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RIGHTS: Middle East Women Ahead But Not Home

Sanjay Suri*- IPS/TerraViva

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 9 2010 (IPS) - Male leaders fail to break the Mideast impasse. Enter women from Israel and the Palestinian territories working together. And… it would have been nice to say they succeeded where the men failed.

Molly Malekar Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

Molly Malekar Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

They didn’t. The women have been ahead of the times, in speaking of solutions others thought unmentionable once, but now increasingly accept. And yet, peace seems more difficult than ever.

“It’s an ironic paradox,” Molly Malekar, former director of Bat Shalom of Jerusalem Link, tells Terraviva. “Ideas taboo many years ago are more accepted now at the centre of the political spectrum. If you take the issue of the rights of Palestinians to a state of their own, more than 20 years ago this was never recognised. Now no one can ignore it.”

And yet, the women looking for peace have little hope.

Israeli and Palestinian women, together within the International Women’s Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace, have spoken of many solutions since the 1990s, when the very thought of these seemed taboo.

Maha Abu-Dayeh Shamas, founder and executive director of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC) based in Ramallah and Jerusalem, mentions several others:

• The women were saying in 1995 that Jerusalem must be shared between the two peoples “when it was sacrilegious to say that.” Now leaders are considering this seriously.

• The group talked about human security, because “ending the shooting is not peace. We mean access to resources, a people’s peace, not just an agreement between armies and leaders. Here again now more leaders speak of this need.”

• The women have been saying the Arab initiative is a good one. “Nobody wanted to admit it, now everybody is talking about it, even Israelis are starting to say let’s work within that framework (under that initiative, Israel would end occupation beyond 1967 borders in return for recognition from Arab countries).”

• The women had been demanding a two-state solution when it was unmentionable in Israel. Today even a right-wing government speaks of it.

• The women said from the start, like others of course, that the last Gaza war was a mistake. Now many more Israelis are beginning to accept that.

But still, there is no neat division between progressive women and regressive men. The International Women’s Commission – that includes 20 members each from Israel and the Palestinian territories, and 20 from international groups – has seen just the kind of divisions within that exist in the mainstream of the Middle East dispute.

The group cracked during the Gaza war because some women supported the war, Shamas says, and had to be reconstituted. Which throws up the other fault line: that the Israeli representation of women who oppose the occupation is far from representative of Israeli society.

“It is not taken for granted that (Israeli) women are pro-peace,” says Malekar. Nor do most Israeli women oppose the occupation, as members of the group do. “Inside Israel there is a backlash to freedom of speech and space for civil society to operate on these issues. Disagreements that are the essence of democracy are equated with betrayal.”

For that matter, the Palestinian women are not representative of the larger public opinion either. “Most Palestinians think it is a waste of time to discuss peace with Israelis because they don’t want peace, and say that during peace talks things have become worse,” says Shamas. “So neither is a representative group, and we don’t claim we are. Most societies do not have majority feminist thinkers.”

And now it has got harder within Israel for women such as Malekar. “The last elections crushed the left and pro-peace political parties,” she says. “Racist and fascist groups, only 20 years ago were not allowed to run for elections. Now their followers are in big numbers in parliament.” She herself has been attacked, and is seen by many as traitorous.

And all the while the reality on the ground has become more difficult to shift – over the years settlements have expanded. “To undo the damage now requires massive force,” says Shamas, “I am not any more hopeful.”

Nor is Malekar, “I’m afraid we don’t see much progress.”

But, if the women’s group is right at all once again on anything ahead of time, it’s that stress on third party intervention that it institutionalised for itself by involving international members.

“Now everybody says a third party must be pro-active to ensure implementation of agreements,” says Shamas. “There is even talk that in new negotiations, the U.S. will have to be a guarantor.” Like peace itself, that too seems a long way off.

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