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Jewish Journal

For Middle East Women, ‘Cavemen’ Are Not Wanted

by Pamela Ann Smith

July 27, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Little noticed among the vast media coverage of the latest Middle East crisis were a couple of dispatches by journalists highlighting the actions of an admittedly few women in Israel.

Given that it is an act of considerable bravery to protest in the streets at a time when their fellow citizens were so up in arms about the Hezbollah rocket attacks, I knew the sentiments of this handful of protesters would be shared by many more Israeli and Palestinian women who could not be there. After all, I had spoken during the past 30 years of covering the Middle East to many of these women -- Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, rich and poor alike -- who have told me again and again how appalled they have been at the seemingly endless number of wars in the region.

Tamara Traubman and Ruth Sinai-Heruti, both correspondents for the leading Israeli daily, Haaretz, pointed out at the bottom of their July 17 article, "More Than 500 Protest in Tel Aviv Against Israeli Defense Force Raids in Lebanon, Gaza," that a "woman's protest was also held Sunday morning next to the central Haifa train depot, where a Hezbollah rocket landed early Sunday, killing eight people." The women, they added, "said that in the coming days, they would be assembling a new group of Arab and Jewish women against the war."

Rory McCarthy of the United Kingdom's Guardian daily, in a dispatch the same day titled, "Israeli City Shaken by Hizbullah Rocket Attack," noted that "as the sirens continued to sound, a small group of women stood outside the entrance to the train depot to lodge a small protest against the fighting. Yana Knoboba, 25, a psychology student from Haifa University, sat on the pavement holding a banner that read in Hebrew: 'War will not bring peace.'"

"We don't want a great war in the Middle East," McCarthy quoted Knoboba as saying. "We want Israel to negotiate to bring back our soldiers and stop the re-occupation of Gaza. It isn't about showing strength. I think strength is making peace, not war."

Three years ago, here in London, I was a guest at the local Quaker meeting house, where a panel of eight women from Israel had been invited to speak. Having spent so much of my life covering "men's" activities in the Middle East -- investment and trade, oil and politics, as well as outright war -- I thought it about time I took a look at what women were doing. The panel included four Palestinians and four Israelis, all from divergent backgrounds: a poet, sociologist, historian, social worker, Christian, Muslim and Jew.

There were some quite direct, pointed questions from the audience about where truth, justice and progress lay. Would Israelis be better off without the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? Would Palestinians agree to end suicide bombings? The answers varied, both among the Palestinian and Jewish women and amongst themselves, whatever their nationality.

But when the moderator asked the final question, "What, in your opinion, do you think is the worst problem you face?" the answer was surprising. One would have expected the Palestinian women to say, "The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel since 1967." For the Israeli women, one would have thought the answer would be, "Security, a right to live in peace with Israel's neighbors and, above all, an end to suicide bombings."

Surprise, surprise. One by one, the eight women stood up, faced the 70 or so in the audience of mostly women and declared: "The militarization of our men." For the Palestinians, seeing their sons subjected to the cannon-fodder rhetoric of ignorant sheikhs, the test of manhood their teen sons were exposed to when it came to throwing stones or the death and injury of their fathers, sons and brothers were the key points. For the Israeli women, the brutalization of the men they must live with, their sons, brothers and spouses in the Israel Defense Forces, was the main point.

And, unlike the Palestinians, Israelis are required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces unless they can prove they are conscientious objectors or members of certain Jewish religious denominations.

Shades of Vietnam here? Just as then, members of the peace movement in Israel have highlighted the comments of former members of the Israeli military who have spoken out against the climate of opinion in the forces, which, in their view, disregards the value of civilian life, whatever the faults on the other side may be.

But such sentiments must often be put aside by their fellow draftees, they say, resulting in a dehumanization of the attacker, as well as the attacked. The result: As in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, there is a growing refusal by some Israelis to serve in the military, particularly when it comes to fighting in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

What I wondered yet again the other day was what were the Jewish women in Israel doing and feeling? Were those women at the Quaker meeting house representative of their compatriots? And how had the peace movement there affected the willingness of women, as well as men, to accept conscription into the Israeli military forces?

Further south in Tel Aviv, McCarthy's article gave me a clue and a sense of what might really be wrong. A quote he published from Abir Kobti, an activist in Israel's Coalition of Women for Peace, who was on the front line in Israel's capital city when Israeli police broke up their peaceful protest on July 16, said it all:

We have learned from history that military solutions don't bring anything other than death and destruction. We are calling on the government to regain its composure, come down from the tree and solve these problems with negotiations to save us from more deaths on both sides.

In other words, cavemen, of whatever ideology, are no longer needed.

Pamela Ann Smith is currently updating her book, "Palestine and the Palestinians, 1876-1983," and working on a new one: "Palestine and the Jewish Diaspora: A Woman's Point of View."

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