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Israeli-Palestinian conflict shuns female brokers

By Leigh Cuen   |   Dec. 6, 2012 at 5:06 PM   |   Comments

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TEL AVIV, Israel (WOMENSENEWS) The Independent Commission for Human Rights recently criticized the Hamas police for violently disbanding women protesting peacefully in front of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza City on Nov. 6.

The women were calling for reconciliation between Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank.

Cooperation between these two rival groups, the women argued, is needed before anything can be done to change the all-male leadership context within which Israel and Palestine are locked in violent feud.

"There is no official effort on behalf of the government to support women's leadership in Gaza," says Mona Ahmad al-Shawa, head of the women's unit at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza. "This is deeply affected by the division between Gaza and the West Bank."

Palestine just achieved observer-nation status at the United Nations, but Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are still separated geographically, politically and socially.

Al-Shawa says the rift between Palestinians stymie any chance of implementing 10-year-old U.N. Resolution 1325, which requires women's involvement in all levels of peace negotiations. On the Palestinian side, Resolution 1325 has never been enacted.

In Israel, it's been enacted but ignored.

In 2005, Israel became the first parliament to adopt Resolution 1325, with legislation requiring that "an appropriate representation of women from diverse population sectors be included on every governmental team or committee at the national level."

But there is currently no woman in the Israeli government who can vote on major security decisions, be that attacking Iran or negotiating with Palestinians. Limor Livnat, currently the sole female member of the Israeli cabinet, is an observer member, without voting power.

Groundless Assumptions

Rachel Dolev, former director of the censorship office of the Israeli military, wrote about the failure to implement Resolution 1325 in August in an article for the Israeli news source Yedioth Ahronoth (also known as Ynet). Part of the reason, she wrote, may be the "groundless assumption that only those who served in senior roles in the defense establishment – all of them men – have any understanding in security matters."

Women serve in many prestigious positions in the Israeli army. But few serve in the kind of military roles--such as generals--that confer cross-over status to politics.

The few women who have had a chance at peacemaking efforts have left a credible record.

Hanan Ashrawi, the only Palestinian woman to ever actively participate in peace negotiations, contributed to the resolution adopted by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1988 to accept a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

In 2007, Tzipi Livni, then foreign minister of Israel, became the only woman since Golda Meir to represent Israel in negotiations with neighboring Arab nations. Livni and Shelly Yachimovich, leader of Israel's Labor party, are both running for prime minister but are stirring little hope among supporters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who argues that none of his opponents have his level of security experience, is widely expected to easily win the Jan. 22 elections.

Nava Sonnenschein is the founder and director of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam's School for Peace, based in a pluralistic Arab-Jewish village in the forests between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. "Women have the capacity to lead and defend the security of Israel, not only the ex-generals in Israeli politics and the media today," she says. "It's time for it to happen."

Blow to Peace Talks

Netanyahu's recent decision to expand settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank is an "almost fatal blow" to any potential for peace talks, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said.

Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy chief of Hamas's political bureau, has said Hamas will continue to smuggle weapons into Gaza because only a strong arsenal, not negotiations, will compel Israel to agree to concessions.

There were 162 Palestinian deaths and over 1,200 injuries during the eight-day outburst of violence in November, referred to as Operation Pillar Defense in Israel, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza. In Israel, largely thanks to the Iron Dome, public bomb shelters, and other measures taken by the government to protect civilians, there were five deaths and 240 injuries.

In this atmosphere, the ceasefire declared on Nov. 21 between Hamas and Israel, and mediated by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, is delicate.

Numerous Palestinians have been killed in small-scale clashes with Israeli forces since the ceasefire, and dozens more arrested. Among other acts of personal violence, on Dec. 3 a man with an axe attacked two Israeli soldiers near the Palestinian village of Deir Sharaf in the West Bank. That same day, Israeli police arrested three Jewish settlers suspected of arson attacks against Palestinians.

Palestinians and Israelis are locked in misunderstandings, according to joint studies published in September and conducted through the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.

Authors found that 58 percent of Palestinians think Israel's goals are to expand its borders and expel Arab citizens. But their surveys found the expand-and-expel attitude held by only a small minority of Israelis. A much larger portion of Israelis, 43 percent, said their goal is to withdraw from the territories after guaranteeing Israel's security.

Israelis showed equal ignorance of Palestinian views. "Palestinians know Israelis only through the soldiers at the checkpoints," says Sonnenschein.

The joint study also indicated that 73 percent of Israelis and 71 percent of Palestinians believe the chances that an independent, peaceful Palestinian state will be established within the next five years are low or non-existent.

Unofficial Peacemaking Efforts

In her region, many local Palestinian and Israeli women have taken leadership roles in unofficial peacemaking efforts, says Sonnenschein. "If you look around the local peace and human rights organizations in Israel and Palestine, you see that the majority of leaders are women."

Aesha Aqtam, a Palestinian schoolteacher and a mother of six from Nablus, in the West Bank, leads the Parents Circle Family Forum women's group, which meets at members' homes. Since it was established seven years ago, it has grown from 20 Palestinian and Israeli women to over 160. All participants have lost loved ones to war. Through dialogue, they have been reconciling individual families, one member at a time.

"We work to build trust between women on both sides," says Aqtam. She said that, in the beginning, many women couldn't bear to look at each other, much less listen to one another's stories.

But Aqtam knew from her own experience that these women could create a ripple effect.

"My sons were very angry when their uncle was killed. He was very close to them. They tried many times to take revenge," says Aqtam. Afraid for her sons' lives, she turned to the Parents Circle. "At first my sons were very angry with me for joining."

But Aqtam says after confronting her own pain and prejudices she managed to get her sons to come to the Parents Circle to meet Israeli peers. "Now they are members. They have Israeli friends. I am sure now they will not kill themselves to avenge their uncle. They will not kill any Israelis," she says.

Aqtam laments the absence of women from the official ranks of potential peacemakers.

"If women are not part of the negotiations, it will do nothing," she says. "We waited years for the governments to make peace. But they did nothing. I lost my brother. I will not give one of my sons! We have to find another solution. Let's talk. Maybe we can find a solution."

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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