As Israel readies for a general election, the issue of peace with the Palestinians has been noticeably absent from debate. But a group of women is seeking to change that.
Braving intermittent rain to stand for hours outside Israel’s parliament building in Jerusalem this week, thousands of women, young and old, religious and secular, Arab and Jewish, chanted and waved placards, demanding a solution to the conflict be found, or at least discussed, by politicians.
The Women Wage Peace organisation, formed after a devastating summer war in the Gaza Strip that killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians and 73 people on the Israeli side, are hoping their voice will be heard as Israelis go to the polls on March 17.
“We’re the only non-partisan organisation which is working on the ground to bring new hope for peace, and bust the myth that there is no one we can talk to about it,” says Michal Shimar, a founder of the group.
Women Wage Peace counts some 7,000 members, all female, and another 15,000 supporters mostly active on social media, Shimar says.
The group’s aim is to push the next government, whichever that is, to resume peace talks with Palestinians and come to a final agreement that will end decades of often bloody conflict.
At Wednesday’s rally, voters chanted: “We will vote for a peace deal,” and “We choose life”.
Speakers slammed the rightwing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the July-August military campaign against Gaza militants.
“We’ve suffered through enough wars,” one speaker shouted.
“Among us are women who will raise the next generation of soldiers who will be forced to go to war. It’s enough!”
– Taboo topic –
Netanyahu’s Likud party and rivals the centre-left Zionist Union are taking centre stage in electioneering.
Campaigning in Israel is dominated by personal attacks on the prime minister, accusations over rising living costs and security against perceived threats of a nuclear Iran and jihadists on the Syria frontier.
But little is ever said on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and the Palestinian question.
The last round of negotiations broke down in April after nine months, despite concerted efforts by the United States to reach an agreement for the two sides to live in peace.
Mutual recriminations abounded, and the collapse of talks centred on Netanyahu’s government continuing to build Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, a move the international community repeatedly slammed.
Another government under Netanyahu, who is predicted to win the election for a fourth term, is unlikely to press for peace, with members of the current cabinet opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.
But even Netanyahu’s rival in the Zionist Union, Isaac Herzog, has avoided the topic, despite being in favour of a two-state solution, insisting instead it would be up to the Palestinians as to whether peace can be achieved.
– ‘War against youth’ –
As an independent organisation, Women Wage Peace does not say who it would rather see as prime minister, but simply insists whoever is in office seriously address the Palestinian conflict.
It hopes its grassroots approach, by organising debate and conferences throughout Israel, will help bring that about.
“During the war, I promised myself that my son would not be killed in combat,” says Lili Weisberger, a member of the group whose 21-year-old son survived fighting in Gaza during his military service.
“I decided I would take action so this nightmare could never recur,” and joined the organisation.
Women Wage Peace has condemned the “militarisation of society” in Israel, where Jewish teenagers, after leaving school, are required to do military service — three years for men, two for women — that often sends them into combat zones.
“I don’t want to see anymore of this war against the youth, with 18- or 20-year-old Israeli soldiers on one side and Palestinian children on the other,” says Amal Rihan, a mother-of-four and Arabic teacher living near Tel Aviv.
“The only solution is to reach a peace deal.”