Wise women

Three Middle Eastern women discover that they have more in common as mothers and peace activists than the tired old prejudices that have kept them apart.


Jonathan Broder
February 26, 1998 11:39PM (UTC)

Call them the Three Wise Women. Claudette Habash is a
Palestinian Christian. Nahla Asali is a Palestinian Muslim.
Michal Shohat is an Israeli Jew. They are all residents of Jerusalem, and
all have traveled far bearing a gift: a rare example of alliance and
respect between Arabs and Jews and a paradigm for the peace they so
desperately seek.

As Israeli and Palestinian officials blame each other for the collapse
of the Middle East peace process, these three remarkable women toured the
United States recently to speak out for the silent majority of Israelis
and Palestinians who are fed up with all the political wrangling and simply
want to live side-by-side in peace. They're hoping that by talking frankly
about the conflict and by describing the ways it twists ordinary lives,
they can educate Americans and create grass-roots pressure on the Clinton
administration to play a more active role as peacemaker.

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"As women, we humanize the conflict by talking about everyday life,
everyday suffering. We see it from a different perspective than the
politicians," says Asali, a 58-year-old professor of English literature
at Bir Zeit University, a few miles north of Jerusalem.

"Women are more sensitive and more creative than men," adds the
44-year-old Shohat, a left-wing member of the Jerusalem City Council.
"We bring life. We don't take it. That's what we bring to the process."

Though they live only five minutes from one another in Jerusalem,
the women met for the first time only days before they
traveled to the United States last month for their tour, sponsored by
Partners for Peace, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that
promotes Middle East peace. And though they came from opposite sides of a
psychological barrier that divides Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, they soon
realized that they had more in common -- as women, mothers and peace
activists -- than the tired old prejudices that have kept them apart.

"What we have in common is our genuine interest in peace for our
city and our region, peace for the Palestinians and peace for the
Israelis," says Habash, 57, who runs Caritas, a Catholic relief agency in
Jerusalem. "We all believe that there must be two states, a Palestinian
state and an Israeli state, with Jerusalem as an open and shared city."

"I don't know what Jerusalem's final status will be at the end of the
peace process," says Shohat. "Maybe it will be an international city. But
what I do know is that if there's going to be peace, we have to take
into account the different nationalities and religions that are in the city."

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What makes the trio's approach unique is that, unlike many
of the Israelis and Palestinians who come to the United States to
lecture about the Arab-Israeli situation, none of the
women offers easy answers that reduce the conflict to ideological
formulas or pithy sound bites. Instead, they provide a personal,
female view of a grinding communal war, where the front lines are wherever a
Palestinian and a Jew happen to meet -- on a bus, in the supermarket, on
the street -- and where the feelings of real people caught up in the
bloodletting are seldom heard. Asali and Habash recall paying condolence
calls to the families of Palestinian youths killed in street
clashes with Israeli soldiers and settlers. "It's not like the news
reports that simply say, '10 people were killed today,'" says Habash. "These
young people who die are not just numbers. They were somebody's son. We try
to explain what it's like to go into their homes and talk to their
mothers."

Shohat, a mother of three, talks about watching her 18-year-old son go off
to the army to fight in a conflict she
despises. She talks about her inner conflicts -- a mother's urge to protect
her son from the war's ugliness and danger vs. an Israeli's civic
responsibility to obey the law. "It's a very difficult issue for a mother
to send her children to the army during these times," she explains.

The women also paint a realistic picture of Jerusalem that differs
greatly from official Israeli claims that the city is united and all its
residents, both Jews and Arabs, enjoy equal services. As a member of the
city council in the holy city, Shohat speaks with authority when she talks
about the huge discrepancy in conditions between the Jewish west side and
the traditionally Arab east side, both of which have been under Israeli
rule since 1967. Since then, West Jerusalem has grown into a very modern city,
while East Jerusalem remains like a large Arab village, with poor roads,
bad sidewalks, poor sewage, insufficient electrical power, poor telephone
service and very few gardens.

Another example of the inequality, Shohat says, can be
found in the schools. Israel's Education Ministry funds schools on both
sides of the city. But Shohat says Jerusalem's municipal government
quietly provides extra funds to Jewish schools in West Jerusalem, denying
similar funds to East Jerusalem schools. The same goes for building permits.
Some 100 such permits are approved for Jews for every one that is approved
for a Palestinian, she says. As a result, the East Jerusalem Arabs
live in crowded, uncomfortable conditions, while the Jewish population of
the city flourishes and grows. In this way, Shohat says, the right-wing
government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is creating facts
on the ground to bolster his argument that Jerusalem is a Jewish city.
And while Netanyahu is creating these facts, he's been busy destroying others.

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Asali and Habash tell their audiences heart-rending stories of the
Israeli demolition of Palestinian houses, usually on the pretext that
they were built without a permit. Often the houses are the homes of large
Palestinian families that have lived in Jerusalem for generations.
"Imagine the government comes to you one morning, gives you 10
minutes advance notice to save your belongings and then bulldozes
your house," Asali says. "What would you do? How would you feel?"
Audiences usually don't have an answer.

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The three women also inform their audiences about a
new Israeli practice of canceling the residency permits of Jerusalem
Palestinians, usually because these Palestinians have been
living elsewhere. Over the past year, more than 1,000 Palestinians have
lost their right to live in Jerusalem, forcing husbands and wives to live
apart and dividing families. Asali says the Palestinians who are permitted
to remain are afraid to join their loved ones elsewhere for fear of losing
their residency permits too. Such anecdotes about daily life in
Jerusalem and the West Bank provide a grim context when audiences ask the
women about Palestinian terrorism. Asali and Habash don't condone terror,
but they ask their audiences to try to understand its causes. "These
demolitions, these cancellations of our residency permits, the
confiscations of our land, the killing of our children, they cause enormous
frustration and despair," says Habash. "Terrorism grows out of frustration,
out of the feeling that you have nothing to lose by blowing yourself up. If
you give people their dignity, if you let them have a home, a job and good
education, they are not going to become terrorists."

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One of their biggest difficulties in the United States, the women said,
was in countering some long-held beliefs that have defined the
Arab-Israel conflict for many Americans. These include the conviction among
many Americans that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is strong enough to
impose total control on his people. The issue is relevant today because
Netanyahu is demanding that Arafat stop all Palestinian violence against
Israel before he withdraws from more West Bank territory, as he agreed to do
under an accord signed last year. "The truth is Arafat's position is
very fragile," Asali says. "He controls very little. He can't even travel
from his headquarters in Gaza to the West Bank without getting permission
from the Israelis." She also points out that many of the most gruesome
Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel were launched from villages still
under Israeli military control. "There's no doubt he could do better, but
right now expectations are too high," she says.

Another misconception among Americans, they found, is the belief that
Jerusalem has always been a Jewish city. Habash, whose family fled their
West Jerusalem home in 1948, tells of the group's appearance before a Jewish
group in Seattle who were largely unaware that Arabs ever lived in West
Jerusalem, which is now completely Jewish. "One rabbi admitted that it
was only when he made a trip to Jerusalem that he learned that the house
where he was staying had once belonged to Arabs," Habash said. "If this was
not clear to him, think of how many millions more Americans don't know that
Arabs once lived in West Jerusalem. It took a journey to Jerusalem for him
to learn that."

At a time when Americans are growing increasingly skeptical about
the policies of Netanyahu and Arafat, the trio's message has been well
received. In addition
to appearances before church groups, Jewish
groups and mixed audiences in Minneapolis, Seattle, Roanoke, Va.,
Baltimore, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Princeton, N.J., the women appeared on
C-SPAN and numerous talk-radio programs. "I was touched by the number of
American Jews who came up to me and said how much they appreciated our work
and encouraged us not to give up," Habash said.

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Support for the women's peace efforts was evident in phone calls they
received while on talk radio. One woman in Washington, D.C., called a
local show to say, "It is the women who are going to do this. It's the
mothers and the daughters who are raising families. They may be a
quiet voice, but they're really a strong voice. I really admire what you're
doing."

A male caller from Oregon said: "God bless these
women for the strength to look for peace. I only wish their leaders were
brave enough to search for it."

At the end of their tour, the women said they would like to return to
the United States to continue spreading
their message of mutual respect and coexistence. They said their next
target would be members of Congress. "We need the Americans because we are
stuck now," Shohat says. But they all agree that no matter how many small
steps they take in educating ordinary Americans about the realities in
Israel and the Palestinian territories, nothing is going to happen until
the politicians get serious about making peace. "If the politicians take
the big step," Habash says, "we will follow."


Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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