Thousands of Jewish- and Palestinian-Israeli women have joined a movement that is spreading across Israel in opposition to repeated cycles of violence in Gaza. Yet Women Wage Peace remains overlooked by the political establishment, and largely unknown outside Israel. An event at Cambridge will ask why, and examine its significance as a model for women’s action in times of war.

The simple truth is that not enough women are involved in decision-making concerning any peace settlement

Ornit Shani

Two members of a mass movement that has united thousands of Jewish- and Palestinian-Israeli women in opposition to the recurring conflict in Gaza are to give a one-off talk in Cambridge next week, revealing how recent warfare in the region has united women from both sides of the divide in a series of ground-breaking joint initiatives.

The discussion, which is free and open to all, will involve Michal Barak, a social entrepreneur and political activist, and Samah Salaime Egbariya, a researcher and activist on gender issues, director of Na’am Arab Women in the Center. It will take place at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, on Tuesday, 20 January, at 5pm.

Both speakers have been involved in important women’s initiatives which emerged following the most recent eruption of violence between Israel and Hamas during July and August last year. In just a few weeks, more than 2,000 people were killed as Israel launched a military operation in Gaza that left many more thousands of Palestinians homeless and in desperate need of emergency aid. During the same period, more than 4,000 rockets were fired from Gaza on Israel.

In the shadow of this short and savage conflict, women’s organisations began to unite to demand an end to years of intermittent warfare. Operating under the banner of Women Wage Peace, the movement has quickly attracted support from across Israel, with women of all ages, backgrounds and political beliefs pledging support.

In November, more than 1,000 women travelled on what became known as the “peace train” to the town of Sderot, just a mile from the Gaza Strip, where every year ministers, politicians, social activists and academics meet at a major national conference. Dressed in white, the group gathered on the lawn at Sapir Academic College, where the event was being held, and demanded peace negotiations with the Palestinian leadership to prevent future wars.

Elsewhere, thousands of people have participated in peaceful demonstrations at major transport intersections across Israel, or attended political hustings to press candidates in the forthcoming elections on how they plan to stop the violence. Commentators increasingly portray the group as a mouthpiece not just for women, but for a broad-based pro-peace camp in Israel that feels marginalised from the political process supposedly aimed at bringing the conflict to an end. It has been described as “spreading like wildfire”, and as having the potential to transform the nation’s political landscape in a decisive manner.

Yet despite this progress, the women’s peace movement, including Women Wage Peace itself, still only exists on the periphery of Israel’s political establishment. Beyond the country’s borders, it has received little attention and has barely featured in any reporting of the conflict, even though it represents a significant swathe of public opinion.

The aim of the discussion at Cambridge is partly to raise awareness of the constructive role that the movement is playing in advancing a non-military solution to the conflict. Drawing on the speakers’ own experiences of the events in the summer, however, it will also attempt to show how the movement is, in many ways, a model for how women can and should play a central role in conflict resolution.

Among other issues, the speakers will investigate how various women’s initiatives successfully created a safe space in which people of different political persuasions were able to discuss their views together, and strive towards common goals, at a time when any engagement between their counterparts in the political mainstream was defined by hostility and tension.

Samah Salaime Egbariya, who was herself instrumental in uniting Palestinian and Jewish women in the heat of the conflict in the summer of 2014, said: “In the midst of the war, Palestinian and Jewish women came together to find a common language which enabled them to do something constructive towards ending the bloodshed. Women involved in the summer peace initiative sought to humanise what was happening and this was key to bringing them together. As a result, women are redefining the very notion of what security means in the Israel-Palestine conflict. This was also an effort to compel Jewish Israeli women to engage with the consequences of the violence on people in Gaza through the eyes of women.”

Michal Barak, a key activist of the movement, said: “There have been important and impactful initiatives in the past. What Women Wage Peace has so far succeeded in doing is bringing those disparate efforts together. We have created a movement in which women from across the social, ethnic and political spectrum are engaging with the urgency of peace across the country.”

The event has been co-organised by Dr Ornit Shani, an Israeli Visiting Scholar at St John’s College, who was actively involved in the women’s peace movement in Israel during the 2014 war, and Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner, Senior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute, an interfaith organisation which studies the relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

“In part, we simply want to tell the story of something that is happening in Israel and is largely unknown,” Dr Shani said. “What we hear about in the news tends to be representative of the political right on both sides of the conflict. The simple truth is that not enough women are involved in decision-making concerning any peace settlement. At the same time, there are findings from many recent peace settlements that suggests women can have a hugely positive effect when they are involved.”

The event, Active Women in the Shadow of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Reflections from the Summer of 2014, will be held in the Main Lecture of the Divinity School, St John’s College, Cambridge, at 5pm on Tuesday, 20 January. All are welcome to attend.

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