Women put their mark on MidEast peace efforts [Archives:2007/1050/Reportage]

May 14 2007

By: Brenda Gazzar
Women are pushing the envelope on peace activism in the Middle East, with a nearly 30-country annual bike ride for peace followed a few days later by the shooting of a Nobel Prize-winning Irish peace activist at a West Bank demonstration.

“Freedom is Feminine.” That's the message 20-year-old Nida Awine chose to paint in large, Arabic script on the structure Israeli officials call the “separation fence” or the “security fence” and Palestinians often call the “apartheid wall.”

Awine's handiwork appeared on the section of the structure located in a West Bank village bordering Jerusalem.

The towering cement structure was blank until Awine and other women painted it with political art, including a door bearing the words, “To be opened,” and a yellow sphere proclaiming, “The sun will rise one day.”

The Palestinian university student was one of about 350 women from nearly 30 countries who joined the third annual cycling tour for women through Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the occupied West Bank. Organizers hope the event draws attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to promote peace and freedom in the region. Even Syrian first lady Asma Al-Assad joined the women by cycling with them through her country.

This year's “Follow the Women” ride lasted 12 days and ended April 18, just days before well-known peace activist Mairead Corrigan, who shared the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her activism in the Northern Ireland civil conflict, attracted more attention to the barriers, which have become symbolic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Corrigan reportedly was wounded by a rubber bullet on April 20, along with a number of other activists, while protesting the separation barrier near Ramallah in the West Bank, according to local press reports. Two Israeli border policemen also were injured by rock throwing protesters.

Organizers call these weekly protests non-violent, but Israeli officials say they regularly turn violent, with at least some participants hurling rocks with slingshots or even attempting to cut down the barrier and Israeli forces responding with measures such as tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.

Women become peacemakers

Grassroots and other women's initiatives around the world are becoming more directly involved with efforts to resolve the conflict, as the state of Israel celebrates its 59th birthday on April 24 and Palestinians commemorate their “naqba” or “disaster,” in which at least half a million Palestinian refugees fled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

“I don't count on these politicians – men and women – to free my Palestine, my people,” says Awine, who was armed with a paintbrush dipped in red paint for the activity and who dreams of being a writer. “I count on human beings, on the people, because these persons have the power, the will and know the value of living as a free human being.”

Since the start of the second Palestinian intifada or uprising in September 2000, nearly 4,040 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces, mainly in the Occupied Territories, and 705 Israeli civilians and 316 Israeli security personnel have been killed by Palestinians through the end of March 2007, according to the Jerusalem-based B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

While more men than women have been killed during the conflict, women suffer in a broad range of indirect ways that can be further complicated by cultural mores, says Fabrizia Falcione, a women's human rights officer for UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

Conflict's heavy burdens

For example, a Palestinian woman cut off from her land, and thus her work, by the separation wall, military checkpoints or via denial of permits will have a more difficult time finding another job than a man.

“Very often, men allow women to go cultivate their land” due to cultural restrictions on their mobility or expectations of acceptable roles for women. In Palestinian society, “Women don't have all the range of possibilities to have liberty of movement,” Falcione said, “but that's the only job they can do.”

Falcione added that violence against women seems to be rising in the Occupied Territories because the conflict has weakened the rule of law and women's ability to seek and receive justice, a finding that echoes a 2006 Amnesty International report about Palestinian women and violence.

Since October 2006, the Israeli nongovernmental organization Isha L'Isha-Haifa Feminist Center has held a number of workshops and a conference in Haifa to foster alternative dialogues about women, peace and security, including the economic and emotional costs of conflict.

Last year, the group also trained women in Israel for conflict-resolution negotiations as outlined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which urges member states to include more women at all decision-making levels for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict.

Call for diplomacy

Using another tactic, the International Women's Commission, a body of prominent Israeli, Palestinian and international women working for a just and sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace, recently called on Israel and the international community to normalize relations with the new Palestinian government.

When the Islamist group Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 but refused to recognize the state of Israel or renounce violence, the United States and many European countries cut off all funds to the Palestinian National Authority.

In March, Hamas and the secular Fatah, which previously had maintained power as the ruling party for 12 years, formed a new unity government in a thus-far unsuccessful effort to end international sanctions.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has boycotted the new government for the same reasons, but is involved in a new round of talks with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to revive the stalled peace process.

“We believe that without negotiations – without talking to the Palestinian government – nothing is going to move,” says Palestinian-Israeli Aida Touma-Suleiman, a member of the International Women's Commission steering committee.

Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

Source: Women's e-News