<                    Report Three                    >

“Assertions of Humanity": Women Working Against Multiple Forms of Violence

Wednesday, May 30, 2007: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv
Steadfastness and Struggle

"You need to understand that Palestinian women suffer from triple discrimination: one, the occupation; two, living in a patriarchal system where there are assumptions about your proper place as a woman and a man; and three, unequal rights in our constitution. We work on empowering women and engaging them in political life. We want women to have a louder voice and be active in state-building."

Thus began our introduction to the work of the Jerusalem Center for Women, shared with us by Samar Dissi and Zahra Hdeeb. The Jerusalem Center for Women is the Palestinian half of Jerusalem Link, an organization working to end the occupation. Jerusalem Link came into existence in 1993, after the signing of the Oslo accords and after decades of secret talks that had been taking place in Brussels between Palestinian and Israeli women since the 1970s. The Israeli half of Jerusalem Link is called Bat Shalom and the two organizations work jointly but independently.

The Jerusalem Center for Women focuses primarily on female Jerusalemites (of all ages) as most NGOs do their work in the West Bank and Gaza. However, one of their projects is bringing Palestinians from different areas together to dialog with each other. As Samar explained, Palestinians are classified into at least five separate identities:
1) second-class Israeli citizens;
2) Palestinian Jerusalemites who are permanent residents of Israel;
3) West Bankers (who carry orange ID cards rather than the blue Israeli ones and can only access Jerusalem – or other parts of the West Bank – with a permit);
4) Gazans (who are completely isolated in what amounts to an open-air prison: while the Israeli settlers in Gaza were withdrawn, all of Gaza remains surrounded by Israeli army and Palestinians there have no freedom of movement whatsoever);
5) refugees in the surrounding Arab countries and throughout the worldAll of these classifications create divisions among Palestinians because they come with different privileges and constraints and thus different priorities in terms of politics and needs.

The Center trains women to be political leaders, engages in advocacy campaigns (most recently around home demolitions), provides support for female detainees while they are in prison, provides them and their families with counseling when they are released, and works with many lawyers to document all of the cases the Center is working on. However, first and foremost the Center’s staff see themselves as facilitators and trainers. For example, they insist that the specific campaigns are led by the women whose homes are being demolished.

At times the women involved with the Center face criticism for their work: "When they are so busy fighting occupation, women tend to accept other oppressions. We are told (or we tell ourselves) to wait till there is no occupation to begin a campaign for equal rights. But why should we wait until the end of occupation to stand up against men beating us or the lack of women in political leadership? However, I want to dispel the myth promoted by the media that it is only Muslim women who are oppressed or who have to cover themselves. If you walk with me in [Israeli] West Jerusalem you will see many Orthodox Jewish women who are covered. With both Muslims and Jews, if you believe in that version of the faith, then you should dress that way. And how someone dresses is not the important thing. Men are men everywhere – they will oppress women everywhere."

What struck me most about our meeting with these two women was their steadfastness, determination, and energy. There have been 40 years of occupation and 60 years of an unresolved refugee problem. They explained that many Palestinians have lost hope in engaging in joint peace-building efforts with Israelis. Oslo was a devastating disappointment which led to the second Intifada. Samar attempted to explain the level of despair: "People are now fed up with everything, we are reaching the stage of killing ourselves." Samar went on to express her own frustration with the way in which she always has to hear about how Israelis are also paying the price of occupation as though this were an equal tragedy when the losses and the price paid are so much greater on the Palestinian side: "We can't compare how our children, mothers, brothers are suffering." But she continues: "However, we know at this organization that we are humans on both sides, both have human rights, both should live. That is why we say we must have two states for two people with Jerusalem as a shared capital for both states. But this process can not be unilateral like Gaza and all of the settlers must pull back to the June 4, 1967 borders."

When I asked them where they take their strength from, Zahra said: "We want to be solid to confront the solid wall. All of this teaches us patience. Waiting at checkpoints, you learn patience." Samar concurred and added: "When I talk with a woman whose home has been demolished and who is looking for a little piece of carpet for her child to sleep on, how am I going to say I don't have the strength to keep resisting when I am living at home with my parents? The women we work with, they teach us. We learn from them. They give us the power. So we continue. We refuse this Wall that is separating Palestinians from Palestinians, but it is still there. But it will be removed somehow, someday. People don't lose this hope to refuse it."

And yet, the women who work at the Center know they face an immense battle and spoke to us about Israel's 2020 plan that details how every inch of Jerusalem will be used. Under this plan "we are all under the threat of becoming refugees at any time."

They told us international solidarity plays a huge role because in the West we can raise our voices and call for justice and an end to the occupation. The Center is always in need of funding, especially since they lost their USAID money when they refused to sign a contract that said they would refuse to work with terrorists. The reason for the refusal? When they asked how "terrorist" would be defined, it included anyone who was in an Israeli jail or a relative of someone in an Israeli jail – given the mass arrests and incarcerations of ordinary Palestinians, this would mean the Center would be prohibited from working with pretty much anyone. Additionally, the women who work at the Center are always eager to be invited to come speak at international conferences and other gatherings geared towards ending the occupation. To get in touch with the Center to make a donation or to invite a speaker to an event or to gather more information about they work they are doing through the Jerusalem Center for Women and Jerusalem Link, please visit www.j-c-w.org.

As we tried to leave the area to go to our next meeting, we again came face to face with the immense, daily nature of this battle. We were unable to leave because the road we had come in on had since been blocked in order to begin work on constructing a new checkpoint. This marked our second detour of the day: earlier we had attempted to drive up to the Mount of Olives to get a view of the city before heading to our meeting with Combatants for Peace. That became impossible, however, as all access roads were blocked in order to conduct a tax raid. These detours can add 1-4 hours to a trip that should have only taken 2-30 minutes. For Palestinians trying to reach school, work or the hospital, this can become a severe problem, especially as it is not guaranteed that they will be granted permission to pass through the checkpoint once they have traveled the circuitous route to arrive at it.

There is a reason why the olive tree is a symbol of Palestine. It has to do with lasting. The steadfastness of ordinary people -- extraordinary people who refuse to allow these extraordinary circumstances to become normalized. Their engagement in ordinary daily acts of living are themselves acts of resistance and assertions of humanity and spirit that refuses to be broken.

--Cecilia Lucas

New Profile

As we proceed toward Tel Aviv, we pass through a checkpoint where an Israeli soldier boards and asks for all of our passports. Interestingly, he doesn't look at our faces to verify; he just looks at the passports. He is an Ethiopian Jew; our guide reports they tend to be "rougher", presumably to prove their loyalty to Israel.

We arrive at a private home north of Tel Aviv, in Nof Yam near Herzaliya, where we are met by Ruth Hiller & Dorothy Naor of New Profile (www.newprofile.org). This is an organization which wishes to change the profile of Israeli society from a militarized to a more civilized one. They support young people who are resisting military service.

Ruth's story is one of a mother supporting her son. She is originally from the US, moved with her husband to a Kibbutz where their 5 children were born. Her first two served in the military and she never questioned this. When her 16 year old son informed her that he was a pacifist and did not want to participate in the military, she was shocked and did not know where to turn. In fact, there was no place to turn at that time. She began a discussion with a few other mothers which gradually evolved into this organization. She eventually came to the place where she believes "Israel is an army with a state rather than a state with an army". New Profile's goal is not to eliminate the army but to eliminate the need for the army.

New Profile believes that Israeli culture and media portray a world in which the use of force is an acceptable, normal means for solving political problems. They take notice of the fact that the decision makers in the Israeli government are primarily former army offices, mostly male. Therefore, women, the poor, and the Palestinians in Israel have very little say in decision making.

Some other facts which she related include:
• Women serve 2 years in the military, men 3 years.
• The senior year of high school is primarily devoted to preparing for the military.
• When in the military, soldiers are paid $100/month.
• 25% of Jewish Israelis do not serve because of religious or medical exemptions.
• 25% drop out before they complete their first year.
• 50% of the land in Israel is under the jurisdiction of the military.
• The US government provides 2.5 billion dollars a year to Israel in military aid and10 billion dollars in credit guarantees.

--Steve and Linda Bell



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