Off With Their Heads!
by Gila Svirsky
September 8, 2003
While a bunch of Israeli and Palestinian women were hugging and kissing outside Tulkarm today [September 6], the Israeli government dropped three 250 kg (550 lb) bombs on an apartment building in Gaza, trying (unsuccessfully) to kill the ten Hamas leaders meeting inside. “We were only trying to send them a message,” said the news commentator on Israeli TV tonight. “We were trying to kill them,” corrected the anchor, “but screwed up.”
Meanwhile, Abu Mazen resigned and Israelis have begun “the countdown” to quote more TV talk, on the life of Arafat. Will Israel finally make the kill or not? All agree that it’s only a matter of time.
This kind of chatter about extra-judicial killing – this year alone, Israel has assassinated 110 Palestinians, during the course of which it killed another 73 unlucky bystanders – goes on in a country which does not have capital punishment. But that’s a technicality.
Tulkarm is a Palestinian town in the West Bank on just the other side of the Green Line (1967 border) and one of the victims of the infamous Separation Wall now being constructed. This terrible wall has already trapped 12,000 people between it and the Green Line, cutting them off from their communities, and has stolen the land, olive trees, and water sources from tens of thousands of others. We went there today to call for an end to its construction, and for Israel to leave the territories altogether.
We were 500 women – half gathered on the Palestinian side of the Tulkarm checkpoint, and the other half on the other side (I almost wrote “the Israeli side”, but the checkpoint is actually inside the Occupied Territories). On both sides were a large but uncounted number of “international” women – those who come from other countries to help us get to peace in the Mideast.
The demonstration had been organized by the Coalition of Women for Peace, on the Israeli side, and the women of the Tulkarm branch of the People’s Party, on the Palestinian side. We were also joined by multi-national contingents from CPT and the Ecumenical Accompaniers – Christians doing peace work in Palestine; Code Pink – the US-based women’s protest organization; and individual women (and a few men). Buses came from throughout Israel.
At the checkpoint, we could see the group on the Palestinian side, roughly 50 meters (about 150 feet) away. Both sides held signs calling for an end to the Wall and the root cause of the conflict – the occupation. As we approached the checkpoint, we were rebuffed by a group of soldiers, clearly angry at our presence and signs. Within seconds of our reaching them, they pushed and then struck several of our group – aiming for the men, but also catching some of the women who sought to get between them. Their officers arrived quickly and managed to stop their blows, but a moment later we saw a teargas canister explode near the Palestinian side. We were relieved that the Palestinians did not scatter, and no further shots rang out. The women remained firmly in sight across the military domain.
A pre-arranged group of women approached the officers on our side to negotiate our passage across. Matters had flared much too quickly, and our negotiators spoke calmly, explaining our peaceful intentions in meeting with Palestinian women. Our case seems to have been buttressed by 10 very large cartons that we had brought for the women – school supplies for Palestinian children. After talking and talking and making us wait in the hot sun, satisfying themselves that they had displayed their control over our movements, the officers gave permission for 30 of us to cross the checkpoint and meet the Palestinians.
I was one of the lucky ones to go across, and when we reached the other side, there was hugging and kissing, although most of us did not know each other. Battery-powered megaphones allowed both sides short speeches: “We share your hatred for the wall, your desire to end the occupation and launch an era of peace,” and “We welcome you to our town, we thank you for the gifts for our children, we view ourselves as sisters in the struggle for peace”, followed by brief flute playing and a few rounds of songs that never quite got going. We were all a little shy after the first outburst of emotion.
I watched the cartons get piled inside and out of one small, dilapidated car that drove off toward town, where I imagined eager little hands would rip off the plastic and find a colorful schoolbag inside, filled with notebooks, pencils, colored pencils, an eraser, sharpener, and ruler. And perhaps their parents would read them the letter inserted into each bag: “We, Israeli women, send this to you with good wishes for a successful school year, and the sincere hope that your studies will not be interrupted by bullets or tanks.”
Then we all went home and listened to the news, made by people who spend their time planning encounters of another kind.
It was good to get recharged last week at the International Women in Black Congress held in Marina di Massa, Italy, where 400 women from dozens of countries shared their pain and their strategies. Despite the heat and intense humidity, there was nothing limp about 4 days of sessions among women peace activists. In addition to contingents from all the European countries (including a busload of 50 women from the Balkans), women actually managed to arrive from Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Palestine, and other war-torn regions. Two demonstrations capped the events – one outside a US army base in Italy, where the soldiers fervently concentrated on their softball to avoid looking at our anti-war signs outside the gate. And the other at the resort town of Viareggio, to remind vacationers that sunblock prevents only some problems from getting through. They didn’t look interested.
Gila Svirsky is an Israeli peace activist living in Jerusalem. She is a founding member of the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, a grouping of eight Israeli and Palestinian women's peace organisations.