Israel/Palestine: Feminist response to attack on Gaza

Women in Black
Dr. Hannah Safran of Women in Black explains how women have come together in Israel to protest the bombing of Gaza as part of a wider opposition to Israeli policy, past and present.
"The Saturday of the 27th of December we decided to spend on a tour of a Palestinian village that was destroyed in the 1948 war by Israel. The habitants of this village were all expelled from their homes to Lebanon and Jewish people were encouraged to settle in the village and they have been living there ever since. No refugee has ever been allowed back.
"We were on the border between Israel and Lebanon and the day was a beautiful cold and sunny winter day. One could see the landscape of Lebanon as clear as the landscape looking back into Israel. Only two and a half years ago we all suffered the terrible war waged by Israel against Lebanon. We were active in the women peace movement and have demonstrated daily against that attack on Lebanon. Now we were joining an organization whose aim is to make Jewish-Israelis aware of the origins of the current crisis: the war o f1948. For Jewish people in Israel this war is called the war of Independence, for Palestinians everywhere this is called the Naqba, i.e. the disaster of 1948.

How ironic and sad it was when at about 12 p.m. we heard that the Israeli air force started bombing Gaza. The 60 years since 1948 had never ceased to kill Palestinians. Another attack on the helpless citizens of Gaza started. We continued our visit, listening to stories of internal Palestinian refugee, this time a woman who told us about her family eviction from another village in 48. That war never really ended in the memory and the experience of her family. We did not hesitate to come up against the war immediately. While we were ending our trip in the north a demonstration was already being organized and 1000 people Jews and Arabs marched in Tel-Aviv, the main city of Israel shouting slogans against the war. On our way home passing through Arab villages in the north we saw demonstrators on the main streets.

And within a week into the last attack on Gaza, 22 women's organizations issued a statement against the war. The declaration called for an end to the usage of weapons and bombs and demanded that war will stop being an option. They reiterated that violence should stop being the method and that security should be provided to everyone. The organizations signing this statement did not include only specific women's peace organizations who has been in the forefront of the struggle against the occupation and for peace. This time and for the first time, they included a mixture of organization promoting social, legal and financial rights for women. This declaration calling upon the government of Israel to avoid bloodshed and to continue a negotiated ceasefire was the first of its kind issued by feminist organizations ever since. As feminist organizations are varied in their aims and constituencies, it does not follow naturally that they will join together in a statement against war. In a society like Israel where issues of supporting the government of the day are widespread, it is not a common phenomena to have civil society organizations getting together to object a political decision taken by the government.

This is a major shift in the ideology of women's organizations always eager not to involve 'politics' in their campaigns in order to appeal to a wider audience. The Haifa based feminist organization Isha L'isha went even further and issued a statement calling "upon the Government of Israel to bring about the end of the cruel siege on Gaza, to stop immediately its attacks, to free the residents of the south from their role as hostages in the hands of politics without future, and to fulfill the role for which it was elected – to bring about prosperity and economic security, peace and security, today and for generations to come, for all women and men in Israeli society, while creating true alliances with all the residents of the area". Furthermore, beyond these statements there is a growing body of activists many of them feminists who refuse to be enemies with Palestinians. Inside Israel it manifests itself in demonstrations and other opposition activities against the war and against Israeli military aggressiveness which were organized by Jews and Palestinians both citizens of Israel and all join in their opposition to the policy of the government.

I belong to a 20 years old vigil of Women in Black which has been demonstrating each Friday in a main square in Haifa against the Occupation of Gaza and the West Bank of Palestine. Many of us have participated, together with others, in many actions against this war in Gaza. In Haifa itself, the third largest city in Israel, there has been at least 2 demonstrations each day. One at lunch time at the university and the other, later in the evening, in down town Haifa where many Palestinians, citizens of Israel are living. In both demonstrations there was a presence of Palestinians and Jews alike. 5 days earlier, on the first Saturday since the start of this war, most of those present went either to Sachnin, a Palestinian town in northern Israel, to join some 25,000 people for a demonstration, or to Tel-Aviv – the largest city - to join some other 10,000 people.

All of the demonstrators were citizens of Israel, however, the Israeli Jewish press hardly mentioned the Sachnin demonstration because it was mainly Palestinians who demonstrated and hardly mentioned the Tel-Aviv demonstration because it was mainly Jewish left-wing who demonstrated. All of us are considered as outsiders to mainstream Jewish-Israel and thus not worth of a news item.

The new non-Zionist peace movement in Israel belongs to a growing public who does not buy into the Israeli propaganda of "there is nobody to talk with" i.e. we, Israelis are eager to make peace but they, the Palestinians are not interested. This public has come of age during the last 8 years of activism against all odds. Many of us are long-time, dedicated peace activists such as Women in Black (a 21 years old vigil against the occupation), the left wing Hadash party (coalition of some left-wing groups and the communist party), Ta'ayush activists (working against the occupation), the Haifa University Forum Smol (left wing lecturers and students), Isha L'Isha feminist center and other groups, all of them working in their own way for politics of social justice and peace. We were both Jewish and Palestinians, Haifa residents, citizens of the Israel. But nobody in mainstream Israeli politics and even academia is ready to recognize that we, and people like us all over the country, are the nucleus of a new left growning in Israel today. Even the (only) liberal, so called moderately left, daily newspaper Ha'aretz, who has claimed since the year 2000 that there is no left anymore in Israel, refuses to recognize that something else has developed on the ruins of the old Zionist left.

Haifa is not unique in its grass-root peace activism and its ability to join together beyond political differences. Many groups have been active for years and their numbers increased a hundred fold since the beginning of the second intifada. Breaking Silence (group of ex-serviceman who are exposing to the public what is actually happening in the occupied territories), Anarchists Against the Wall (a group of dedicated brave, mainly young people, who are in the forefront of demonstrations against the wall), Women's Coalition for Peace (a coalition of 9 organizations), New Profile (advocating de-militarization of Israeli society), to name only few of the many different groups active around the country. In addition there are different human rights organizations that are doing an extremely important job amidst a very belligerent Israeli establishment. Such organizations as Physicians for Human Rights, B'tzelem and others who attract to their activities both dedicated staff and volunteers who are part of the left-wing peace camp. I should mention also the many, different groups of Palestinians in Israel, such as Mossawa (Equality), Adalla (Justice), Women against Violence, to name only few, who are working on various levels and strategies against war and racism and for the cultural and civil freedoms of their oppressed community. These organizations have mobilized a growing numbers of young women and men who are dedicated to the struggle for civil rights, human and women's rights for the Palestinian society in Israel.

One should recognize this change and hope for a joint action by these organizations and other civil society groups such as the environmental movement. The process of change which dismantled the old party system in Israel brought many people to take part in local community groups dissatisfied with their social and political oppression. Altogether these groups have not yet been able to formulate a common platform for change. Moreover, they are facing the resistance of the hegemonic Ashkenazi (Jews from European decent) establishment to recognize their existence and importance. However, in spite of the orchestrated attempt to make the entire left-peace resistance movement invisible, these social forces together with the new left might one day group together to effect change. The refusal to recognize our existence has served the propaganda machine of Israel well, especially in times of war when Israeli media is working in unison with the government to present a unified voice of the Jewish population supporting military action small and large. Moreover, this seemingly unified voice is presented in opposition to the Palestinians in Israel who are naturally opposing the war and the occupation. Any demonstration, articles, public statements etc. against the war are discarded as representing Arabs and not Jews. Yes, the "only democracy in the middle-east" as Israel is portraying itself does not allow the possibility of dissent. If you are against its military offensive you are branded immediately as a traitor. It only follows that all Palestinians citizens of Israel who oppose the war are traitors and should be dismantled from their citizenship. Such racism is the ordinary opposition that all of us Jews and Arabs have to suffer when we decide to publically oppose the war.

But there is a growing number of people ready to be considered "traitors". When Israel conquered the rest of mandatory Palestine in 1967 (most of which was conquered in 1948 to create the state of Israel) there were only handful of Jewish people who publicly opposed that occupation. The first group to do so was called Matzpen (compass), perhaps less than 100 people altogether; they launched a brave struggle against the Israeli policies of expansion and oppression. 40 years later, their insight and courage is now manifested in about 60 peace groups of different kinds and 1000 people marching in the streets of Tel-Aviv on the first evening of the war. There are other people who are opposing Israeli policies. Even the Council for peace and security, a body comprising of ex-generals and high ranking officer had called the government – just a month before the war on Gaza – to accept the Saudi peace plan and to go ahead with its declared recognition in a two-state solution.

And the amount of protest is growing daily. Around the world people, many amongst them Jews are speaking up against the myth of "one people, one voice". They are fed up supporting Israel with its obvious refusal to follow a peaceful solution to the conflict. As I am writing this article the news of a group of 8 Canadian Jewish women invaded the Israeli consulate in Toronto chanting anti-Israeli slogans is circulated. Another group of Israelis who live in Holland issued a statement against the Israeli attack on Gaza. A week ago a group of Women in Black in Melbourne headed by an Australian Israeli woman organized a demonstration in front of government house and managed to get into the main news channel. Faculty for Palestinian Israel Peace, based in the US, organized a petition against the bombing of the Islamic University in Gaza.

But at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, whether our numbers matter at all. Every protest counts no doubt and the global protests are only proof to the feeling that Israeli policies are getting less and less popular around the world. However, since Israel has been in the forefront of the western notion of "war on terror" it served a purpose which is not entirely related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As long as Israel continues to fulfill the needs of American foreign policy there is no protest movement in the world that will stop Israel from doing whatever it feels right for its leaders. So, as much as we need to press on with our demand to stop the war against Gaza, against the Palestinian people and against the occupation, our only hope lays with the promised change in the US. Not a very optimistic vision for our struggle. However, we, in the resistance movement in Israel, will continue our struggle against the war in Gaza and the racism prevailing within Israeli society. We will continue to grow; we will connect to other social and environmental protest groups and will hopefully help change our society for the better."

February 2009

By: Dr. Hannah Safran