Breaking barriers, Arab-Israeli women join movement to 'wage peace'

Frustrated with the peace process, more Arab-Israeli women are joining the ranks of Women Wage Peace, rejecting pressure not to 'normalize' relations with Israeli Jews. 'We want, in our own way, to make peace,' says one member.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women participate in a march organized by the Women Wage Peace organization, near the Dead Sea Oct. 8. The group says the two-week march sends a message to their leaders to work toward a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to make sure women have equal representation in any talks.

Sitting in the corner of a café in this compact Mediterranean port that is home to both Jews and Arabs, Ghadir Hani describes her frustration with the inertia of Israeli and Palestinian political leaders that led her to become a peace activist.

Nearby, against a backdrop of minarets and stone walls, fishing boats bob in Akko’s ancient harbor, which has borne witness to wars and battles from the time of the Romans, Crusaders, and Napoleon, and up to the 1948 Middle East conflict around the founding of the modern Jewish state of Israel.

“I was born in Akko, a mixed city, and I grew up on the values of accepting others,” she says. “We are all human beings. We cry when someone is killed on the ‘other’ side, but for so long have felt like there is nothing we can do.

“But we want, in our own way, to make peace,” she continues. “As a part of Arab society, I have a feeling we can be a bridge between Palestinians and Jews since we are also Palestinians, but also citizens of this country.”

Ms. Hani, 40, who wears a snugly wrapped black headscarf, describes herself as an Arab-Palestinian-Israeli citizen and a feminist. In Akko to visit family, she has been a community organizer for years in the Bedouin town of Khoura in the Negev, where she moved almost 20 years ago, and where she recently joined a growing Arab and Jewish peace movement called Women Wage Peace.

Courtesy of Ghadir Hani
Ghadir Hani (r.), a resident of a Bedouin town in the Negev, with Alisa Eshen Mozes, from the Jewish town of Even Yehuda, at a conference in Italy where they represented Women Wage Peace.

There are now hundreds of Arab female citizens of Israel who are active in the group, according to a spokesperson, a steady climb in membership since the group began during the most recent war between Israel and Hamas, in the summer of 2014 in Gaza.

“We tell each other shalom (peace), on the streets in greeting and in the prayers we recite, but we don’t feel any sense of shalom. We speak of peace, but we want to feel peace,” says Hani.

Their numbers are growing, say Arab women in interviews, because they are fed up with a situation that only seems to deteriorate. Within Israel, they say, they face racism and suspicion from individual Jews who view them as potentially dangerous and disloyal, and at the political level they are stuck with leaders on both side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide who, they say, have not worked aggressively toward trying to find a peace deal.

In speaking out and becoming active in an organization like Women Wage Peace, the Arab women within it, and its Palestinian women supporters in the occupied West Bank, are rejecting the notion of “anti-normalization” promoted by Palestinian activists in recent years.

It’s a concept that maintains that Palestinians should not engage in any kind of people-to-people activities with Jewish Israelis as long as the occupation continues, arguing that such projects give the impression that the sides are meeting on a level playing field when it is Israel that is still very much in charge.

10,000 women march

“I won’t say it does not stress me out, but I thought to myself that I will not let it influence what I am working for,” Amira Zedan, a member of Women Wage Peace, says of the anti-normalization pressure.

She and other Arab women say not working with their Jewish counterparts for the common cause of peace is not an option. The way they see it, it’s the only way any fundamental change can ever happen. 

Women Wage Peace casts itself as a big-tent type of movement. It’s not affiliated with any political party, and instead urges women of all backgrounds and political leanings to come together and demand that Israeli and Palestinian leaders return to the negotiating table after years of stalemate.

They are not endorsing any specific peace plan, and they discourage using potentially politically divisive language like “occupation” to refer to Israel’s control of Palestinian areas.

The women held their biggest event this month, a two-week march throughout the country that included stops in Arab cities and in a section of the West Bank near the Dead Sea that is under combined Israeli and Palestinian control. The march drew 10,000 women, including 2,000 Palestinian women from the West Bank.

Among the marchers was Ms. Zedan, 42, who during the summer of 2014 felt her frustration with yet another war (the Gaza war was the third fought between Israel and Hamas in six years) boil over into a desire to take some kind of action for peace.

One woman's protest, joined

In a telephone interview, Zedan describes taking a piece of pink poster board she found in her home and writing in black magic marker the words, “Arabs and Jews Refuse to be Enemies.” She then set out for a nearby major junction in the mostly Arab Wadi Ara region toward the north of Israel, and held her sign for motorists to see as they drove by.

“My husband said, ‘You are crazy. Who will listen to you?’ But I said, ‘I cannot stand by and do nothing, I have to work for a better future.’ And two Fridays in a row I was alone there at that junction, and then on the third Friday I see three women on the other side of the road, and they belonged to Women Wage Peace.”

She’s been active in the organization ever since.

“Enough already with only more hatred, more wars. Let’s figure out a way out of this already,” says Zedan, who points to a lack of connection between people as part of the problem.

She says a dearth of places to come together and work in common cause perpetuates the sense of fear and mistrust.

“When you don’t sit together, you get Jewish Israeli women who think that all Palestinian mothers raise their sons to be martyrs, and Palestinian women who think Israeli mothers are raising children to become soldiers,” she says. “But enough already, we need a better future for our kids.”

The Arab women interviewed spoke of the humiliation and pain of an unresolved conflict that leads, they say, to discrimination, being regarded with fear and hostility, and being singled out for extensive searches by security personnel, whether on the train home after work or at the airport flying abroad.

'We will not rest'

But coming from a mostly more conservative society, Arab-Israeli women have not typically been at the forefront of public activism.

Those involved and active say they need the support of their husbands and relatives in order to come out to marches and meetings.

Naheda Okbi, 61, was born in the Gaza Strip but has lived in southern Israel since an arranged marriage when she was 19. During the 2009 Gaza war, she says, she was not allowed to cross the border into Gaza for her mother’s funeral.

“I could not say goodbye to my mother and this was devastating for me,” she says. “When I heard about this movement I thought, ‘Maybe this will help bring peace.’ ”

She has been open about her activism in Women Wage Peace on Facebook, and her relatives in Gaza have responded enthusiastically.

In one post she wrote, “We will not rest until a peace deal is signed.”

To which her relatives in Gaza wrote back: “Amen.”

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