By Mohammad Al-Kassim*
It was an informal, probably even illegal gathering. In 1988, Israeli and Palestinian women met at a cloister in Jerusalem to talk about peace. Soon after, the meetings became a regular occurrence while officials ignored that they were breaking the rule forbidding political contact between Palestinians and Israelis. They were women, after all.
“For a long time women were left out of the process,” said human rights and peace activist Simone Susskind. “The role of women in the peace negotiation is essential to reaching peaceful solutions.”
And so it is: This informal group of women created a two-state solution years before it became a discussion point in peace negotiations. And the principal they believed in, that women should be, absolute must be, involved in conflict resolution and peace building, was recognized 12 years later when the United Nations adopted the landmark Resolution 1325 on October 31, 2000.
“The most important thing 1325 has done is raise awareness of what has happened to women in conflict situation,” said Pam DeLargy, chief of the Humanitarian Response Group of the United Nations Population Fund. “1325 has made it a standard practice now for women’s groups and feminist getting involved in the decision making process of their countries.”
Capitalizing on the UN resolution and in an effort to strengthen it, Israeli and Palestinian women created the International Women’s Commission (IWC) five years later. In addition to Israeli and Palestinian members, the organization includes international members such as United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) chief Inés Alberdi, Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Finnish President Tarja Halonen, who together direct the IWC.
The main goal of the organization is advancing the role of women in their communities, in order to increase their participation in the paralyzed peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. It works parallel with the stated goal of UN Resolution 1325: to stop the marginalization of women in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
For 60 years, men of each side – politicians, journalists – have written the narrative of this on-going power struggle. Missiles, suicide bombings, refugee camps, and censorship have taken the prominent role in the battle over territory and historical wrongs. With rare exception, the voices of women on either side have not been heard. However, beneath the public script, women serve as the cultural glue and as healers. They are educators, doctors, politicians, artists, and organization leaders.
Women of each side have forged wisdom out of experience and circumstances. They know what is needed on the ground, and work creatively and tenaciously toward obtaining it. They understand the value of forgiveness in order to progress. They are also educated, articulate, and professionally accomplished. Despite all this, very few women have risen high enough to become involved in the peace negotiation process.
Public discourse between Israelis and Palestinians was considered taboo before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 but with the advent of the peace process and a glimmer of hope on the horizon for a just and bloodless resolution, it became acceptable to both parties to hold face-to-face dialogues.
Susskind, who has been with the organization since its inception and serves on its international steering committee, says that the IWC favours a resolution that incorporates gender perspective in addressing not only the outstanding issues – including a full cessation of settlements, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of two states, and an equitable solution to the refugee question based on UN Resolution 194 – but also in guaranteeing human security and the right to life with dignity for both peoples.
A rocky path
Despite a seemingly small number of achievements so far, Susskind is proud of the young organization. “The women have a very good working relationship, and they have learned to cooperate together on many levels,” she said.
However, it has been a rocky path over the past few years. During the Gaza War, relationships were severed and Palestinian women refused to engage in dialogue with their Israeli counterparts, making the unity of the groups nearly impossible and endangering the IWC’s progress up to that point.
Advocates say things are slowly getting on track. In June in Madrid, women leaders attending a conference on ” Advancing Women’s Leadership for Sustainable Peace in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Worldwide” hosted by the UNIFEM and the IWC, ended the meeting with a joint call for a just and peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including an end to the three-year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Mariam Ikermawi, the director of the Jerusalem Centre for Women and a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, said the IWC gave women a voice and provided a new approach to peace talks. She credits the organization for treating women as agents of change rather than forgotten victims. Still, Ikermawi referred to the IWC as a “high-profiled women’s club,” saying that few Israeli and Palestinian women are aware of its existence.
“It’s mostly popular outside its region, and as there wasn’t real work on the grassroots level, you won’t really find anybody who knows the IWC but the people who are in the same field,” said Ikermawi. “We are speaking about a body that exists but doesn’t really have momentum within its own societies.”
Susskind admits that this is one of the IWC main shortfalls, saying that the organization’s biggest challenge is getting the message out. “I agree with this criticism, I know that the IWC has had little impact in Israel and Palestine because we did not manage to engage women together,” said Susskind. But she also adds that the IWC is learning from its mistakes and intends to address them at the IWC’s next meeting in Jericho.
Anat Saragusti, one of the founders of IWC and the executive director of Agenda – Israeli Centre for Strategic Communications, says that the IWC plays a large role in trying to raise awareness among decision-makers all over the world. “We meet frequently with high level international figures to influence them about the urgency of the situation, about the need to integrate women’s perspectives into the process – about the need to solve the political conflict through political means, and not with arms and power,” said Saragusti, insisting that core issues must be dealt with head on and not avoided. “We talk about a fair solution based on a two-state solution on the borders of June 4, 1967, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.”
The first female TV correspondent in the Gaza strip, a lawyer by training as well as a human rights activist, Saragusti gives a negative assessment of IWC achievements so far: “We failed, we don’t have peace, and women are not on the negotiating table,” she said. Now that the month-long direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis are deadlocked, the great challenge confronting the IWC is mobilizing the Israeli and Palestinian public in favour of its approach.
But Susskind says the organization is young and needs to time to get on track. She adds that she is sure time will make a difference. “I’m hopeful that after five years of existence we are better prepared,” said Susskind. “We have young women, better working relationships, and we are working better together. I’m not pessimistic – if I was, then I wouldn’t be here working.”
On September 15, IWC circulated a position paper to advance the Israel-Palestine negotiations in which stressed the need to “ensure the meaningful participation of women and the inclusion of women’s perspectives in the negotiations, as mandated by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and 1889.” This, it said, was necessary “to adopt a new approach both to avoid past mistakes and to ensure far greater chances for success”. (Oct. 2010)
* Mohammad Al-Kassim is affiliated to the Associated Reporters Abroad (ARA), which reports on Middle East and Europe.