By Hema Nair
Israel is a country unique in many respects. It had a tumultuous birth, fueled by the desire of the Jewish people to return to their Promised Land and escape persecution. In the aftermath of World War II and Holocaust, it was their surety against annihilation, their homeland, born of Zionism. The land was claimed by two Semitic races that lived there, the Palestinian Jews and Arabs, and this basic fact mixed with other issues – of occupation, immigration and foreign interference – have made conflict here a certainty and peace, just a mirage.
I won’t go into their murky beginnings or the uncertain future they face, because it’s too complex and nearly impossible to justify either way. Instead, I’d like to tell you about something beautiful being built there amongst the rubble of ruins – an inspiring quest for peace.
Women Wage Peace (WWP)
This grassroots movement was formed in 2014 after the Gaza conflict, the latest skirmish in this country where war is a way of life. This one lasted 50 days, and saw bombs raining down everywhere in the country including Tel Aviv. The women, having reached the end of their endurance, descended on the city of Sderot, a mile from Gaza, and began a movement to end war and wage peace. They brought into their fold Palestinian Arab women, who had as much to gain and lose as themselves, and decided to do something about this strife that was making their everyday existence an extended torment. They were not politicians or women in power. They were just everyday citizens – mothers, daughters, liberals, orthodox, Jews, Muslims, home-makers and professors – whose power lay in their common goal, their sense of purpose and their numbers.
Not everyone in Israel agrees with their vision. These women have been branded leftists, who are pushing the country towards a defensive position, making it vulnerable to the enemies that surround them. They are accused of being simplistic and naïve in their approach to a complex problem. But what they say rings with a simple truth – history has shown us that violence has never brought lasting peace. There has to be another way.
Politicians and those in power get stuck on the first step of discordance – boundaries, military supremacy, attacks and counter-attacks. WWP accepts this basic premise of disagreement, and then works forwards from it, keeping peace talks front and centre. It is a step forward from the stagnation and simmering tension of the stalemate that we see today.
Jews and Arab women together
Starting small, with a membership of 20,000 and a large support base, they hope to get their membership to 100,000 by the year-end. The women bolster their activism through marches, songs, petitions, videos and rallies. In October 2016, they commemorated the 2nd anniversary of the Gaza conflict by conducting marches all over the country, and called it ‘March of Hope’. The most ambitious one was a 15-day trek over 150 kilometers of desert – from the northern border with Jordan to Neve Shalom, a settlement just outside Jerusalem. Here, Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist and Nobel laureate, and a huge inspiration for these women, joined them. There were also protestors outside the Prime Minister’s residence and the Knesset in Jerusalem. They demanded that while acknowledging the irreconcilable differences, the Israeli and Palestinian governments should hold peace talks and women should be included in it. This latter caveat is in accordance with UN resolution 1325 that women be made part of negotiations in conflict zones. Israel is the only country in the world to adopt it into law in 2005, but the gap between law and implementation remains.
This is not the first time that a peace movement was started by women in Israel. In 1999, four women who lost their sons to a senseless tragedy started the Four Mothers movement. Two military transport helicopters, ferrying 73 Israeli soldiers, collided in mid-air in a freak accident, killing everyone on board. They were being transported to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) military base in South Lebanon. Following the deadly crash, the mothers started a movement of protest and lobbying to sway public opinion and pressure the government into unconditional and unilateral withdrawal of troops from South Lebanon. They brought attention to the fact that the presence of the base did not bring the promised peace, but claimed a steep price in IDF lives. A year later, after complete troop withdrawal, the group disbanded, gracefully affirming that they had achieved what they had set out to do.
Not just in Israel, but elsewhere in the world too, women have merged across divisive lines and paved the way for peace. Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan during the Troubles in Belfast, Leymah Gbowee during the 20-year-old Liberian civil war – these are just some examples of women who fought to bring peace to their countries because they did not want to watch their children dying.
Once you get past the disbelief of women pulling this off against all odds, you wonder – are they specifically better endowed to achieve this, or is it just coincidental that they succeed?
I believe it’s the former.
Most conflicts have ambiguous points of contention with no clear-cut rights and wrongs, only disparate people pitched against each other for reasons beyond their control. For these reasons, the conflicts drag on endlessly and are particularly resistant to being resolved. The women are able to see past the distracting differences, and focus on the distant goal of harmony. Just like they toast the bread while tying a pony tail, rub some flour on the shirt to take the edge off a ketchup stain and manage to get the kids to the school bus on time. They approach the convoluted multiple layers of conflict the same way – they do not get distracted by the differences that derail men and are better equipped to tame aggression and make compromises. This is because, their eyes are trained on the ultimate prize – a peaceful sleep, and long lives for their children.
Hema Nair is a cardiac anesthetist working in Narayana Hrudayalaya, the world’s largest heart hospital, well known for its philanthropy. In addition to medical writing, she enjoys writing prose and poetry on anything that catches her fancy.She’s also a movie buff, avid reader and enjoys cycling.