Feminism between Palestine and Israel
Women have been the protagonists of many pacifist initiatives carried out jointly between Israel and Palestine. In the last years many of these initiatives have failed. A reflexion about successes and failures
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1. An overview of Palestinian-Israeli joint politics
Although the current mainstream literature and the associated political debate have both emphasised the boundaries existing among the ethno-national communities who live in the land of Palestine/Israel, the original meaning of ‘inextricability’ among Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, as expressed by the leading intellectual Edward Said (1999), can still properly describe the most challenging pathway to be pursued. At the time of the first Aliyah in the 1880s, close interrelations and shared initiatives between Arabs and Jews began to take place, and these have since continued, both at the theoretical level and in the form of practical activities on the ground, with women in particular being involved in these. Though such actions have included only small minorities of the populations, mutual cooperation, joint struggles and projects aimed at overcoming opposite narrative identities have emerged as one of the few alternatives with the potential to counter and to go beyond the increase of ethno-national exclusivist narratives in the region.
Nevertheless, the majority of these Palestinian-Israeli joint experiences have collapsed in the last decade, casting doubt on their real value and sparking controversy concerning their effect on the everyday lives of common people. Such unsuccessful outcomes have underlined the need to deconstruct not only the most dominant conceptions concerning nation-states and ethno-national narrative identities, but also their prospects of recognition and reconciliation in relation to the ongoing asymmetry between the ‘occupier’ and the ‘occupied’.
In the period between the so-called Oslo ‘peace building’ process in 1993 and the re-emergence of violent fighting in late September 2000, several joint initiatives, mainly defined as People-to-People projects, grew up with the aim of challenging the status quoof military occupation. In a parallel way, during the 1990s the concept of ‘normalisation’, already used in common language as a consequence of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, has taken on negative connotations, falsely implying the existence of ‘normal’ relations between Palestinians and Israelis, and falsely suggesting that the military occupation has been already concluded. One of the most well-known joint projects to emerge from this context has been led by Palestinian and Israeli women in the area of Jerusalem, and was given the name Jerusalem Link.
2. The Jerusalem Link: what has been missed
Defined as the true child of the Oslo Accords, the story of the Jerusalem Link has been considered as emblematic of the failure of joint Palestinian-Israeli initiatives. The starting point of this project dated back to the first formalised conference, brought into being on a ‘dialogue basis’ by sixty Israeli Jewish and Palestinian women from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the diaspora. The conference was entitled Give Peace a Chance - Women Speak Out, and took place in Brussels in May 1989. The first Intifada represented a central phase in activating massive women’s mobilisation through feminist solidarity as a result of the promising political panorama that was unfolding at that time.
A few years later, in 1993, one of the most famous and internationally recognised joint women’s programs, the Jerusalem Link, was created between Israeli women represented by Bat Shalom (Daughter of Peace), and Palestinian women who were involved in theMarkaz al-Quds la l-Nissah (Jerusalem Center for Women - JCW). Until the most recent years, the two women’s centres have continued to control their own staff and internal strategies, agreeing to work both jointly and on their own. The reason for working in this way has been their wish to encourage partnerships whilst, at the same time, maintaining their own autonomy. At least at the theoretical level, each organisation has promoted a common vision as regards fundamental beliefs, such as the recognition of self-determination of the Palestinian people, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel in accordance with international law, and the most controversial topic, the sharing of Jerusalem. In pursuing these objectives, they have attempted to develop a unique space where their experiences could engender a wider impact on both societies through “constant tending and mending” (Emmett, 2003: 16).
In doing this, the political process identified as ‘transversal politics’ has been fundamental in translating theoretical analyses to everyday practices (Yuval-Davis, 1999). In pointing up the multiplicity of their backgrounds and values, women activists have put into question the borders and boundaries existing among and within opposite narrative identities, by means of sharing common projects aimed towards a just resolution of the conflict. Bringing to mind other historic examples of women’s peace activism, such as Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and Black Sash in South Africa, they have critically examined the linkage between militarised ethno-nationalisms and women’s rights, in particular stressing the way through which the Israeli military occupation has oppressed women from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and also from within Israel (Cockburn, 2007).
Coming to the most recent years, the Jerusalem Link project has continued to illustrate the hegemonic attitudes present in Israeli decision-making that affect the Palestinian side, by maintaining a gap between their initial proposals and what needs to be set up in reality. As a consequence, many Palestinian women have criticised their Israeli partners for considering joint works in terms of a ‘normalised’ illusion of equality, instead of reflecting on the increasing discrimination between the ‘occupier’ and the ‘occupied’. Another factor in the continuation of such asymmetries between Palestinian and Israeli women activists has been the difference in the objectives pursued by the two sides, and this condition has obscured the most controversial challenges related to the Palestinian refugees’ right to return and to the status of Jerusalem.
The upsurge of the second Intifada in 2000 and the most recent 2008/9 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza have disrupted the general scenario, and have also introduced disruption to women’s perspectives concerning dialogue and joint works. In fact, the brutality of violence perpetrated by the Israeli army along with the ongoing process of ‘normalisation’ have produced profound divisions and conflicts over the ethical commitments of women political activists inside the Jerusalem Link. The demise of the initiative has reflected divergences and unfairness between Palestinian women, as components of the occupied population which has not yet achieved self-determination, and Israeli Jewish women, as citizens of the occupier state, making the founding aims of the project unachievable.
At present, a time of crisis seems to prevail both within the occupied Palestinian territories and in Israel, and is evidenced by the way in which the current political agenda has led to a further increase in the militaristic and discriminatory content of policies. This situation has meant that similar women’s initiatives, in spite of attempting to overcome oppressive ethno-national discourses affecting individual and collective identities, have not been able to dismantle the source of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely the power asymmetry between the ‘occupier’ and the ‘occupied’.
Cockburn, Cynthia (2007), From Where We Stand: War, Women’s Activism and Feminist Analysis, Zed Books, London.
Emmet, Ayala H. (2003), Our Sisters’ Promised Land: Women, Politics and Israeli- Palestinian Coexistence, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
Said, Edward W. (1999), Truth and Reconciliation, Al-Ahram Weekly, January.
Yuval-Davis, N. (1999), What is ‘Transversal Politics’?, Soundings, n. 12, 94-98.
 The term ‘aliyah’ refers to the various waves of Jewish immigration to the land of historic Palestine which have occurred since the end of the XIX century, reinforcing the values of political Zionism in the new settler society.