Travel Diaries from the Nobel Women’s Initiative in Israel and Palestine

We are really excited to have Jaclyn Friedman share with us her travel diaries from her current travels to Israel and Palestine with the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Read about her work and adventures below.

I was blown away to be asked to join a delegation to Israel and Palestine led by Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Mairead Maguire, and organized by the Nobel Women’s Initiative. When NWI first got in touch, I thought it must have been some kind of misunderstanding. I’m a media activist, a writer, and an educator about sexuality and ending sexual violence. I don’t get invited on peace delegations led by Nobel laureates every day. Of course, I’m also a peace-loving lefty American Jew – I care about Israel and Palestine. But I’ve never taken the time I really should have to understand the dynamics and history of the conflict. And now I’ve been given the opportunity to learn from the participants themselves – it’s the chance of a lifetime, and an incredible privilege.

The goals of our delegation are as follows:

  • Bear witness and provide support to women activists on the ground by providing opportunities for people to come together, showing solidarity for their work and spotlighting their work through media.
  • Support Palestinian and Israeli activists in their use of nonviolent protest as a form of resistance.
  • Support, strengthen and increase the visibility of coalitions of Israeli and Palestinian women leaders for peace.
  • Increase US media engagement on this issue with a particular focus on women, nonviolent protest and the voices of ordinary citizens struggling against oppression.
  • Identify and engage young women activists and the emerging peace and justice movements and the new energy and ideas they are bringing to the table.
  • Understand and spotlight challenges faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel.
  • Support Israeli civil society groups and confront the militarism of Israeli society.

Since the most important thing to do with privilege is to share it as widely as you can, one of my main goals (beyond listening and learning) is to take along with me anyone who shares these goals, as best as I can. To that end, Feministing has generously offered to share my travel diaries with you. You can also follow more about our delegation here, see photos here, and follow my personal updates from the delegation on facebook and twitter. Please also tune in at 9AM EST tomorrow AM for a liveblogged conversation with feminist peacemakers in Nazareth – I’ll be taking your comments and questions and sharing them in the room, and conveying the responses back to you – a very cool way to get more directly in on the conversation. If you can’t make that, please feel free to leave questions and comments and request for info in the comments, and I’ll do my best to get responses to you from the best source. (Though do keep in mind that we only have internet access a couple of times a day – it may take a while to respond.)

This is part one of the journey. I’ll be back with part two on Monday, and part three on Thursday.

Tuesday, 9/28

In Frankfurt after catching a few winks between flights. It all begins now – there will be some other members of our delegation on this flight to Tel Aviv with me, though I’m not sure whom. I’m anxious about meeting them – such accomplished women. What will they be like? I’ve got four different colors of chipped nail polish on my left hand, from testing colors for a pre-flight pedicure I never managed to pull off. Left the house in a mad dash and forgot to take it off, and haven’t been able to find nail polish remover in any airport shop, for love or money. As if I need another signifier that I’m the most inexperienced and junior member of this group. Nothing for it now, though. Here we go.

Wednesday, 9/29

Day One. Hard to believe that was just the warmup. After a lovely breakfast overlooking the city on the terrace of our hotel (and Israeli’s don’t mess around with breakfast, y’all), we got down to the business of orientation. The delegates and staff of NWI are all impressive women, not only in terms off credentials and accomplishments, but in their ability to just jump into the fray with each other. Introductions were refreshingly free of posturing, and full of heart for the task at hand. We also mentioned some women who had been invited but couldn’t join us out of fear for their security, a bracing reminder of what a privilege it was to be there, and what is at stake.

Then we had our first briefing, from Zahira Kamal and Naomi Chazan, a Palestinian and an Israeli respectively, and a pair of activists who’ve been working together for peace for decades. Zahira, a founding member of the International Women’s Commission and Former Minister of Women’s Affairs for the Palestinian National Authority, gave us a detailed history of the region and the conflict, and Naomi, President of the New Israel Fund and an active member of the International Women’s Commission, offered a perspective on the present-day obstacles to peace, the urgency of the timing (evidently if a two-state solution is not arrived at by next August, the whole matter may be referred to the UN Security Council, and whatever they decide will be out of Palestine and Israel’s hands, which wouldn’t be the best outcome, to put it mildly). Naomi identified three main constraints to moving forward:

1) Skepticism (e.g. 70% of Israelis want a 2 state solution, but at the same time, 70% of Israeli’s don’t believe it will ever happen)
2) Spoilers (e.g. the far right radicals on each side who don’t want peace, they want nothing less than the destruction of the other people. They’re well funded, sophisticated and well-organized, and have influence way outstripping their actual numbers, much like the far right in the US.)
3) Superficiality (e.g. diplomats and other players who want to appear to be involved in the peace process but don’t really want to get their hands dirty with the difficult work of actually building peace)

And she proposed three solutions to overcome these constraints:

1) Restructure the negotiations so that they’re more transparent and more inclusive. Secrecy and exclusiveness breeds suspicion and rumors. – no solution will succeed unless the people are on board, and people can’t be on board if they’re not included in the debate somehow.

2) Bring the rest of the international community to the table. If this really is an international concern – which it is – everyone, including many other governments, must get involved to press the two sides to compromise and hold them to account.

3) Deal with the substance beneath the “key issues.” The five key issues are generally said to be the settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and the wall. But the real issues lie beneath, and no lasting peace can be built without discussing them. Both sides must not to agree on each side’s different narrative of the roots of the conflict, but must respect and understand each other’s perspectives. Israel must take partial responsibility for creating the Palestinian refugee crisis. Palestinians must understand that Jews see Israel as their homeland. Both sides must acknowledge that there is a power asymmetry between them. They need to develop a mechanism for reconciliation between and among their peoples once peace is established. Basically – having the hard conversations is the only way to create mutual respect, and it’s only out of mutual respect that a real peace can be built.

I was moved by Naomi and Zahira talking about how much of a toll this work has taken on them – they’ve been working together on this issue for decades, and they’ve suffered setback after setback, as well as real personal attacks (Naomi was the target of a vicious billboard campaign by the Israeli far right recently) as a result. And yet they don’t stop.

It’s strange to say, because it seems so unlikely this will happen, but the conversation gave me hope. It’s nice to see a path out of the crisis, however unlikely it is the leadership will take it. It’s good to know what to fight for, as opposed to just what to fight against.

Then we were whisked off to the UN offices in Jerusalem, where we were briefed about the humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories. Some lowlights: 2/3 of the residents of Gaza are refugees and 80% are reliant on UN food aid. Parents trying to leave Gaza to get medical care for their infants are separated from those infants at checkpoints, and sometimes the infants die waiting for the parents to be released. Many thousands of children can’t go to school because there are just not enough schools and there’s a near moratorium on construction. While the blockade has been eased some, the easements are largely symbolic – female activists in Gaza tell the UN, “We can now buy red lipstick instead of just pink.” Hospitals can’t function properly due to lack of electricity and supplies. On top of all of that, Hamas has been shutting down some businesses when they find men and women working together – this in a region with 44% unemployment. Girls are being banned from school if they don’t wear headscarves. Overall, the UN characterizes the situation in Gaza as a “dignity crisis.”

In the West Bank, the main issues are the security wall that’s being built not on the border but inside Palestinian territory, and the Jewish settlements being build inside the territory. The wall is bisecting Palestinian lands, making it so farmers can’t reach their land, children can’t reach their schools, workers can’t reach their jobs, and much more. (More to come on that.) And the second issue is the settlements, about which you’ve probably heard much lately.

After the UN briefing and a really fantastic lunch of eggplant and fish, we were taken on a political tour of Jerusalem by Sarah Kreimer, Associate Director of Ir-Amin, an Israeli non-profit, non-partisan organization working to broach the divide between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem. The video from that tour should be up soon, but let me tell you: a) Jerusalem is more beautiful than I’d even imagined it and b) the Palestinians in Jerusalem are screwed. Basically, they are residents of israel but not citizens, and while they have the right to run in city elections, they’ve made the political decision not to do that, out of concern about legitimizing the current regime. As a result, not only are they oppressed in big-picture ways we’ll be exploring all week, but they have no municipal representation. That means no garbage pickup, no resources for maintaining infrastructure, no policing, no parks – you get the picture. The difference between the Palestinian neighborhoods and the Israeli ones is stark, even from the tour bus.

And then there was the wall. The Israeli’s call it a “fence,” but it is impossibly tall and made of concrete – not like any fence I know. The Israeli’s began building it under the pretext of preventing more suicide bombings, and it’s true that those bombings have decreased, but the wall is doing much more than that.

To explore the implications of the wall, we were treated to a screening of the film Budrus, and a discussion with the filmmakers. Budrus is a documentary about the West Bank town of the same name, and the story of how they used nonviolent protest to stop the wall from separating their village from their olive trees, which are the source of their survival and livelihood. Because the wall isn’t being built on the agreed upon border between Israel and the West Bank – it’s dipping into the West Bank over and over again to “protect” the illegal settlements the Israeli government has built there. As a result, it bisects many Palestinian lands, severing communities and creating all manner of humanitarian crises.

Budrus was so moving – I definitely recommend seeing it if you have the chance. It should be screening in the UK soon, and in the US after that. The violence the Israeli soldiers used against the townspeople was enough to make me cry – but so was the bravery of the protesters, including some women who first fought for their right to protest alongside the men, and then volunteered to stand in front of bulldozers and guns in order to protect their land and their community.

Thurdsay, 9/30

On the bus to Ramallah, as our Palestinian guide was describing her life in East Jerusalem, I found myself accepting the conflict and its results in a new way. Not accepting that it’s just or inevitable or can’t be changed, but accepting that it all is true, here and now. We can’t change what has happened, only what we do now. And what we do now has to be grounded in what exists now. This is what exists.

The checkpoint was a surprising non-event – I was prepared for searches, harassment and delays. Instead, we were waved through. I’m told that it’s just the luck of the draw, though also it’s much harder to enter Jerusalem from Ramallah than the other way around.

We spent most of the day at the first-ever conference of Palestinian women organizing for gender justice. So incredibly inspiring! The day grew out of a three year project, funded by the Norweigan government, to do outreach to Palestinian women in their homes, interview them, ask them what problems they were facing and determine what interventions would most help them. They then offered vocational training, support for higher education, social services, empowerment workshops – whatever seemed appropriate. The result was two rooms of women, one in the West Bank, one in Gaza connected by video chat (thanks, technology!) determined to have equal rights and equal opportunity. They discussed everything, from overcoming domestic violence to how to break into the construction trade. I don’t have time before I fall involuntarily to sleep to summarize it all, so here are a few random highlights from my notes:

-They surveyed, in person, 120,000 houses. Of those, the women in those homes identified the following main problems: unemployment, lack of health care, equal rights in the labor market (including vocational choice), and affordable higher education. (Sound familiar?)

-Numerous women who went through the training program were preparing to run in the upcoming municipal elections, until the Palestinian Authority cancelled them. No democracy, no chance for gender justice.

-Sometimes the aid that made a difference was as simple as giving the women stationery with which to complete their schoolwork, which they couldn’t have afforded to purchase on their own.

-In Gaza, the problems for women are greater. Many are forced into early marriage at 16 or younger, which causes them to stop going to school. Poverty is an even greater problem for the women of Gaza, where unemployment is at astonishing levels due to the blockade. The conditions there keep women in a “vicious circle of ignorance and submission” (that’s a quote from one Gazan participant)

-And yet, over and over the women proclaimed their strength and determination to change their conditions. It was beyond inspiring.

-73% of West Bank residents have some kind of health insurance – better than the US!

-Islam is not unjust toward women, those who interpret it poorly are. Other Muslim countries (e.g. Morocco) have banned polygamy and early marriage, allow women to claim just alimony in divorce, etc.

-Until there is a democracy in Palestine, they can’t make better laws for women. Right now the Parliament is disbanded, so no laws are being made.

Once again, I find myself strangely hopeful, despite the odds. Not because I think it will be easy to achieve any of what needs to be done. But because if these women, living in these circumstances, can find the strength to be hopeful enough to keep working to create the communities and lives they deserve, it would be a grand betrayal for me to not hope and work alongside them.

Alright. That’s all I’ve got left in the tank, and we’ve got a big day tomorrow. We also got an overview of the Palestinian occupation from Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, a third-party democratic alternative to Fatah and Hamas. You can read my livetweet of his talk here. We also went out to dinner with Dr. Barghouti and some of his colleagues – a lovely chance to kick back and cut loose with each other for a few hours, on a jasmine (at least I think it was jasmine) scented terrace overlooking Ramallah. Really magical. Reminded me of an important piece of what all human rights struggles are for – the freedom of all people to enjoy our own lives.

I’ll be back with more on Monday! In the meantime, you can follow more about our delegation here, see photos here, and follow my personal updates on facebook and twitter.

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