The Revival of Israeli Peace
A Tinderbox Called Gaza
The Gaza Strip is a narrow band of land wedged between Israel and a particularly beautiful
segment of the Mediterranean Sea. The climate is always hot and dry, and in another
century, it would make for a particularly breathtaking coastline where beach-goers could sit on the clean white sand and lose
their thoughts in the sparkling blue-green waters.
The problem with the Gaza Strip, however, is that in 1948, it filled up with Arab refugees
from the war out of which emerged the state of Israel. Whether these families
were fleeing Palestine (renamed Israel by the new rulers) out of fear or because the Israelis encouraged them to leave is
a source of historical contention — and probably a combination of both. Whatever
the answer, many refugees settled in this unremittingly hot strip of land, then under Egyptian rule, and the UN helped them
build temporary mud "homes", while politicians squabbled over their future and cared little for their present plight.
Over the years, the Gaza Strip swelled to 800,000 inhabitants and became a rabbit warren
of squalid, flood-prone hovels, 20 family members sometimes crammed into two-room units in the refugee camps. The population of this sliver of land, 30 miles long and 5 miles wide, is the most dense in the world,
second only to Hong Kong, and living conditions are appalling. The crude birth
rate is one of the highest in the world (50 births per 1,000 inhabitants each year), while infant mortality is five times
that of Israel (70 compared to 14 per 1,000) — a result of having only one doctor
for every 2,200 people. Gaza does even worse on economic indicators, with no economic infrastructure
to speak of, other than small businesses. The Gaza Strip was one of three land
masses that Israel conquered in the 1967
war, and by far the worst off of all three. But in 26 years of occupation, Israel
did virtually nothing to relieve the festering poverty and misery of its residents.
Nor had the Egyptians invested in the welfare of Gaza when they were there before Israel.
So it was not surprising when on December 8, 1987, events that changed the course of Middle
Eastern history began in Gaza.
An Israeli army tank-transporter was traveling inside the Gaza Strip when it suddenly made
an unexpected turn and plowed into a truckload of Palestinians returning from work.
Four Palestinians were killed and seven injured. Chances are that this
was an accident, unintentional, but rumors spread that it had been deliberate. A
further embellishment — not rooted in reality — was that the driver was related to an Israeli who had been stabbed
to death two days earlier in the market of Gaza, and this was his revenge. The
rumors ignited the festering rage. The funerals at the Jabaliyya refugee camp
that evening became the occasion for a mass riot against the occupying soldiers, to which the Israeli army responded with
tear gas and shooting, causing further Palestinian death and raising the level of rage one more notch. This began the cycle of action and reaction, violence and recrimination, that characterized the years of
the intifada — stone-throwing at Israeli soldiers/tear gas; street riots/arbitrary arrests; Molotov cocktails/bullets;
terrorist bombs/summary executions; and so on in a spiraling cycle of brutality. These
incidents snowballed into a full-fledged uprising throughout the territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, which
became known as the intifada ["uprising" in Arabic] — a mass rebellion to throw off the yoke of the Israeli occupation.
The Conflict in A Thimble
What does "the Israeli occupation" refer to? Here's
a capsule summary of the history of this region that should suffice.
Many tribes, clans, and nations made their home in this corner of the world from as far
back as 8,000 BCE. Jewish domination over the region existed intermittently for
about 1,250 years, starting from 1180 BCE, though even during this period there were recurring battles over the land, with
attempts by Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites, Philistines, Egyptians, Greeks, and others to unseat or rule over the confederated
Israelite tribes. Jewish rule over the area finally came to a catastrophic end
in 70 CE after a devastating revolt against the Romans, who in turn were ousted by others.
Subsequent nations who inhabited and ruled the region included the Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Seljuks, Crusaders,
Mamluks, Ottomans, and British.
In the late 19th century, following ongoing persecution at the hands of many nations, some
Jews living in Europe decided to renew Jewish settlement in this region — then called Palestine — and to establish
a refuge for Jews fleeing anti-Semitism. This grew into a movement called Zionism,
with the political goal of re-establishing a Jewish state in the historical homeland.
At the time, Arabs were living in Palestine, and there was intermittent conflict between them and the Jews who sought
to lay claim to the land. Some Jews, it should be noted, were willing to compromise
with the Arabs over lands, while others believed that it was the manifest destiny of Jews to own all the land that had historically
belonged to the Israelites during Biblical days.
Thus began the twentieth century conflict that erupted into several full scale wars, of
which I shall mention only two: The 1948 war resulted in the establishment of
the independent state of Israel on a narrow slice of land. And the 1967 war (sometimes
called the Six Day War) resulted in the occupation of additional lands that had previously been under the control of Arab
states: the West Bank (formerly part of Jordan), the Golan Heights (formerly part of Syria), and Sinai and the Gaza Strip
(formerly part of Egypt).
Egypt settled its grievances with Israel in 1979 under the leadership of Anwar Sadat and
Menahem Begin. In exchange for recognition of the state of Israel as a legitimate
part of the Middle East, Israel returned to Egypt the entire Sinai peninsula. This
was a significant sacrifice for Israel, as Sinai had the attractiveness of subterranean oil with few Arab inhabitants. But faced with international pressure, as well as the hope that peace with Egypt would
lead to an accommodation with all the Arab states of the Middle East, Israel felt that the sacrifice was worth it.
The occupation of the other territories was not so brief, and came with a heavy price —
a population of two million Palestinians, most of whom were refugees and their offspring from the 1948 war for Israel's independence. Throughout this occupation, debate raged in Israel over whether or not to "keep" the
territories. Some Israelis believed we should keep them, either for God-given
reasons or as a security hedge, while others argued in favor of territorial compromise, at least enough to allow the Arabs
in the region to make peace with Israel. The "compromisers" eventually fell silent,
as no peace treaty seemed in the offing in exchange for returned land; while the non-compromisers, most of them religious,
pressed ahead with a program of settlement on the land.
From the June 1967 war until September 1993, when Israel began to divest itself of the occupied
territories, twenty-six years of occupation passed, years filled with the brutality and harshness that are inevitable components
of the subjugation of one nation by another. During the six years of intifada,
the violence only worsened, the result of trying to quell the Palestinian uprising that ranged from pure forms of nonviolent
resistance to vicious acts of terrorism. Neither side — Israeli or Palestinian
— was innocent of ruthless tactics.
During the years that Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it imposed a harsh
regime on the local population. First, it discouraged economic development in
the territories, both out of a desire to exploit cheap Palestinian
labor for itself and also fearful that development would foster Palestinian nationalism.
Apprehensive of rising independence, Israel also imposed draconian constraints on daily life, disallowing the basic
democratic freedoms — not only self-determination, but also representation, movement, assembly, expression, and many
more. There was also the ongoing daily harassment and humiliation by individual
During the intifada, life in the territories became even more unbearable. To name the major ongoing forms of repression and sources of anguish:
· death and injury resulting from the use of force by Israeli troops to quell riots or in response to
various forms of provocation by Palestinian residents;
· extended periods of curfew of the entire population — no leaving homes after sundown;
· extended closures of kindergartens, schools, and universities (sometimes closed for several years at
· periodic disconnection of telephone lines, electricity, and water supply;
· censorship of books, newspapers, and other publications;
· arbitrary and unfair taxation as an instrument to enforce authority;
· maltreatment of inhabitants during searches of their homes, including extensive destruction to property;
· bureaucratic harassment that impeded attempts to obtain permits to enter Israel (for work or medical
treatment), permits to travel abroad, or permits to allow family reunification and visits by relatives;
· punishments meted out on the families of those "wanted" by the military — sealing of rooms or
houses, or demolition of the entire structure;
· administrative detention — arrest and imprisonment without trial — for virtually unlimited
· systematic use of torture during interrogation of detainees;
· use of undercover military units to carry out summary executions of "wanted" Palestinians;
law enforcement on Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the occupied territories.
And this does not include the pervasive and ominous military presence that periodically
exploded into violence. Israeli troops were lording it over the local inhabitants,
with full backing of the Israeli courts and government. So it was not surprising
when the intifada erupted, and even less surprising that it started in the Gaza Strip, that pressure cooker of dense humanity
and grinding poverty.
The Israeli Peace Camp Wakes Up
Most Israelis had learned to ignore what was happening in the territories through
the first twenty years of occupation, but with the outbreak of rebellion there, terrible stories began to surface. Now, on top of the twenty years of oppression, new episodes were revealed of the brutality of Israeli soldiers
in trying to quell the uprising. These were "our sons", 18 or 19 years old, clubbing
people and opening fire into crowds. Some of these stories were true and others
were exaggerations by the media, but the picture that emerged was of harsh oppression of the local populace. The reaction of the Israeli liberal public was enormous revulsion and guilt — that we had gone along
with this occupation for so long, burying our heads in the sand to the fact that Israel had for a generation been an
occupying force of almost two million people, and that this occupation was far more repressive than any of us had been willing
to think about.
For many of us, one of the worst moments at this early stage (many worst moments
were to come later) occurred in the first month of the intifada when Yitzhak Rabin, then Defense Minister (later, ironically,
to become the Prime Minister who died for peace), issued orders to the army to "break the bones" of the Palestinians. Although these brutal words were intended to replace the growing trend of soldiers
to open fire on rioters, it was like telling someone that it would be better to beat a dog than to shoot it. The liberal left in Israel was horrified, but the soldiers followed
orders, with several grotesque cases of vicious beatings by Israeli soldiers of Palestinians who had already been apprehended,
not to mention gratuitous violence exercised by the sadists and otherwise frustrated troops.
This was not what Rabin had intended, but it was a direct outcome of his policies.
As the tally of death and injury rose, Israeli liberals became addicted to news
about the riots and the attempts to quash them, and we began to cast about for ways to respond. At first we wrote letters to the editor, then composed, signed, and circulated petitions and published
them. Hundreds of paid ads appeared in the newspapers during this period by Israelis
calling upon the authorities to end the harsh retaliation. But the number of
dead and injured rose from day to day. What to do? How to change things, how to stop the killing and violence?
For many in the right wing in Israel, this meant how to get tough, how to clamp down on the Palestinians — the
"iron fist policy" as the government and media called it. A few hawkish politicians
on the right (Ariel Sharon, Rehavam Ze'evi, Raphael Eitan — all former generals) said the inevitable: "If I were
in charge, the intifada would be crushed within two weeks." Many agreed with
But for others, the real question now emerged, a question that had lurked in the
shadows for so many years, untended and unattended, grown wild from our neglect: how to end the occupation. The radical left in Israel had long framed the question this way, and finally this formulation penetrated
the bourgeois skulls of the rest of us. And while we pondered this theoretical
conundrum, the Palestinians were figuring things out on their own, and tire-burning turned into stone-throwing turned into
molotov cocktails turned into Israeli soldiers firing point blank into crowds.
The Israeli peace camp awoke with a start.
Although some groups had been working to end the occupation throughout its twenty-year history, most of those collectively
known as "the peace camp" had been dormant since its protests in the early 1980s had successfully forced the right wing Israeli
government to leave most (though not all) of Lebanon. Now
as the intifada swirled into a rage, the diverse components of the peace camp swung into action.
A profusion of new peace groups rapidly evolved.
Some were based on having a profession in common (Mental Health Workers for Peace, Clergy for Peace, Retired Generals
for Peace, Social Workers for Peace); others on common interests (Concerned Parents, Women for Women Political Prisoners,
Youth Against the Occupation, Committee of Artists Against the Occupation); and others sought to redress the human rights
violated by Israeli authorities during the occupation (B'Tselem, Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Center for the Defense
of the Individual, Physicians for Human Rights, Public Committee Against Torture). The
largest and best organized peace group was Peace Now, which had been active since 1978 and could rely upon everyone in the
peace camp to show up for its mass rallies. Appendix B lists the names of 74
peace and human rights organizations active during the intifada, and these don't even include the many peace-oriented research
centers, newspapers and journals, theater and art groups, or the peace-teaching programs and welfare centers for victims. Most of these were founded or flourished at the onset of the intifada. It was a cornucopia of protest, with groups evolving, dissolving, regrouping, coalitioning, re-forming,
splintering, and starting all over again. In the early days, one often met the
same people in the same homes, now with a new slogan and a new strategy. ("We're
only ten people in the peace camp," went the joke, "the rest is done with mirrors.")
But no mirrors could account for the rapid proliferation of activists, nor for the formation of the women's peace movement
that then came into being.
The Birthparents: Dai LaKibush
Dai LaKibush, one of the outspoken organizations in the peace camp, was formed
immediately after the outbreak of the intifada in December 1987. During this
early period, Dai LaKibush was considered radical in Israel, as it called for negotiating with the PLO and establishing a
Palestinian state beside the state of Israel. These positions were then considered
extremist notions, although they were later espoused by the more mainstream Peace Now and ultimately even by most Israeli
politicians on the left.
Amidst the turbulence of the early intifada period, the Jerusalem branch of Dai
LaKibush (men and women) had begun to hold a small weekly demonstration with signs calling for an end to the occupation. After several of these in which the public barely noticed their existence, the group
met to figure out how to draw more attention to themselves. One of the men, a
theater person, suggested that at the next demonstration, the men come dressed in white and the women in black, to heighten
the dramatic impact. It sounded like a good idea and the women did don black,
but somehow the men couldn't bring themselves to dress for the occasion, showing up in their usual garb. The women, though, looked dramatic — like a classical Greek chorus.
To take advantage of the funereal effect, it was decided that the women would stand separately from the men. A little more interest was, indeed, generated among spectators, which encouraged the group to try again
the next week, this time at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, only women wearing black garb.
The next week, the first all-woman dressed in black demonstration was held. It was a very modest affair, only about eight women in attendance, and several men
who moved among the bystanders handing out leaflets with more detailed political explanations.
Ruth Cohen and Ida Bilu had made signs in the shape of hands, like traffic stop signals, on which they had printed
"Dai LaKibush", the name of the organization, which, not coincidentally, also means "End the Occupation". The signs had white lettering on black cardboard, designed for visibility at evening demonstrations. Again the demonstration drew some interest, but the location still left a lot to be
desired. After it was over, Raya Rotem, the woman in the group who was most actively
promoting the idea of having a women-dressed-in-black vigil — black, not just for dramatic effect, but as a sign of
mourning for those killed and injured in the violence (Raya herself was a war widow) — made calls to all the politically
radical women she knew, inviting them to a demonstration the following week.
The following week, the women made the plunge from anonymity into mob recognition. On January 8, the women chose to demonstrate in the heart of downtown Jerusalem, on
the bustling corner of Jaffa Road and Ben Yehuda Street. About fifteen women
turned out, including my 15-year-old daughter Mieka Brand, who had heard about it from her friend Alva, Raya's daughter. And Raya wore not only black, but a big picture on which she had made a very provocative
drawing — an Israeli soldier violently clubbing a Palestinian. It was not
a picture geared to make friends, considering that most Israelis regarded our soldiers as victims of the violence, rather
than its perpetrators. In consequence, the demonstration, to put it mildly, was
"Awful and threatening," is how Ruth Cohen described it. The location exposed them to the brunt of public fury against women who chose to "mourn the enemy", rather
than support our boys in uniform. "I came home covered with spit," recalls Hagar
Roublev, one of the founding mothers. But they had found a formula that captured
attention — women dressed in black — although they had chosen too vulnerable a site. The women called each other up and agreed to repeat the demonstration dressed in black, but to move it
to Paris Square, where they would be somewhat more distanced from bystanders, though still well-exposed. The participants went through their phone books and called every woman they knew who might be interested
Who were the Jerusalem women who began this all-woman vigil? This was a group of fifteen veteran peace activists - Dafna Amit, Mimi Ash, Judy Blanc, Ruth Cohen, Yvonne
Deutsch, Ruth Elraz, Hava Halevi, Dafna Kaminer, Lily Moed, Tikva Honig Parnass, Maya Rosenfeld, Raya Rotem, Hagar Roublev,
Hagit Segal, and Hagit Shlonsky. By the time these women showed up to the demonstration
at Paris Square a week later, outsiders had also joined them, other women to whom the idea appealed. And the demonstration was declared a regular weekly vigil, and Paris Square, visible but raised above bystanders,
was declared the permanent venue.
Although the vigil was held weekly as a woman's action and developed its own momentum,
the Dai LaKibush organization continued to regard it as one of its activities. It
was not easy for them to relinquish parental control and ownership over their all-woman spinoff. At an organizing meeting held several months into the vigil, one of the leaders of Dai LaKibush announced
that a number of decisions would have to be made about the Women in Black vigil. "You're
relieved of all decisions about Women in Black," the founding mothers told him. "We
don't belong to you anymore."
Thus Women in Black was launched as an independent, all-woman enterprise.