Getting peace moving

A thousand women joined the Peace Train from Nahariya to Sderot to highlight the need for female voices in negotiations.

Women Wage Peace movement (photo credit: ORIT REICH,ORIT HAZON MENDEL,ORIT PNINI)
Women Wage Peace movement
The phrase “Peace Train” may evoke memories of British singer Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) and the ’70s, but a grassroots Israeli women’s organization gave it a new meaning last week with the launch of a dynamic and feminine peace initiative.
Founded on the heels of the summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, the Women Wage Peace organization consists of people from all sectors – Jewish, Arab, secular, religious – and from all over the country who seek to impel the government to restart the peace process. The group’s premise is that women have their own distinct experience of war, but currently have little to no say in the decision-making process.
It therefore seeks to catalyze and enlarge the peace-seeking public, striving for a long-term agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians and other states in the region.
The Peace Train involved hundreds of women traveling by train from as far north as Nahariya down to Sderot in support of the movement – the youngest of them a three-month- old baby, and the oldest an 87-year-old woman.
The initiative was the brainchild of Michal Shamir, a founding member of Women Wage Peace who has lost family members to war. For the past 10 years, she says, she has been living in the North and commuting to the Sderot area’s Sapir Academic College, where she is director of the School of Art, Social Studies and Culture.
She had to travel by car for the majority of this time, because there was no railway to Sderot until just a year ago.
“The issue is that no one gives a toss about the periphery,” she says.
For her, one of the main problems is the neglect of the country’s development towns.
“The railway is a symbol of that – only in 2013 they finally built a railway, and it’s like oxygen for people in Sderot, Netivot, Ofakim, etc. They can commute, have a life, find work, people can come and go,” she says.
In addition, she continues, “the railway metaphorically connects the women from Nahariya, who remember the Katyusha [rockets] of the ’80s, to the women from Sderot, who have suffered the Kassam rockets, to the women in Jerusalem, to the women in Ashkelon. It’s all the same issue – you can’t separate between them.”
She emphasizes that even this link is fragile, since as soon as there is a Color Red siren, trains stop running to Sderot.
“No one would dare do this in the Center [of the country],” she says.
Shamir views the train not just as a connector of people throughout the country, but as a platform for the exchange of ideas, as people tend to be relaxed when riding it.
Indeed, during last week’s initiative, the presence of hundreds of women sporting the movement’s white T-shirts and blue ribbons certainly drew the attention of other passengers, sparking dialogue about the group’s mission – not all of which, of course, was supportive.
The participants also sparked conflicting reactions during their 2-km. march toward Sapir College, where the group led a panel at the annual Sderot Conference for Society and Friendship after a number of Sderot residents greeted them on their arrival in the city. While some passing drivers tooted their horns in appreciation, others yelled derogatory remarks and curses.
British-Israeli Miriam Jacobs of the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace was one of the women who rode the Peace Train. She brought her 12-week-old baby along for the ride.
“As a Jewish Zionist woman who cares deeply about the future of the Jewish state, I made aliya to contribute to peace-building, and not to stand idle as peace negotiations are halted and Israel continues on a dangerous path, risking its own survival and its importance as a safe haven for Jews all around the world,” says Jacobs.
“As UN Security Council Resolution 1325 iterates, measures should be taken to ensure and increase women’s participation in political processes,” she continues. “Women’s voices and unique conflict resolution abilities need to be incorporated and may even be crucial to the success of Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. As an unaffiliated political movement, Women Wage Peace works to achieve this. It represents all women who want nonviolent progress and a secure future in Israel.”
The impact that women can have on conflict resolution was an issue that came up during the conference panel.
One example the panel members gave was Ireland, where an all-female political party gained a seat at the negotiating table in 1997.
According to Women Wage Peace member Sheerit Kasher, the voice of women in Israel has not been heard recently.
“After the terrible July that we had this summer... I decided that instead of sitting at home and complaining all the time, that maybe it’s time to do something,” she says.
“And if you want to do something, you have to do it in a very large group in Israel, in a noisy, large group.”
She opines that women’s voices tend to be softer and more practiced than the voice of the average man, which she says has been leading the violent war between Israel and its neighbors.
One of the movement’s founders, retired judge Saviona Rotlevi, says that the “male militaristic dialogue doesn’t of women, who experience a different reality, and call on the leadership to stop talking about peace and to start making peace.”
In her view, “to make peace means to reach a diplomatic deal with the Palestinians in every way. We demand to sit seriously in negotiations.”
Rotlevi stresses that the movement will not give up and that this is just the beginning of a journey toward a longed-for peace for everyone.
Activist Yael Admi lost her brother in the War of Attrition when she was 12. She says that at his grave, she vowed to her parents that she would dedicate her life to trying to prevent other families from experiencing the hardship they endured.
Speaking to Metro, she addresses the government, appealing for an agreement with the Palestinians.
“Where is the initiative? Why isn’t what needs to be happening happening, in order for us, our children and our neighbors to have the normal, respected future that we deserve, and which is possible?” she asks.
“Please,” she implores, “don’t find more excuses; they will always be there – it’s not what we are looking for.”
A common theme among the women present at last week’s event was the search for hope, which they feel the new movement provides.
Aburekeyek Marzook, an Israeli Arab resident of Beersheba, says she was deeply moved by the turnout. According to the organizers, 1,000 people participated in the Peace Train.
“We see all the time on the news violence and extremism, and suddenly you see this number of people saying, ‘We are in a different place, we want to live,’” she says.
She cautions that we must not become disillusioned by the recent uptick in violence, because “peace is always achieved after war – the word ‘peace’ came after war, it wasn’t born alone.”
While she confesses to feeling angst over the latest conflict between Israel and Gaza, she says her longtime friend Ariel Katz – a Jewish American attending the rally as well – didn’t allow her to give up hope.
“We mustn’t be silent, because silence only reinforces the extremism,” she asserts.
For her part, Katz emphasizes that female input is important: “The men have tried, so they need some help.”
She adds that as mothers, women want the best for their sons. “We want to stop people dying on both sides, all the mothers... there are a lot of us, and there is a lot of strength that we haven’t used yet, and it’s time now.”
Marzook adds that particularly now, mercy is necessary, and that is often a quality that women bring to the table.
Suzan Ammash from the northern Arab town of Jisr e-Zarka echoes this belief in women’s strength, describing the power at the launch event as “amazing.”
“I believe in peace, and we need it urgently,” she says.
While the participants represented a variety of ages and backgrounds, the overwhelming majority was middle-aged and Jewish. Women Wage Peace member Yael Elad explains that the movement is a young one and that it’s still early to judge its makeup.
Middle-aged Jewish women are certainly “a large part of the constituency,” she says, “because they were those who joined immediately, no effort needed.”
The event took place on a weekday, which also likely had an impact on the age group, she says.
Elad attributes the smaller number of Arab women partly to cultural issues. “For example, we held a large meeting in the Beduin city of Rahat, and many women joined, but they come from very traditional families and can’t come to an event like this without being accompanied by a family member.”
She says the movement is working hard to recruit more women from the Arab sector and that the responses are very positive.
“We’re united around one call: for Israel to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians and other countries in the region,” she stresses, saying everything else is a derivative of that rather than a demand.
“We believe that the presence of women at the table on both sides would increase the chances of coming to a resolution,” she says. “But if [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu says tomorrow that he is going to [reach] an agreement with Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] but he’s not taking us with him, are we going to say no? Of course not. This [peace] is our main demand.”