by Daphna Golan
The Challenges of the Jerusalem Link, a Women's Joint Venture for Peace
The decision to form the Jerusalem Link as the coordinating body of two independent women's centers — one Palestinian, based in East Jerusalem, and one Israeli, based in West Jerusalem — was made in 1992. By the time the funding of the European Union was approved, it was already 1994¬the days of hope after the signing of the Oslo accords, and the timing seemed even more appropriate. Yet, the festive inauguration of the Jerusalem Link, on International Women's Day, March 8, 1994, was can¬celed following the Hebron Massacre — this terrible and shocking event left us in no mood to celebrate. We started operating between these two powerful events — and we are still operating with the contradictions and tensions that these two events symbolize — the joy and the anger, the hope and the despair.
On the occasion of International Women's Day, 1995, we held a joint demonstration on the border between East and West Jerusalem calling for dismantling of the settlements, lifting of the closure, release of Palestinian political prisoners, and recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of two states. Hundreds of Palestinians and Israeli women were present. We opened with a very powerful speech composed and delivered jointly by Hanan Ashrawi and Naomi Chazan. Palestinian women organized events for the Palestinian community, and we at Bat Shalom, for Israeli women. Bat Shalom, the Israeli center, marked the event a few days earlier in an evening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, with the screening of the Tunisian film, Les Silences du Palais.
This event embodied some of the difficulties of our work - and its success symbolizes for me the possibilities in this complicated joint venture.
The Tunisian film is about the power of women, and the relationship between women's liberation and the liberation of a society in general. We at Bat Shalom wanted to illustrate the fact that feminism is not only an American concept (as so often thought in Israel) and that Arab women are among those working to improve their rights all over the world. We want¬ed particularly to raise the possibility of solidarity between Israeli and Arab women. The Tunisian director, Moufida Tlatali, was invited by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and meant to be present at our event, but the fact that she did not come was a very important reminder that the Palestinian-¬Israeli conflict is not resolved and constitutes a border that Arab and Israeli women's solidarity cannot cross.
The Israeli Cinematheque, on the border between East and West Jerusalem, was packed with activists from Bat Shalom: women from low-¬income neighborhoods who had never before been in such a palace of elite culture in Jerusalem; female Knesset members; grassroots activists; and male supporters. There were Palestinian women from the Jerusalem Link who later told us how difficult it was for them to come — not only because they do not have permits to enter Jerusalem in these days of closure, but also because of psychological fears of entering a zone which is not theirs. There are deep gaps between us, and there is still a long political struggle ahead.
Rather than write about women's solidarity, I would like to focus on the complexity of the joint work, and raise some of the problems which we deal with at the Jerusalem Link.
In 1990 Palestinian and Israeli women signed a joint statement calling for "peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" and for recogni¬tion of the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The precedent set by the joining of the voices of women activists calling for an end to Occupation revealed the potential for understanding between Palestinians and Israelis. The idea of establishing two women's centers, one Palestinian and one Israeli, actually materialized after the Oslo accords had been signed. With all the misgivings and critiques of the Oslo accords, the political context in which we are working today is completely different than that which existed prior to September 1993. There are new questions about the legitimacy and role of such joint ventures.
The main question we are dealing with is that which is termed "nor¬malization." How do we work together when the Occupation is still in force, when there is no Palestinian state, when there is still an asymmetry of power between us; when we, Israeli women, are occupiers, and the Palestinians are still living under Occupation? How do we combat the erroneous impression within the international community - that the Palestinian problem is solved?
International Pressure for 'Positive Cooperation'
The Oslo accords, the celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Principles at the White House, the Nobel Peace Prize granted to Arafat, Rabin and Peres, have all contributed to the creation of the myth that there is peace in the Middle East and that the Palestinian problem is over. Funding agencies are eager to fund projects which emphasize only the pos¬itive aspects of the peace process. Every week a journalist or a filmmaker (apparently a third of the world's filmmakers are shooting films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) calls to ask whether we can show them a nice situation of social or cultural exchange between Israeli and Palestinian women — and we have to be very clear, explaining that we do not want to be made into a pretty postcard of women who are former enemies and are now smiling in understanding, that we do not simply applaud the peace process, but point to the problems in its implementation as well.
Agenda and Priorities
The Jerusalem Link focuses on women's rights, women's leadership, and feminist social change, as well as on broader issues of justice and human rights for Palestinian and Israeli people. There is no doubt that feminist, and peace and human rights issues are connected, but priorities must continu¬ously be defined, and consensus cannot always be reached. Palestinian women more often argue that the "national" struggle is more important, that as long as there is a closure, and no breakthrough in the negotiations, femi¬nist concerns should not be raised, at least not in our joint work. Some Israelis tend to push for the feminist agenda as long-term strategy for changing both societies toward more tolerance and understanding. In this process of thinking and rethinking our agenda and priorities, we must always remem¬ber the basic inequality between us, and its implication for our strategy.
The Jerusalem Link is an NGO, but also includes women involved with the established authority, on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides. There is an ongoing tension between the "grassroots" tendency and the need to influ¬ence the central authority. On the Israeli side, Bat Shalom has many activists who have participated in different grassroots organizations such as Women in Black, the Israel Women's Peace Net (Reshet), Women and Peace, as well as four Knesset members who belong to parties which are members of, or support, the coalition government. On the Palestinian side, the Jerusalem Center for Women, like other Palestinian NGOs, is currently dealing with a new political situation in which the formerly outlawed PLO is now the new, legitimate governmental authority. The situation is doubly complicated as the new authority is in many cases still subject to Israeli authority. Since we are women from different political streams, struggling to maintain the independence of our organizations, to retain not only our grassroots foundation but also access to policymakers, the decision-making process is always long and complicated.
Political Outreach and Cooperation
Groups of Israeli and Palestinian women activists have always been very small and elitist. Yet enlarging the circle is very difficult as there is much hesitation on both sides to work with the "enemy." Each center has connections with a large group of women who see the advantage of a women's organization but are not ready to engage in joint work. Our work, thus, is not solely joint work, since we see the importance of working in each society separately.
I do not have conclusions. I can only have qualified answers. In fact I only have many difficult, challenging questions versus one strong intuition that what we are doing is right after all. What are the goals? Why a joint venture? What is the connection between feminism and peace'? How much do we play into the hands of international forces who want to forget about the Palestinian problem? In the present strange political situation, we will always operate with these questions, unanswered, in mind.
This strong intuition was only strengthened at our joint demonstration and on that evening at the Cinematheque which I described above. It is ironic that I reveal all of my difficulties in a journal which is probably struggling with the very same questions, of why do anything jointly now, in this strange political situation.