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Men Alone Cannot Build a Durable Peace in the Middle East

by Xanthe Scharff February 2, 2024

Originally published in Foreign Policy

As war rages between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, it is hard to envision an end to the conflict. For decades, though, a growing movement of Palestinian and Israeli women has not only envisioned a peaceful coexistence, but also demanded it.

Just three days before Hamas’s Oct. 7, 2023, attack, thousands of women from two peacebuilding groups gathered at Jerusalem’s Tolerance Monument for a rally and march. Israelis from Women Wage Peace carried blue flags, and Palestinians from Women of the Sun flew yellow ones.

Members of the two groups traveled to the Dead Sea—believed since ancient times to have healing qualities—and set a table. Women from both sides pulled up chairs as a symbol of a good-faith resumption of negotiations to reach a political solution.

Women Wage Peace formed in response to Operation Protective Edge, which was Israel’s 2014 invasion of Gaza in the wake of then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed effort to restart final status negotiations.

“We, Palestinian and Israeli mothers, are determined to stop the vicious cycle of bloodshed,” reads the preamble to their campaign, the Mother’s Call. This campaign was nine months in the making, and it involved aligning around a single agenda that demands a political solution within a limited time frame.

They set the table to show the importance of dialogue and women’s involvement in decision-making. But in the war between Israel and Hamas that has started since then, women’s voices are largely missing from negotiations and consultations.

Ensuring women’s participation isn’t about equity or fairness or a show of inclusion. It’s about winning the peace.

In 2014, Laurel Stone, then a researcher at Seton Hall University, conducted a quantitative analysis of 156 peace agreements over time. She found that when women are decision-makers—serving as negotiators and mediators—the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years increased by 20 percent. The probability of the agreement holding for 15 years increased by 35 percent.

Many studies show that women tend to be more collaborative, more focused on social issues over military issues, and less likely to attack those who hold differing views. With women at the table, the potential for risk-taking behavior and attacks on perceived enemies may be lower. In diverse teams, decisions are more likely to be based on facts than assumptions.

While men are more likely to be fighters in war, the work of holding families and communities together more often falls to women, and according to some studies, it’s women who more frequently stand up for a return to negotiations, civilian protection, and an end to violence.

“We learned from the cases of Northern Ireland and Liberia,” Yael Braudo-Bahat, the co-director of Women Wage Peace, told Foreign Policy. Women’s active participation greatly strengthened these peace and recovery processes.

Ahead of the formal talks that led to the Belfast Agreement in Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant women’s groups formed the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and gained two seats at a table of 20 in formal negotiations. As one of the few groups that moved beyond the sectarian divide, its members were seen as honest brokers. They represented civil society concerns and helped ensure that the agreement included commitments for social healing and integration.

Because the brutality of war falls disproportionately on women—they frequently are the first to go hungry, serve as the de facto caretakers, and become the victims of increased gender based violence—they are often committed to finding a path to peace even when male leaders won’t compromise.

During the Second Liberian Civil War, women played a heroic role by successfully pressuring male decision-makers to negotiate. The documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, directed by Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail Disney, popularized the incredible story of how women convinced the warring parties to attend peace talks in Accra, Ghana.

“We were the ones watching our children die of hunger … we were the easiest targets of rape and sexual abuse,” said Nobel Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, the founder of the Women for Liberia Mass Action for Peace grassroots movement, which played a major role in pushing then-President Charles Taylor to sign a peace agreement in 2003. This common suffering among women formed the basis for unity across political and religious divides.

In Israel and Gaza, women will need to play an important role in the implementation of any new accord between Israel and Palestine, Braudo-Bahat said. Her organization’s partnership with its Palestinian counterpart, Women of the Sun, has remained steadfast, even after learning that her co-founder, Vivian Silver, 74, was murdered by Hamas on Oct. 7.

“We continue our plans—we work together, and we don’t hide it,” she said. “It might be dangerous to the Women of the Sun, but they are so courageous.”

Although many Palestinians want peace, for others, “peace is normalization,” a member of Women of the Sun wrote to Foreign Policy via WhatsApp, choosing to go by the initials M.H. to preserve her anonymity and safety. Some Palestinians think that “it’s something shameful to be dealing with Israel,” she added, because it could imply that the Israelis’ treatment of, and policies toward, Palestinians are tolerable.

“I believe we should actively engage and collaborate, even if some label it as normalization,” M.H. said. “I am committed to working toward a better future for us.”

International law is on the side of these women. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted unanimously more than 23 years ago, urges all member states to increase the participation of women in peace and security efforts, and highlights women’s essential role in preventing war, protecting civilians, and negotiating lasting peace.

Despite Israel’s deteriorating track record with regard to women’s rights and roles as decision-makers, women are involved in the war as politicians, members of the military and civilians. Women in politics have made important advances for gender equity, although among the 32 cabinet ministers sworn in a year ago, only five were women. One of those women ministers was dismissed amid the recent closure of the Ministry for the Advancement of Women.

The reality for women in Gaza is far more challenging when it comes to holding leadership positions. Women generally do not participate in public political activities or hold public office, although Hamas appointed 23-year old Isra al-Modallal as its first female spokesperson in November. She told the Guardian newspaper that she is not a member of Hamas or any political party.

At the start of the conflict, Hamas had just one woman, Jamila al-Shanti, 68, serving as part of the organization’s 15-member political bureau. Al-Shanti, who was also a founder of Hamas’s women’s movement, died in an Israeli airstrike on Oct. 19.

“You can hear amazing rhetoric and lip service, even from the Palestinian leadership,” Dr. Dalal Iriqat, an assistant professor at the Arab American University in the West Bank, told Foreign Policy. “But when it comes to practice, I always find a scarcity of women in decision-making.”

Women’s organizations in the Palestinian territories and in Israel have a rich history of political engagement, however. Palestinian women created social structures such as health clinics and orphanages for displaced Palestinians following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, with traditional political structures in tatters and both Gaza and the West Bank under Israeli occupation, women of every social class stepped up.

It was through the networks they formed that a new cadre of women activists emerged as a force in December 1987, when Palestinian frustration with Israeli rule broke out in a popular uprising that became known as the First Intifada, or “shaking off.” Underlying this largely nonviolent Palestinian struggle was a collective social, economic, and political mobilization led by women.

Palestinian political leadership acknowledged women’s centrality in the Intifada, which paved the way for negotiations with Israel when it included three women—Suad Amiry, Zahiria Kamal, and Hanan Ashrawi—as part of the delegation that participated in the Middle East peace talks that culminated with the Madrid Conference in October 1991.

Ultimately, though, exiled Palestinian Liberation Organization leaders shunted the Madrid framework to begin secret negotiations with Israel that resulted in the security-focused Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Under their leadership, Israeli occupation, and the failures of the Oslo Accords, democratic ideals and women’s rights eroded.

Israel and the United States have discussed a potential role for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza after the military operation. The Palestinian Authority has three women ministers, including its minister for women’s affairs, though women still struggle for equal opportunities and freedom from violence.

“Women usually refrain from being [an] activist in politics,” said an activist in the West Bank who withheld her name for security reasons. “Women are frightened to be involved in political activities, because they will be put in jail or be subjected to any kind of violence.” And the conditions are much worse for women when funding is restricted, as well as under Hamas, she said.

Serena Awad, a Gazan nonprofit worker who is now living in Rafah, told Foreign Policy that Gazan women are directing and managing many aspects of the humanitarian response. These women work for the United Nations as well as in health, cultural, child protection, human rights, sports, and legal organizations.

“I have lived through six aggressions, and every time, I wait for my turn to die,” said 24-year-old Awad. “What I want the world to know is that women in Gaza are like any other women—we study, go to work, have our own family, but we suffer.”

Israeli and Palestinian women working as peacebuilders say they need more international support. Women’s organizations are notoriously underfunded in the best of times, with only 0.4 percent of global gender-related funding going directly to women’s rights organizations, according to calculations by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development.

During crises, women’s rights often take a back seat. Women of the Sun’s 2024 budget is approximately $100,000, and Women Wage Peace’s budget is approximately $1 million, according to the organizations’ representatives.

Women’s groups are more likely to be effective during negotiations and during the implementation of recovery programs when they have access to external funding. During the peace process between Sudan and South Sudan, for example, South Sudanese women were highly mobilized as delegates, but some had to pause their involvement so they could go back to earning money.

In addition to funding, democratic countries have a role to play by insisting on women’s participation in negotiations, said M.H. of the Women of the Sun. She and other peacebuilders say that the United States and the United Nations should be more active in promoting women as counterparts, negotiators, and experts.

“By will, things can happen,” M.H. told Foreign Policy “And if the US says it [that women should be involved in negotiations], it can happen.”.

Talks convened by Qatar, the United States, and Egypt to end the conflict between Hamas and Israel are underway. These countries and other regional players—including Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, have previously created national action plans that recognize the unique impact of war on women and their crucial role in promoting peace, culminating in 107 countries worldwide forming national action plans to empower women.

Still, news coverage reveals little or no evidence of efforts by these countries to promote women’s participation in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The U.S. State Department is “working to ensure the expertise of women from civil society and in government is incorporated in any process related to the current conflict in Gaza,” wrote a spokesperson in an email.

If the political will for participation exists, both Israelis and Palestinians have a robust list of women advocates from which to draw for official and nonofficial negotiations and discussions. A diverse list of 12 Israeli and Palestinian women who are qualified to participate in negotiations was provided by the 1325 Project run by members of  Women Lawyers for Social Justice—known in Israel as Itach Ma’aki—to the U.S. Embassy and other embassies and international bodies.

“At least one person will be engaging in Track 2 and 3 efforts, and she was approached through us by an international body,” said 1325 project co-director Netta Loevy, referring to nonofficial negotiations and consultations.

Braudo-Bahat, meanwhile, urged policymakers to involve women in discussions now—not after violence ends. “The day after the war is yesterday … we need to start now,” she said.

Back in Gaza, the water tastes like poison; it’s freezing, and Awad, the 24-year-old nonprofit worker, keeps losing weight. She asked almost a dozen Gazan women leaders what they think should happen to resolve the war and to ensure that women participate in negotiations.

No one could give her an answer. They were busy responding to humanitarian needs, and telecommunication and internet services were out.

“Nothing has changed, but what can we do about it? All we can do is waiting and praying for this to end,” Awad wrote to Foreign Policy through WhatsApp, which only works for her about once every four days.

Iriqat, the Arab American University professor, has one wish: “That someone considers that if women are in charge, and involved, a more strategic agreement could hold.”

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