Jewish-Arab Women's Peace Group Delivers Political Message While Avoiding Politics

During the 'March of Hope,' Palestinian and Jewish women walk from northern Israel to Jerusalem in support of a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Hagit Lavi (L) and Olfat Haider, the two women who prepared the route of the march.
Hagit Lavi (L) and Olfat Haider, the two women who prepared the route of the march.Credit: Rami Shllush
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The Green Line delineating Israel’s pre-1967 borders cuts right through this northern town in the form of a dry and easily crossed riverbed.

The residents of the western side are all Arab citizens of Israel, who pay their taxes to the Israeli government, send their children to Israeli schools and vote in the Israeli elections.

Arab and Jewish women participate in the 'March of Hope,' Israel, October 10, 2016.Credit: Rami Shllush

Things get more complicated on the other side of the wadi: Although the eastern part of Barta’a is located on the Israeli side of the separation wall, it falls under the domain of the Palestinian Authority. As such, residents of the Palestinian-controlled half are expected to carry documents authorizing their entry into Israel when visiting friends and family across the riverbed, even though no checkpoint exists. Traveling in the other direction is not much easier: In order to cross into areas of the West Bank on the eastern side of the separation barrier, which is a few kilometers away, they are required to pass through a checkpoint.

The symbolism of Barta’a – one town under two different regimes, a precarious open border dividing it – was not lost on the dozens of Israel women who made their way through its narrow streets on Monday on the sixth day of their cross-county march aimed at pressuring the government into relaunching Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Greeting them upon their arrival was Amal Kabha, a 32-year-old mother of four from the Israeli side of Barta’a, who acknowledges feeling as torn as her town. “On the western side of the wadi, I’m shunned because I’m an Arab,” she tells them. “On the eastern side, I’m shunned because I’m an Israeli.”

Pointing to her bare head and tight-fitting jeans, she adds: “They’re also not crazy about the way I dress on the other side. I’m considered a bit of a rebel.”

About 40 women are participating in the two-hour hike from Katzir, a mainly Jewish town in the Wadi Ara region, to Barta’a. Roughly half of them are Women Wage Peace activists taking part in the entire 200-kilometer trek from Rosh Hanikra to Jerusalem, which began the night after Rosh Hashanah. The rest are joining them for the day.

The two-week “March of Hope” is scheduled to end at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence on October 19. Joining Women Wage Peace on that final day, if all goes as planned, there will be 1,000 Palestinian women from the West Bank along with the guest of honor of the event – Liberian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee.

Women Wage Peace is a grassroots organization founded two years ago, right after Israel’s last war in Gaza.. The group drew its inspiration from Four Mothers, another anti-war movement founded close to 20 years ago, which has been credited with Israel’s ultimate pullout from Lebanon.

As they gather in a parking lot in Katzir first thing in the morning, the participants in this latest leg of the Women Wage Peace journey are asked to walk silently for the first 30 minutes while pondering the following question: Why do women make for better peacemakers?

Yael Admi, a prominent activist in Women Wage Peace, does not take well to silent meditation. No sooner are the 30 minutes up than this energy bunny is up on her feet leading a song-and-dance session.

Arab and Jewish women participate in the 'March of Hope,' Israel, October 10, 2016.Credit: Rami Shllush

Admi’s activism, she explains, was inspired by a vow she made to her parents many years ago. She was 12 years old when her older brother was killed while serving in the military. “Over his grave, I promised them two things – one that I would do everything I could to prevent future wars, and two, that I would give them many grandchildren.” (She is a mother of six.)

Olfat Haider, a 46-year-old Arab woman from Haifa, spent the past nine months working out the detailed route of this cross-country march together with Hagit Lavi, a 63-year-old Jewish woman from the tiny community of Harashim in the Galilee.

Haider – an experienced mountain climber and former member of the Israeli women’s national volleyball team – has been engaged in Jewish-Arab coexistence initiatives that center around the outdoor for many years. “I’ve always believed that when you’re out in nature roughing it, it’s easier to see the things that bind us as human being,” she says.

By contrast, Lavi, a recently retired special education teacher, is a relative newcomer to the world of social and political activism. “After I retired, I wasn’t prepared to just sit around on the couch and kvetch about what’s happening to our country,” she says. “When I saw other women getting off the couch, it inspired me.”

It is no coincidence, she adds, that the average age of the women participating in the March of Hope is 50 and older. “These are women who have or had children in the army, and there is definitely a very personal component to all this.”

A day after a deadly shooting attack in Jerusalem, in which two Israelis were killed, Lavi says she is not discouraged. “In fact the opposite,” she says.

“When things like that happen, the tendency is to say there’s no one to talk to on the other side, and there’s no chance for peace. But there will always be extremists, and we have to realize that things like this happen because there’s no hope.”

Helene Gozani, an American-born health coach came to peace activism almost by accident, as she recounts. “I’m a mountain biker, and by chance, I recently got to know a group of Arab women bikers in Israel,” says the 56-year-old from Givat Ela in the Jezreel Valley. “At the same time, I made the acquaintance of a Syrian refugee from Turkey who offered to translate into Arabic a book I had written about healthy living. I found these new Arab connections pretty amazing, and joining this march has been a way for me to put my money where my mouth is.”

Although it’s a women’s walk, a few men are tagging along. Menachem Lev, for example, who together with his partner Haya Raveh – both of them retired – is in for the whole two-week deal. “She’s the real activist,” says Lev, pointing to Raveh. “I’m just here to show my solidarity.”

Arab and Jewish women participate in the 'March of Hope,' Israel, October 10, 2016.Credit: Rami Shllush

Beyond pressuring Israel’s leaders, Raveh says she also hopes to influence the common folk. “If I’ve succeeded in causing one person to think a bit differently about the conflict, then I’ve done my share.” Asked if she believes she’s changed any hearts thus far, she says: “I do.”

Women Wage Peace prides itself on being an inclusive organization that reaches out to all sectors of Israeli society. “We are a political movement, but we are non-partisan,” as Lavi notes. In practical terms, that means the organization supports a peaceful political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but does not favor any particular option. By avoiding “politics” in this way, Women Wage Peace believes it can widen its reach beyond its natural left-leaning base.

An exchange early in the day serves to illustrate this principle. During a break on the hike to Barta’a, the women pause at an overlook, where a local guide points out some of the Palestinian villages below stuck on the Israeli side of the separation barrier. A Jewish woman – a participant who has come along just for the day – interrupts her to point out how difficult Israel makes life for residents of these villages.

“No, no, no, we’re not going there,” Lavi immediately intervenes. “Right now we’re focusing on hope.”

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