Marching together: Meet the women trying to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
A line of thousands of women, all dressed in white, snakes through the arid desert. For some of them, the march began weeks ago in Sderot, near the Gaza border. Now they are approaching the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, hand in hand. A mix of Israeli and Palestinian women, they sing, and dance, and chant for peace. Many more have come for the day, having travelled from far and wide just for this event, with bus after bus arriving throughout the morning. The Tent of Reconciliation waits for them, a symbolic point of hope for the future, for these two nations that have been divided for decades.
The walk is the culmination of two weeks of events organised by Women Wage Peace, an Israeli grassroots movement, formed in 2014, that aims to pressure the Israeli government into agreeing to a peaceful political solution to the long running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dubbed the “Journey to Peace”, the marches, speeches and protests held throughout Israel and the West Bank were attended by more than 30,000 women from across deep political, religious and social divides. After the desert gathering, the Journey for Peace moved to Jerusalem's Independence Park, where thousands gathered to make their voices heard. The arrival in Jerusalem was timed to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which remembers the Jewish journey through the Sinai after the exodus from Egypt.
Fast gaining recognition as a serious movement, Women Wage Peace now have 25,000 registered members including many individuals who have been directly affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including bereaved women and those who have served in the military. They hope that by putting a human face to the conflict - the face of mothers and wives - they can help to break the political stagnation that has for so long stopped meaningful or long-lasting peace occurring.
They also demand that women play a greater role in peace negotiations, having been frustrated by the relative absence of women from the peace process and its failures so far. “We are women from the right, the left, Jews and Arabs, from the cities and the periphery and we have decided that we will stop the next war,” stated Marilyn Smadja, one of the founders of Women Wage Peace.
The Journey for Peace was not the organisation's first foray into large-scale activism. In 2015, its members held a collective fast for 50 days - the length of the 2014 war between Israeli and Palestinian militants on the Gaza strip - outside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's home. In October 2016, they held the March of Hope, a similar event to the Journey for Peace, which was attended by some 30,000 people. Riman Barakat, former co-Director of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), reflected on the monumental nature of the latter event at the time: “The first step is to breach that psychological barrier and allow ourselves to be welcomed by those we call the 'other.' I can’t recall the last time so many Israelis and Palestinians met and walked together.” In May 2017, ahead of President Trump's first visit to Israel, they created a human chain that read "Ready for Peace" from the sky, which appeared in newspapers across the world.
Despite the hopeful tone of the women and the obvious public appetite for peace, experts believe there is little realistic chance of an effective peace deal occurring right now. Years of failed negotiations, continued occupation and a refusal to make concessions continue to hamper efforts, and it's fair to say that the leaders aren't exactly setting a shining example - the closest they have come to civility in recent years was a handshake at the funeral of Israeli President Shimon Peres over a year ago.
It’s often said that if women ruled the world, it would be a more peaceful place. To say that women could solve this problem would certainly be an embarrassing over-simplification of the issue. But, having seen the success of this event and the unity it has inspired, it is hard not to agree with Women Wage Peace activist Vivian Silver when she says: “We must reach a political agreement, we must change the paradigm that we have been taught for seven decades now, where we have been told that only war will bring peace.”