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Sisters of mercy

Joe Ware

The male voices are usually loudest in the bloody feud between Israel and Palestine, but Joe Ware finds that inspirational women are quietly coming to the fore in peace and justice work on both sides of the divide.


When the Holy Land makes the news, more often than not the story unfolds through a male-centric lens. Whether it's grandstanding from presidents, imams and rabbis, or violent clashes between soldiers and militia, men are usually front and centre. But across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, women are increasingly making their voices heard. With International Women's Day approaching on March 8, I wanted to look at the growing influence of the daughters, sisters and mothers emerging from patriarchal communities to heal some of the wounds of conflict.



Jean Zaru is a Palestinian Quaker from a Christian family in Ramallah, in the West Bank. Born eight years before the 1948 creation of the Israeli state, she has devoted her life to seeking a just end to the occupation and promoting gender equality. She knows first-hand the hardships of growing up as a woman in the region.

'As a Palestinian woman in a male-dominated culture there are many issues,' recounts Zaru in her book Occupied with Nonviolence. 'I don't enjoy equality with my brothers. In my culture, as in many others, girls traditionally have not had equal opportunities for education and health care, although this is beginning to change. They are often looked down upon if they choose a life that is different from what society expects.'

As a married woman with little money Zaru had to work outside the home to bring in extra income, as well as doing the relentless work of a traditional homemaker. In what spare time remained she volunteered with the Young Women's Christian Association. 'I wanted to convince other women that it is possible to be involved in social issues, to convince them that volunteers are not only the affluent who can afford to volunteer and are bored staying at home.'



One such volunteer is Sister Aziza. This extraordinary Eritrean Roman Catholic nun works every Saturday alongside the Jewish and Muslim medics of Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), a partner organisation of Christian Aid.

'Women all around the world don't think of themselves,' Sister Aziza says during a break from her work in a Palestinian village near Nablus. 'They think first of their child, their husband, their brother. They forget about themselves. Women here are often neglected, they are not always listened to.'

Bringing together Israeli and Palestinian physicians committed to ensuring healthcare for all, a PHRI team takes a mobile clinic into the West Bank each Saturday - and every month they dedicate a day to providing care exclusively for women.

'When it comes to health and sickness there are no boundaries,' says Sister Aziza. 'They don't look whether we are Israeli or Palestinian, Jewish or Muslim or Christian. With the women doctors they feel able to share things, not only their illnesses but their lives. They feel understood.'



Another volunteer nurse is a chain-smoking 90-yearold Jewish Israeli called Pnina Feiler, who moved to Israel from Poland at the age of 14. For many of the Palestinian women at the clinic, she is the first Israeli they have encountered who isn't a soldier holding an M16 rifle.

'When you build a wall you can't meet the people face to face and see they are normal people,' she observes. 'There are a few loud crazies on both sides but the vast majority of people want to live and work in peace. It is good for all of us. We get as much out of it as the Palestinians do.'

At which, a smiling Sister Aziza quips: 'They should involve women in the peace process not the men. We would solve all the problems.'

It seems women are already solving many problems in the region. By crossing long-held ethnic boundaries and breaking cultural taboos, they are not only changing hearts and minds but also improving the livelihoods and finances of their male-dominated communities.



In the West Bank's Jordan Valley, Palestinian farmers struggle to scrape a living under the restrictive military rule of the Israeli Army, which has jurisdiction over what was historically Palestine. Against this challenging backdrop one organisation, the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC), is working to empower women through training and education, giving them a platform often denied them by patriarchal structures.

'Sixty-five per cent of the work done in the agricultural sector is done by women but they don't have much influence,' explains Khalil Shiha, Director General of PARC. 'We set up a special programme designed to empower women in rural areas and we've seen a big shift in the level of contribution they have in the decision making process. Some have also been elected to village councils.'

In the dusty village of Froush Beit Dajan, Muslim women sit across from their husbands and talk openly about their new-found influence. One young farmer, Anwar Ismaieel, says: 'The approach of women is totally different from the men. In the past men had a say in everything inside and outside the home. Now we share our opinion and discuss it. Anyone who feels important and knows their opinions are being heard and acted on will be more engaged. We feel much more productive now that we are sharing the decisions.'

The men of the village openly acknowledge their wives' contribution, courage and resolve. 'In these hard conditions, without their determination this community couldn't exist,' says Tawfiq Haj Mouhammad, head of the village council.



Just outside Bethlehem, Ne'ama Al-Ser, 57, has not only raised a family of 11 children, but because of her husband's chronic back problems she has also been forced to become the primary breadwinner.

With the help of loans and other support from the YMCA, another partner of Christian Aid, Ne'ama has cultivated a flourishing grape business. The income has proved crucial, as she has been forced to fight a 15-year legal battle to prevent her home from being demolished by the Israeli government. The wall, separating Israel from the West Bank, has been built less than 100 metres from her land and an Israeli military base sits behind it, overlooking her home. 'We've been suffering from this demolition order for 15 years,' she says.

'We've had to pay the lawyer 50,000 shekels (£9,000) to get it delayed. No one has explained to us why it needs to be demolished. We are in Area C of the West Bank, totally controlled by the Israeli army. The Israelis can decide what they want to do.

'The Israelis don't like it that Palestinians are sticking to their land. If we stay and plant our lands Israel hates this more than people throwing stones. In 2002 they brought a tank and pointed it at us. Whenever we moved around the farm they moved the cannon to intimidate us. We kept planting the land. After 40 days they left.' She is grateful for help from the YMCA. 'Without it I couldn't have made this project work. I prepared the land but I didn't have the money to buy the plants. I now grow grapes and other fruit, depending on the season.'



Despite restricted movement and military checkpoints which turn her children's five-minute walk to school into an 11-mile trek, Ne'ama has created a flourishing business that supports her family and community. But her informal name, Um Ibrahim ('mother of Ibrahim') remains a constant reminder of the patriarchal culture within which she has achieved this. Ibrahim is her tenth child but her first son. Culturally, parents are named only after their first son: if a couple just has daughters, then a boy's name is picked at random for them. It is the son who defines the family identity.

Ne'ama is just one example of a wider wave of women challenging the dominant discourse - internationally as well as at home. Bucking the longstanding trend for anti-Palestinian lobbying by powerful US Christian Zionists, the wife of an influential evangelical pastor recently spoke out and described the occupation as a violation of human rights. Reflecting on a recent meeting with Palestinian and Israeli women, Lynne Hybels wrote in her blog: 'I left that gathering deeply moved by the potential women have to establish healing relationships, and to advocate for human rights in a profoundly personal and captivating way.

'I have concluded that one of the most valuable things I can do is to create more and more connections between Palestinian, Israeli and American women - which will be my focus in the future.'



Hybels and many others recognise that when it comes to nurturing peace and stability in the Holy Land, women are as pivotal as men. There is much injustice and conflict to be overcome, and some fear the lack of significant progress in recent years may lead to a fresh outburst of violence. But women are increasingly coming to the fore across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, bringing hope and resilience where there has been fear and desperation.

Jean Zaru again: 'As co-partners in the struggle for justice, women are critically involved in a mostly nonviolent struggle. We continue to work, support, and build for a new future, a future time in which, through our liberation, all of the Middle East, and all of humanity, would be liberated. It is this hope that inspires us and leads us. And it is this hope that allows us to see the image of God in everyone.'