Letter from Israel
International Human Rights March
by Gila Svirsky
and Coalition of Women for Peace
January 20, 2004

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The International Human Rights March of Women has finally come to an end, and it was much harder and more successful than any of us had hoped for.

Marching in Jenin. Photo: Niels Eriksson

This was a 3-week march (from December 20 through January 10) through Israel and Palestine, and 100-150 women came from overseas to participate, in addition to the locals -- Palestinians and Israelis -- who joined intermittently.  Women marched in all the major cities of Palestine (with the exception of Nablus, then under curfew) and Israel (with the exception of Haifa).  Along the way, the women witnessed and often experienced the brutal heart of the occupation -- checkpoints, curfews, closures, demolished homes, the 'security' wall, refugee camps, and -- on the Israeli side -- sites of terrible suicide bombings.

It was a kind of reverse VIP tour:  Instead of meeting with official dignitaries, participants met mainly with people on the ground: Palestinian and Israeli families, representatives of grassroots organizations, Israeli soldiers manning checkpoints, Palestinians trying to get through.  The Palestinian side arranged for a meeting with Arafat; on the Israeli side, we were turned down for meetings by a long list of officials (Sharon, among others) on the pretext of insufficient advance notice, though Knesset Member Issam Makhoul (from the left-wing Hadash Party) did find time to meet.  On both sides, the group met with a rainbow of progressive organizations -- peace, human rights, social justice, and women's issues -- learning about the nexus for both populations of occupation-inequality-poverty.  And women spent unforgettable nights with families in Palestine and Bedouin families in the desert region of Israel.

The march itself took place for an hour or so each day, as a single file of silent women walked through city streets or well-travelled roads, holding banners that called for an end to occupation and the protection of human rights.  Many stopped to stare and accepted flyers that explained who we are.  Although silent marches are not a common format in the Middle East, we too began to appreciate their power, radiating dignity and steadfastness as we walked through harsh weather.

But these women from Europe, North America, and Australia were all experienced activists -- who else would undertake such a journey? -- and they soon added an intense activist component to their presence.  A few highlights:

*After witnessing the appalling conditions at the Erez checkpoint, the women demonstrated solidarity with the Palestinian workers returning to Gaza, meeting and greeting them with signs of support.  While the army refused the marchers entry into Gaza -- even those with explicit entry permits -- the group managed to send through a truckload of infant food and messages of support to the strangled population, and this was met on other side by a large crowd of Palestinian women and dignitaries.  This was given good coverage in the Palestinian media, though Israeli journalists were not interested.

*Participants visited their own embassies in Tel Aviv to deliver a letter calling for their governments "to demand the Israeli government immediately stop military actions against the civilian population; to expedite the delivery of urgently needed food and medical supplies; to call on the United Nations to deploy an International Peace Keeping Force to secure the safety of the civilian population on both sides and to demand implementation of United Nations resolutions."  In Jerusalem, they delivered a similar letter to Sharon, and a petition to the UN office in Bethlehem.

*After reports arrived about the prolonged Israeli military strike in Nablus -- a tale of death and destruction that was never properly reported in the Israeli or international media -- the wome again raised money among themselves for another truckload of baby food for Nablus women.  A delegation of three women managed to get through and make this vital delivery.

*On the final day of the march, a demonstration was held at the Qalandia checkpoint, which separates Jerusalem from Ramallah.  Palestinians, internationals, and a small group of Israelis (small because 2 other important political actions were being held that day) demonstrated on both sides of the checkpoint, and this received extensive international coverage...everywhere except Israel.

The march was intense and exhausting, and we all came away from it with a chronic cough brought on by hours of marching in cold, sometimes rainy, weather and coming back to inadequately heated rooms, tepid showers, and never enough sleep.

But we all came away with something more:  150 smart and committed women from all over the globe now know more about the Middle East conflict than all the politicians who sit in plush offices around the world.  They have seen the occupation with their own eyes, and no one can tell them that it has anything to do with security for Israel.

The women met an old man in Palestine, 107 years old, he said, whose grandson was killed in the conflict.  "You will leave and I will remain, and nothing will change," he told the women.  I don't think there was a single woman in the group who did not resolve to prevent this bitter statement from coming true.

On behalf of the March Organizing Committee of the Coalition of Women for Peace -- the Israeli side of this march -- we are grateful to all those who invested their time, money, and energy and braved a trip to our troubled part of the world in order to share our struggle to reach a just peace between our peoples.  We remain your committed partners in activism.

Shalom, peace with justice, from Israel,

Omaima abu-Ras, Nicole Cohen-Addad, Rachel Amram, Yvonne Deutsch, Pnina Firestone, Yana Knopova, Gili Pliskin, Michal Pundak, Taghrid Shbeita, Aliyah Strauss, Gila Svirsky, and Alix Weizmann.

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.


Other Articles by Gila Svirsky


* Sharon, With Eyes Wide Open
Off With Their Heads!

* "Realistic Religious Zionism"

* A Macabre Alliance

* A Busy Couple of Days for the Bulldozers

* The Great Wall of Denial








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