Hundreds of women, along with a few dozen men, gathered in the Western Negev in Israel on Sunday to launch the 2017 Journey to Peace, sponsored by grassroots organisation Women Wage Peace
AS THEY RELEASED DOZENS of white doves, organisers read from the movement’s manifesto: “We, Arab and Jewish women, secular and religious, from the centre of the country and the periphery, from across the political and social spectrum, are together calling on our leaders to return to the negotiation table and to extend their hands in peace and that they include women in the process of achieving this solution….We will not stop until a political agreement, which will bring us, our children and grandchildren a safe future, is reached.”
Almost all of the women wore white, as they walked through some segments and were bussed through others, through development towns, kibbutzim, nature reserves, and archaeological sites in the area.
The mood was upbeat, even heady, and for much of the time, they were accompanied by singer-songwriter Yael Deckelbaum, whose song, Prayer of the Mothers, written especially for WWP, has gone viral throughout the world. She was accompanied by Palestinian singer Mira Ailabouni.
Organisers emphasised the significance of launching their activities in the Western Negev, which has borne the brunt of the missile and rocket attacks from Gaza for nearly twenty years and has been the staging area for Israel’s incursions into the Strip.
“The wars and fighting in this area have all been meaningless. We have proven that war will resolve nothing.”
“It is clear to everyone who lives here that the next war is only a matter of time,” said Anat Hefetz, a member of Kibbutz Nirim, which suffered causalities during Operation Protective Edge (2014), “and I know that the only way to stay continue to live here, and to raise our children here, is to demand that our leaders find a political solution – otherwise, there is no future.”
Yaela Ra’anan led the group to Kibbutz Kissufim, where her home is one of the closest points to the border with the Gaza Strip. Pointing to the clearly visible cities of Gaza and Khan Yunis, less than 10 kilometres away, she said, “We who live in this area know better than anyone else what it means to live in a war zone. The wars and fighting in this area have all been meaningless. We have proven that war will resolve nothing.”
Many of the speakers emphasised their awareness of the suffering of the residents of the Gaza Strip. Gadi Yarkoni, head of the local Eshkol Regional Council, declared: “We who live here, we know what it means to live in the shadow of the war, with the sounds of the sirens, the fear of infiltrations, the threat of the tunnels.”
Yarkoni, who is also a resident of Kibbutz Nirim and lost both his legs during Operation Protective Edge, continued: “We know also know that, on the other side, there are children who are living in the same awful reality. We have to change that reality. If there is no policy of humanitarian aid to Gaza, we will all pay the price. I call on our leaders to view the rehabilitation of Gaza as a national mission.”
Since its inception three years ago in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, WWP has maintained a non-partisan stance, calling for a peaceful political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without siding with any particular option. They are confident this position will enable them to broaden their support base beyond its natural left-wing constituency.
Indeed, one of the leaders of the movement is Yahaloma Zakut, a former career fighter-plane mechanic who grew up and lives in the development town of Ofakim. Recalling her near-death during a terrorist attack in a restaurant, where she was saved only because the terrorists’ weapons malfunctioned, Zakut declared: “I don’t fit the profile of the usual ‘peace activist.’ I vote for the Likud party. I am not a left-winger.
“But I, and many people like me, support a peaceful resolution to the conflict. In WWP, we have learned to listen to each other. We have stopped speaking in exclamation points and now we speak in question marks.”
This broad-tent approach has also enabled them to bring Members of the Knesset from across the political spectrum to the event, including Amir Peretz (Zionist Camp), Yehudah Glick (Likud), Haim Yelin (Yesh Atid), and Dov Khenin (Joint Arab Party).
Glick, who is a leader of the movement to allow Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and a survivor of a terrorist shooting, told the appreciative crowd: “We must all come to understand that none of us have the whole truth, no matter what political side you come from.”
Following the launch, events will continue in segments throughout the country, including Arab and Bedouin towns and villages, as well as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, totalling some 350 kilometres. The Journey will culminate in a mass “happening” on October 8, at the Dead Sea, where, together with women from the West Bank, the women will establish “a peace tent in the spirit of Hagar and Sarah”
Tens of thousands of women are expected to participate in at least some of these events; over 20,000 women participated in at least one segment of last year’s walks and the mega-event, also held at the Dead Sea, was attended by more than 4,000 Jewish and Palestinian women.
Yet, as they continued the Journey on Tuesday in Dimona, organisers could not help but relate to the terrorist attack outside of Jerusalem earlier that day. Daniella Hermon told the hundreds who had gathered: “It is especially important to us, on a harsh and painful day like today, to send our condolences to the families….and to send a clear message to our leaders and decision-makers: we are ready for a political peace agreement that will put an end to the cycle of blood.”