Israel, third largest in the country, was largely paralyzed last summer. Streets emptied and residents fled to other parts of the country or remained indoors to avoid the risks posed by Hezbollah rockets launched from inside Lebanon. Eighty percent said they could not leave their homes for more than a few days during the 33-day crisis due to economic, transportation or other reasons.

In 2004, Israeli women’s monthly wages were on average 63 percent of that of men’s, in part due to many women working part time, according to the Tel Aviv-based Adva Center: Information on Equality and Social Justice in Israel. Women’s hourly wages were about 84 percent of that of men.

"There was no commitment whatsoever by the state to the civilian population," said Preser. "Most of these women felt these gaps even harder during the war. The feeling of safety totally disappeared and most of the women felt abandoned–felt totally alone and abandoned–with no hope and no help."

War Impeded Aid

When financial difficulties arose during the war, some women were left unaided. A 40-year-old single mother dependent on low-income supplements from the government, for instance, said she had no money to buy food during the war. When she made calls to the local welfare department, she said "it was a nightmare catching them" because of the high volume of calls. When she finally got through and begged them to send her food, she was told she was not on their list.

"It didn’t help me when I tried to explain to her that I am not on their list because before the war I didn’t need food assistance," the woman said. "She simply hung up the telephone."

Merav Datan, a Tel-Aviv based political advisor on Middle East and Mediterranean issues for Greenpeace International, the Amsterdam-based environmental organization, will present a number of recommendations for lowering the regional temperature surrounding nuclear policy.

For example, all states in the Middle East could consider halting the production of nuclear weapons-capable materials as recently proposed by the independent Blix Commission, named after the Swedish diplomat and former chief United Nations weapons inspector, Hans Blix. She also says that if countries in the region with nuclear programs would ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, that would go a long way to build confidence.

Datan also recommends that Israel and Arab countries revive negotiations within the Middle East peace process Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group, a group of 13 Arab states, Israel, a Palestinian delegation and more than 20 extra-regional entities formed after the Madrid peace conference in October 1991. Working Group talks, which focus on confidence building and arms control measures, broke down in 1995 over whether to put nuclear issues on the table immediately or only after a lasting regional peace is achieved.

"I would say put everything on the table," Datan said. "I think the most dangerous thing is not to be talking."

Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

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