Women and Peacemaking: At the U.N. and in the Olive Groves

Gila Svirsky


Dear Chevra,

The following message is from Gila Svirsky, one of the most creative and most staunch Israeli peace activists, about her presence at a UN Security Council hearing on the role of women in peace negotiations throughout the world.

Please also note that after having been invited and then disinvited to address the Security Council, Gila (together with the help of the other women present) carried out a kind of "sit-in" or "speak-in" that worked.

Another example of the "rule of social change" that one of the most effective forms of social action is embodying in the present the vision of the future that one holds. Gila's action at the UN embodied that; so does the participation of Israeli peace activists in the harvesting of Palestinian olives, about which she also reports.

Shalom, Arthur


I just returned from an intensive 4 days in New York and discovered — after catching up by phone and e-mail — that the frenetic pace of peace activism in Israel has not eased, and perhaps even increased. Several updates:

Olive Harvest

The olive harvest, with Israeli and international solidarity, continues apace, despite ongoing settler attacks. In response, the army first declared that the Palestinians must refrain from picking olives, then it rescinded the order, thanks to local activism combined with outraged messages from many of you.

Nevertheless, several olive-pickers were injured by settlers in recent days, and the struggle continues, much of it organized and led by Rabbis for Human Rights, Ta'ayush, and the International Solidarity Movement.

Activists from many organizations have pitched in, and a group accompanied the villagers of Khirbet Yanun as they returned to their homes, from which they fled last week after repeated settler attacks. Writes Hannah Safran of the Coalition of Women for Peace, "If you've never been in a Jewish shtetl [Yiddish for "small town"] in Eastern Europe during a pogrom, why not try it now with home-made Cossacks.... you will never forget the event and your politics will regain its anger and zest."

Settler violence against both Palestinians and soldiers (as the army attempted to remove new settler outposts) has had the useful by-product of again making settlers look like extremists and thugs among mainstream Israelis. Not surprisingly, Defense Minister Fuad Ben-Eliezer finds this the propitious moment to call upon his party to vote against Sharon's proposed new state budget on the grounds that the budget "gives too much to settlers and not enough to the poor". That's certainly true, despite the demagoguery. If the result is that the Labor party finally leaves the government coalition, we can expect elections before the scheduled date next November. But don't get your hopes up: The line of succession is dismal.

Other events

I missed many important actions this weekend, in addition to the olive-picking:

  • An inter-organizational rally protesting the impending war on Iraq (in international solidarity).
  • A Gush Shalom demonstration opposing the so-called 'security fence' — which grabs even more Palestinian land and seeks to further erase the border with the Occupied Territories.
  • A Peace Now march marking 7 years to the assassination of Rabin, and calling for an end to the 'government of settlements'.
  • The opening of a moving exhibition of photos taken at checkpoints by Elisheva Smith, sponsored by Machsom Watch.
  • The jailing of several courageous young men who refuse to serve in the territories.
  • An action in the south Hebron hills region, where Ta'ayush activists walked kids home from school, kids who have not been allowed to attend during the long months of curfew.

This is a really frenzied pace for one weekend, as you can see. Which is why the Coalition of Women for Peace took time out for a long day of strategic planning — to get perspective, prioritize our goals, and decide on the best strategies for reaching them. I wish I could have attended.

Instead, I had the good fortune to be invited, representing Women in Black, to address the UN Security Council on the subject of women at peace negotiations. This session was intended to spur compliance with Security Council Resolution 1325, which mandates the participation of women in all decision-making, including negotiations for peace.

Also invited to speak were women peace activists from 3 other countries — Burundi, Uganda, and India — and one representative of the organizing group, a coalition called the "NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security". At the very last minute, the Syrian delegation, currently members of the Security Council, objected to a presentation by Israel, and others objected to a women from Gujarat, India, who (they imagined correctly) would be critical of the Indian government.

Despite two of us being 'disinvited', the lot of us filed into the Security Council conference room and seated ourselves opposite the 15 members (and their advisors) at the so-called "experts table". (It's striking, isn't it, that NOT shooting or throwing a bomb requires expertise.)

When Indira Kajosevic of the "NGO Working Group" delivered her remarks, she cleverly presented summaries of the talks that the Indian woman and I had prepared, so I didn't feel altogether left out. But as the Security Council delegates discussed the issue — oh, in complete agreement about equality for women, wouldn't you know — I was sitting there wondering what would happen if I simply raised my hand, so I did.

Almost at once the Chair recognized me, which astonished me and nearly left me speechless. After a fumbling beginning, I found my voice, distanced myself from the policies of the present Israeli government, talked about the accomplishments of women making peace with each other and the wisdom of including representatives of civil society (peace activists) at the negotiating table, and then said quietly that, actually, the conflict in the Middle East was not between Israelis and Palestinians.

I should have paused longer for effect right here, but I waited as long as I thought I could without closing the window of opportunity. The conflict, I said softly, was actually between Israelis and Palestinians who long for peace, on one side, and Israelis and Palestinians who don't want peace, on the other. When I finished, the only speaker following me was the Syrian delegate, and — to tell you the truth, my heart started to pound just then so I didn't hear a word — I was later told that my final words headed off the usual Syrian broadside against Israel.

The "NGO Working Group" had also done a great job of arranging a press conference, briefings of senior UN officials, and a public reception, so we did have opportunities to get the message across. I also had the privilege of participating in not one, but two New York vigils of Women in Black — the so-called Wednesday and Thursday groups — and was moved to think of the large and spontaneous movement that is building across the globe.

The text I prepared in advance, never uttered in full, appears below. Many thanks to Ruth Linden for her help in polishing and paring it down to 5 short minutes. I do think they got the message, though.

Back home and more relaxed,

Gila Svirsky

Address to the Security Council of the United Nations Gila Svirsky, Women in Black and Coalition of Women for Peace

23 October 2002

Your Excellencies,

Allow me to begin by telling you about the secret meetings held between Palestinians and Israelis that began 15 years ago. These meetings were secret because it was illegal for Israelis and forbidden for Palestinians to meet in those years. A number of groups were then getting together, but only one group persisted over time — resolutely grappling with the most difficult issues — and crafted an agreement that was signed and publicized several years before the Oslo Accords.

Above all this agreement declared establishment of a free, independent and secure state of Palestine side-by-side with a free, independent and secure state of Israel as the core of a political settlement.

As profound as this moment could have been in the history of the Middle East, very few people heard about it. Why? Because the agreement was written by women. You may wonder whether the agreement was rejected for other reasons, perhaps because it was a radical statement dreamed up by utopians or marginal people. But these women were neither marginal nor radical. Each delegation included prominent political leaders — members of parliament, government ministers, an ambassador, and a party head.

As for the content of the agreement, most of its principles have now become matters of consensus among both Israelis and Palestinians. Despite the current magnitude of brutality — or perhaps because of it — surveys consistently show that a decisive two-thirds of Israeli Jews would support a peace agreement that includes Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories, evacuation of most Israeli settlements, and creation of a Palestinian state.

Most Palestinians hold the very same views. Indeed, only extremist political leaders on both sides fail to understand that these principles will ultimately set the terms of peace between our nations.

Clearly, the agreement was both pragmatic and moderate. In fact, had the women who wrote it been internationally recognized negotiators, the two Intifadas that followed might have been prevented. This is but one example of the need to implement and enforce Security Council Resolution 1325.

At the grassroots level women have also been at the forefront of peacemaking. In 1988 women in Israel founded the movement now known as Women in Black. Dressed in black to mourn the victims on all sides, Women in Black has kept a one-hour vigil every single Friday for the past 15 years. On street corners throughout Israel, Arab and Jewish women hold signs demanding an end to the Israeli occupation and pursuit of a just peace.

The Women in Black movement quickly and spontaneously spread around the globe as a public forum for women to say "no" to war and injustice. In Italy Women in Black protest the Israeli occupation and the violence of organized crime. Women in Black in Bangalore, India call for an end to abuse by religious fundamentalists. During the war in the Balkans Women in Black, Yugoslavia set an inspirational example of interethnic cooperation. Today, Women in Black throughout the world are engaged in a struggle to prevent a war from being launched against Iraq. For their remarkable work, the international movement of Women in Black, represented by the movements in Yugoslavia and Israel, were nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace and won the Millennium Peace Prize awarded by UNIFEM [the UN Development Fund for Women].

In Israel, the women's peace movement extends well beyond Women in Black. We are Bat Shalom, the organization formed to promote the principles of the pre-Oslo peace agreement described earlier. We are New Profile, women seeking to end the militarization of Israeli society. We are Machsom Watch, women preventing human rights violations at checkpoints. We are the Movement of Democratic Women, Jewish and Palestinian women citizens of Israel struggling for peace and justice. These and other organizations, joined together in the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, are united in relentless effort to bring the bloodshed to an end.

The women's peace movement in Israel is absolutely breathtaking: It is alive with new ideas, indefatigable as women have always been, and at the vanguard of creative thinking about how to get to peace. Israeli and Palestinian women march together under the banner "We refuse to be enemies". Indeed, the Israeli and Palestinian women's peace movements have already made peace: on paper, in our hearts, in the lessons we teach our children, and in the behavior we model. We are allies for peace, united in our struggle against extremists and warmongers on all sides.

Is it not preposterous that not a single Israeli woman, and only one Palestinian woman, have held leadership roles at a Middle East peace summit? Instead, the negotiators have been men with portfolios of brutal crimes against each other — military men who have honed the art of war and who measure their success by the unconditional surrender of the other. Is it any wonder that we are still locked in combat?

Ultimately this occupation, like every other in history, will come to an end. The general parameters of that ending are already drawn and in agreement. What we need now is leadership committed to swiftly concluding this era awash in blood, leadership that understands the price we pay in death and destruction for every hour of delay. What we need now is leadership with expertise at reconciliation and rapprochement. What we need now is women.

Thank you.

Picking Olives for Peace

In the wake of ongoing attacks by settlers from Tapuah against the residents of the nearby Palestine village of Kfar Yassuf, and following several recent shooting incidents and the theft of olives, we decided to quickly organize help with the olive harvest.

This action was called by Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israel Committee Against Home Demolitions, but activists from many organizations joined in...

The first thing we saw at the entrance to the village were three mounds of dirt and boulders blocking the road — preventing vehicles from entering, and thereby forcing villagers to walk several hundred meters from the road to their homes, often carrying heavy packages. The next thing was graffiti: "Death to Arabs", presumably painted by the Kahanist settlers of Tapuah.

At the entrance to the village, hundreds of residents met and welcomed us, and many more joined as we walked through the village. We quickly went to the olive orchard near the Tapuah settlement where the olive groves had been raided by settlers. Palestinian villagers and Israeli peace activists set to work at once with great energy, out of fear, soon confirmed, that we would soon be interrupted by settlers and security forces.

At first, about 15 soldiers and police stood on the hill between us and the settlement, and allowed us to continue the harvest. A short while later, some 20 settlers gathered above us, some of them armed. The settlers began to advance toward us shouting and cursing. At that point, the senior officer approached and requested that we leave the hillside to avoid clashes. Since we had almost completed the harvest in that location, we complied. A short while later, the district army commander arrived and demanded that we entirely evacuate the area on the grounds that it was a 'closed military zone'... After discussing this with the villagers, we agreed to leave out of concern for their welfare.

Our request that the security forces disperse the settlers and allow the villagers to complete their harvest was jeeringly denied... "Let them harvest their olives when there's a Palestinian state", said the commander.

Documenting this event were a Canadian TV crew and a reporter from [the Israeli newspaper] Yediot Aharonot. An Italian TV crew arrived late, but interviewed the village residents and peace activists...The action was reported on the radio, and participants were interviewed on [Israel's popular] midday radio news magazine.

We subsequently learned that the village has another large orchard to which they do not have access. We decided to consider holding another action, and we discussed what to do in the event of attacks by settlers or reactions by the Israeli army.

We also decided to lobby Knesset members to use their good offices to enable Palestinians to harvest their olives in locations where they are threatened by settlers.

End report by Yaakov.

I think the above report is a perfect example of how a small group of Israeli peace activists can act effectively to bridge the divide with Palestinians, and also work to change Israeli public opinion and affect policymakers. All these groups deserve your support.

Despite these difficult times, more and more people on both sides have come to understand that violence is not a solution. And it is important to keep the vision in mind: Like every occupation in history, the Israeli occupation too is doomed to failure, and will come to an end sooner or later. And at the end of that occupation, two vibrant states — safe, secure, independent of each other, and cooperative for the benefit of all — must inevitably emerge.

Shalom / Salaam from Jerusalem,

Gila Svirsky

Coalition of Women for a Just Peace: