Women Speak Out for Pathway to Peace

Members of Women Wage Peace take part in a rally calling for coexistence and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along Jerusalem’s Old City walls, on May 19, 2021. (Menahem Kahana / AFP via Getty Images)

This article was originally published in Pat Mitchell’s blog and weekly newsletter.

There are times throughout recorded history when women have stepped up, spoken up, and taken action to resolve border and boundary disputes, to protect their cities, communities and families, and to demand and negotiate peaceful resolutions of long-term conflicts.

I am reflecting on those times today as the suffering, death and destruction in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, and the violent oppression in Iran and Afghanistan, seem beyond our ability to do anything that would mediate the violence or end the suffering.

Yet, sometimes, women have come together and accomplished just that.

Let’s remember just a few examples:

In Liberia, where the nonviolent movement, led by activist Leymah Gbowee, brought together Christian and Muslim women to end the 14-year civil war there, as documented in Abby Disney’s award winning film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

In Latin America, where I documented the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, I witnessed the women on both sides, in government and in the rebel forces, come together to end the violence and to demand a voice in the peace negotiations.

And today, reflecting on the violence in Israel and Gaza, I am remembering—and honoring—the women who have been tirelessly working for a sustainable peace in the region for decades, some of whom I met and interviewed while making the 1991 documentary, Women In War: Voices From the Frontlines.

In 1989, Belgian activist Simone Susskind helped convene a conference of Israeli and Palestinian women—the first-ever Women’s Peace Conference—in Brussels, called “Give Peace a Chance: Women Speak Out.”

Screengrabs from Women In War: Voices from the Frontlines, produced by Diana Meehan, Pat Mitchell and Mary Muldoon (Filmakers Library, 1991) Clockwise: “Give Peace a Chance: Women Speak Out” banner, Rep. Bella Abzug in attendance, and a view of the delegates from Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Europe and America.

I was there, deeply inspired by the many Arab and Jewish women leaders who came from many countries to show support and solidarity and to work together on a peace agreement.

I’ll never forget the opening remarks from the presiding leaders to the hundreds of women present: “We have no time for grievances; We have three days to shape a peace agreement and get back to our families and our work.” I watched and listened with deep admiration as these women put aside their differences to draft a seven point agreement that would have provided a plan for a peaceful, secure future for Israel and the Palestinians. But regrettably, without enough women in either the Knesset or in the Palestinian Authority leadership at the time, the agreement was never given serious consideration.

That was more than 30 years ago and today, we watch with deepest empathy and growing fears as the violence escalates and a pathway to peace seems more blocked than ever. Yet, a new generation of women continue to work together for peace.

Women Wage Peace is a coalition of Jewish and Arab women who have been tireless and undeterred in trying to find pathways towards a peaceful and secure co-existence of Israelis and Palestinians. This week they continue their calls for peace and it is with enormous respect and gratitude, and a strong sense of solidarity and shared humanity that I share their position paper with you.

Women Wage Peace Position Paper

October 15, 2023

It took us a week to formulate this statement. We are a movement made up of Jewish and Arab women with diverse opinions and positions, and we found ourselves inside this crazy, threatening, horrible and frightening movie. There are no words in any language to describe what we all went through this past week. We are still searching for the right words that we can share at this moment.

First of all, we mourn the brutal murder, in an indescribable and unforgivable massacre carried out by Hamas, of over 1300 civilians, babies, children, women, men, the elderly, male and female soldiers, members of the security and rescue forces, among them Arab civilians and soldiers. We wish complete recovery and rehabilitation to the thousands injured in body and soul.

We share the deep sorrow of members of Women Wage Peace who lost family members; we offer support to the members of the movement from the Gaza Envelope who survived the horrific inferno last Saturday; and we are terribly worried about the safety and fate of all those missing, kidnapped and abducted—among them peace activist Vivian Silver from Kibbutz Beeri, a member of Women Wage Peace, and Ditza Heyman from Kibbutz Nir Oz, the mother of movement member, Neta Heiman.

We demand that the Israeli government begin negotiations immediately for the release of all those who were abducted. We call on the Red Cross and the international community to ensure their safety and act for their immediate release.

Despite the rage and pain in the face of the criminal and unforgivable acts committed by Hamas, including incessant shelling of towns all over Israel, we must not lose human dignity. Even in the most difficult situations, it is our obligation as mothers, as women, as human beings and as an entire nation not to lose basic human values.

We hear words of revenge all the time—“all restraints have been removed,” “we will wipe out Gaza,” “we will act brutally.” But one cannot resolve one injustice with another injustice. We grieve the death of innocent Palestinians, among them hundreds of children, who are being killed in this accursed war. The situation in Gaza is getting worse all the time.

This war proves, more than ever, that the concept of “managing the conflict” failed. The idea that dealing with the resolution of the conflict could be postponed indefinitely has been proved to be fundamentally wrong.

For nine years since the end of “Operation Protective Edge,” we, Jewish and Arab mothers have been telling the leadership in Israel—enough! We must turn every stone in order to reach a political solution. This is our obligation for the future of our children. This is our obligation to both Israeli and Palestinian children. They deserve a future of security and freedom, not a future of death, war and destruction.

Despite the complexity of the issue, we and the Palestinians have no choice but to strive for a resolution of the conflict. The Palestinian people will not disappear, nor will we.

More wars, bombings, assassinations, arrests and a never-ending cycle of bloodshed will not allow us and our children to live here as normal people. All conflicts in the world have been resolved by peace agreements. Hamas acts to destroy any chance for peace. Hamas has already managed to destroy the negotiations with Saudi Arabia. Hamas must not be allowed to win!

We know these words sound imaginary, naïve and unrealistic, but this is the truth, and we must recognize it. Every mother, Jewish and Arab, gives birth to her children to see them grow and flourish and not to bury them.

That’s why, even today, amidst the pain and the feeling that the belief in peace has collapsed, we extend a hand in peace to the mothers of Gaza and the West Bank.

We mothers, together with women from all over the world, must unite to stop this madness.

It is our obligation to say, even if it is difficult to say this now—Israel must consider its steps and actions responsibly and morally and prevent needless deaths of civilians and soldiers and, at the same time, wherever possible, prevent harm to innocent people in Gaza.

We raise difficult questions and expect answers—ground action, destruction of Gaza, forcing one million Palestinians to flee their homes—will all of this lead to a future of security? And what will happen the day after? Isn’t it essential to deal with the issue of the abductees first? Do our leaders have the answers?

We must maintain and strengthen the solidarity and unity between the Jewish and Arab public in Israel and continue to act against racism and hatred. The Arab public, which has lived for years with the internal conflict of being citizens of Israel and being part of the Palestinian people, rallied in this difficult time of crisis for the sake of the entire society in Israel.

We demand that Israel prevent a flare-up in the West Bank and not allow extremist elements from both sides to incite the region, as has already happened this past week.

Last but not least, we will say that even though this is 2023, there are almost no women in decision-making forums in Israel. This is an intolerable situation that must change. We demand that the negotiation team for the release of the abductees include women. It is not possible that only men run the country during this crisis.

May the memory of all the victims be blessed.

How we can activate to support the women of Women Wage Peace is not entirely clear, but I will try to provide updates in the weeks ahead. Of course, it must be said that all women are not united in their opinions about this war or on the pathways to peace, but knowing that these brave women are once again on the front lines, waging peace, sustains the light for many of us during a very dark time in our world.

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Pat Mitchell is the editorial director of TEDWomen. Throughout her career as a journalist, Emmy-winning producer and pioneering executive, she has focused on sharing women’s stories. She is chair of the Sundance Institute Board, the chair emerita of the Women’s Media Center board, and a trustee of the VDAY movement, the Skoll Foundation and The Woodruff Arts Center. She is an advisor to Participant Media and served as a congressional appointment to the American Museum of Women’s History Advisory Council.