Nonviolence in the Israeli women's peace movement

IssueMarch - May 2004
Feature by Gila Svirsky

Non-violence as a strategy has been practised throughout the Israeli women's peace movement since the founding of Women in Black in early 1988, one month after the first Palestinian Intifada broke out.

The Women in Black movement began as a small group of Israeli women carrying out a simple form of protest: once a week at the same hour and in the same location--a major traffic intersection in Jerusalem--they donned black clothing and raised a black sign in the shape of a hand with white lettering that read “End the Occupation”.

From this modest beginning, women throughout Israel heard of this protest,and launched similar vigils. Throughout the north of Israel, where many Palestinian citizens of Israel reside, the vigils had Arab and Jewish women standing side by side. From Israel, it spread to dozens of other countries.

The strength of this movement is its clear and unchanging message presented in a nonviolent manner: End the Occupation. The target audience for this message is the Israeli public and leadership, the international public and leadership, and the Palestinian people. The intent is to magnify the voice of those who object to the occupation, but do not have political clout as individuals. Because of the persistence of these women and the growing number of vigils, this movement seems to have had widespread impact.

Civil disobedience and nvda

When the al-Aqsa Intifada broke out in late September 2000, nine Israeli women's peace organisations joined together as the Coalition of Women for Peace and launched a series of nonviolent actions. Some of these involved actions such as lying down on the street to block the entrance to the Israeli Ministry of Defence, as a way to protest at the “closure” in the territories.

Subsequent actions, often in co-operation with mixed-gender peace organisations, involved other nonviolent but illegal acts--the rebuilding of demolished homes,or the removal of blockades and filling in of trenches intended to enforce the closure.

In other actions, individual women stood in front of army bulldozers or chained themselves to olive trees in an effort to prevent further destruction of Palestinian homes and property. Some of these actions ended in arrests.

This coalition of women's peace organisations has also staged mass non-violent actions that are legal. In December 2001, 5,000 Israeli and Palestinian women marched together from the Israeli to the Palestinian side of Jerusalem under the twin banners, “The Occupation is Killing Us All” and “We Refuse to be Enemies”.In June 2003, Israeli women staged a mass “lie-in” in Tel Aviv, with 1,000 women wearing black, stretched out on the pavement as a sign of mourning for the victims of the occupation.

Checkpoint duty

Some of the member organisations of the Coalition engage in other forms of non-violent resistance. The presence at checkpoints of the women in Machsom [check-point] Watch is often enough to prevent particularly cruel harassment of Palestinians. Recently these women prevented a soldier from firing at a child by deflecting his gun, leading to their arrest for “interfering with the IDF”.

The organisation New Profile (see p25) support conscientious objection to military service, and last year launched their “Women Refuse” campaign (see PN2450,p10). What do they refuse? “To raise our children for war, to ignore war crimes committed in our name, to support the occupation, to continue our normal lives while another nation is suffering because of us.” This is a profound use of nonviolence—an attempt to change the militaristic culture of Israeli society and to instil the values of non-violence in Israeli children.

Applying pressure

The most successful case in Israel of the use of nonviolence in the service of peace is the Four Mothers Movement. This group, founded in 1997 by four women whose sons were serving in the Israeli army, sought to mobilise the Israeli public to demand that Israel withdraw its troops from Lebanon, based on the argument that Israel's prolonged presence there served no security purpose, but jeopardised the lives of soldiers.

The movement was initially met with scorn from senior military officers (“What do women know about security?” they mocked). But at the heart of the Four Mothers' strategy was leveraging their status as mothers. This was effective in a society that may disrespect professional women but honours its mothers.

The Four Mothers Movement never used civil disobedience, but held small demonstrations and vigils that highlighted the sincerity of their plea as law-abiding women, not politicians. Their status as mothers who had sons serving in combat units gave them the right, in the eyes of the public, to challenge Israeli policy in Lebanon. They demanded--and were accorded--meetings with the highest government officials, whose inadequate answers were then magnified through the well-run media work of this group.

The “authentic”, mother-oriented nature of this movement, and its dissociation from partisan politics, struck an empathetic nerve among the Israeli public. The deaths of Israeli soldiers were on the increase in Lebanon, and the message of the Four Mothers fell on attentive ears,feeding public dismay over the seemingly endless body bags. Within three years of the start of the movement, the Israeli army withdrew from Lebanon.

The women's peace movement in Israel has used nonviolence in varied and creative ways. While the most dramatic actions have had civil disobedience and risk-taking at the core, a large array of lawful actions has also been used, and no less effectively. Women demonstrators sometimes feel “protected” in the belief that the police and army will not harm women, although that belief has proven to be unjustified. But the strategy of nonviolence clearly provides a greater moral strength and persuasiveness than violent strategies. The practice of nonviolence has also been empowering to those who feel otherwise helpless, and results seem to confirm its effectiveness as a strategy.