Feminist Organizing against the Gaza Conflict

Throughout the seemingly intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, civil society has been active in responding to crises and advocating for peace and justice.  Kathambi Kinoti of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) interviewed Eilat Maoz, a general coordinator of the Coalition of Women for Peace, an Israeli organization that works for peace in Israel and Palestine.

AWID: What is your understanding of the recent Israeli army offensive in Gaza?

EILAT MAOZ: The Israeli assault on Gaza did not strike us with surprise.  In fact, in the few months prior to the attack, we witnessed a slow and constant attempt by the Israeli government to escalate the violence in the Gaza region.  Many people tend to forget that Israel broke the tahadiah [ceasefire] long before it officially ended at the end of December.  On the night of November 4, for example, when the world’s eyes were focused on the US elections, Israel launched an air strike which resulted in the killing of six Palestinians.  Israel also continued to tighten the siege on Gaza, preventing even basic humanitarian supplies from entering the Strip, not to mention allowing people to cross the checkpoints in either direction.

As political attention in Israel began moving towards the national elections, populist declarations by politicians became more and more common.  “We will not rest until Hamas is crushed” was a phrase repeated over and over again.  No one really stopped to question whether such a goal is even possible and what exactly an attack would achieve.

To explain why the idea of waging war became so popular in Israel would require much more length than this interview provides.  However, it seems that beyond the “usual” militarism in the Israeli society, which can be traced throughout every sphere of life, there was something more this time.  This eagerness to open an attack can be seen as an attempt to reconstruct national pride following the second Lebanon war, which was viewed in chauvinist Israel as a shameful disgrace.  It can also be seen as a result of the ongoing stagnation in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the also very masculine idea that “we have to determine who exactly our enemies are and how we plan to deal with them.”

In all these senses, the people of Gaza have suffered from an attack that was targeted against them precisely because they are poor, weak, and hardly able to compete with the Israeli army.  It was a war that aimed to gain the most prosaic political advantages towards the elections, using human lives and suffering in the most cynical way possible.  It was yet another stage in Israel’s attempt to break the Palestinian popular resistance and to maintain the ongoing occupation.  And it took place despite and perhaps even because of the gradual crumbling in the nationalistic Zionist dream of a “Greater Israel” cleansed of Arabs.

AWID: How have women’s organizations in Israel responded to the offensive and its effects?

EM: In recent years, the Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP) has become one of the most prominent segments of the Israeli peace and radical Left movement.  The Coalition’s ability to cooperate with a wide range of political groups and parties — communists and anarchists, more mainstream and more radical parties and NGOs, and so on — made it the leader of cross-movement coalitions, which have become the main modus operandi in these pressing times.

Beyond working within the Coalition of Left movements during the war, we also worked on building another coalition — a coalition of feminist organizations against the war.  In the first week of the war CWP managed to get more than 20 women’s organizations to sign a public letter to the Prime Minister, which came out with a clear stand against the attack and brutality.  The letter read in part:

“We, women’s peace organizations from a broad spectrum of political views, demand an end to the bombing and other tools of death, and call for the immediate start of deliberations to talk peace and not make war.  The dance of death and destruction must come to an end.  We demand that war no longer be an option, nor violence a strategy, nor killing an alternative.  The society we want is one in which every individual can lead a life of security — personal, economic, and social.  It is clear that the highest price is paid by women and others from the periphery — geographic, economic, ethnic, social, and cultural — who now, as always, are excluded from the public eye and dominant discourse.  The time for women is now.  We demand that words and actions be conducted in another language.”

Later, we organized several women’s protests — in Haifa and in Tel Aviv, which gathered Arab and Jewish women, some of them from more centrist backgrounds.  Perhaps most intriguing were the activities lead by a group of CWP activists in the south of Israel.  This group organized several feminist protests in Be’er Sheva and in Sderot (both in the rocket zone) and a successful conference in Sapir college in Sderot.  Coming from the towns and cities that Israel presented as completely pro-war, their voice was a very strong and important feature in the overall protest movement.

AWID: Have the Women’s Coalition for Peace or other Israeli women’s organizations worked with Palestinian women’s organizations, either during this recent attack or before, to address the ongoing conflict?

EM: The Coalition of Women for peace has a very clear stand regarding the importance of maintaining ongoing Palestinian-Jewish partnership.  Today it is not easy to cooperate with Palestinian organizations in the Occupied Territories, especially because of the extreme physical separation and the fear of normalizing the situation of the occupation.  However, CWP is one of the only peace organizations in Israel which have managed to maintain ongoing links with Palestinian movements.  We have organized many women’s protests around the issues of checkpoints and the Wall and we are currently part of the Coalition against the Wall.  Also, before, during and after the attack on Gaza, CWP has maintained ongoing links with our Gazan partners — first and foremost the Gaza Mental Health and Human Rights Center led by Eyad Saraj and the Free Gaza movement.   Our work together is based on a joint political struggle and agenda — an unconditional resistance to the occupation.

CWP has a mixed Palestinian-Israeli staff, with a structure of two general coordinators — one Jewish and the other Palestinian.  Within 1948 Israel, CWP works only in joint Palestinian-Jewish coalitions, cooperates regularly with Palestinian women’s organizations, and organizes all of its events based on the equal representation of Palestinian women and women from other marginalized communities.

AWID: What is the situation now that there is a ceasefire and what does the ceasefire mean for women?

EM: Has the fire really ceased, and for how long?  While the Israeli army has withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, who knows when the troops will be sent back in?  How can women reconstruct their lives, and the lives of their families, when Israel is still controlling the crossings and denying entrance of supplies?  These all seem to us to be key questions, which oblige us to continue our struggle, even after the gunpowder has sunk down to the ground.

One of the most frightening things about this assault is that over 1.5 million people woke up on the morning after the war with lifelong trauma.  We keep hearing stories about children who wet their beds because they are still afraid of the bombs at night, about adults who suffer from all sorts of symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome — from rage to insurmountable anxiety.  We hear about malnutrition and about horrible injuries that do not receive adequate treatment — simply because Gaza’s hospitals can’t supply it.  Women suffer from all these problems, but they are also bearers of the care work, and thus they suffer even more.

On the Israeli side, women have suffered severe economic, occupational, and emotional hardships due to the fact that all government structures, including the welfare system, have failed to aid the Israeli civilian population during rocket attacks.  The war left many of these women in a state of desperation and they are also left in the position of having to care for their dependents who often include men.

AWID: How do you think that the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict can be settled permanently?

EM: On the table today, there are actually not more than two well-known suggestions for a permanent political solution; the one-state or two-state solution.  While it is hard to estimate which of these solutions is more feasible and in what time frame, these “solutions” can be seen as merely a step in the long process of changing deep structures of unequal power balance in our societies.  For this reason, CWP stresses a comprehensive feminist approach to peace.  A feminist approach looks at the complex schemes of power structures and aims to radically alter them.

What is most important, I think, is to remember that the political framework — one state or two — is less important than its content.  The main question is how the principles of equal citizenship, democratic participation, and social justice will be manifested in whatever state or states eventually appear in the Israeli/Palestinian region.  So we struggle for those very basic values — for today, tomorrow, and the future years.

This interview was published on the Web site of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development on 6 March 2009 under a Creative Commons license.