By Carolyn Handschin-Moser, Director, Office for United Nations Relations, Women’s Federation for World Peace, International (WFWPI)
For many, any hope for peace in the Middle East revolves around peace between Israel and Palestine. Yet regardless of decades of both formal and informal peace processes, insecurity and mistrust weigh heavily on hopes for peace. Many seasoned negotiators have retired in frustration over recurring eruptions. Are the „experts“ missing something?
Through the experiences of 24 years of WFWP Women’s Conferences on Peace in the Middle East (MEWC), something very remarkable has been developing. Year after year since 1997, scores of women leaders from as many as 18 nations from the ME and North Africa have met under the sponsorship of WFWP Japan and WFWP Middle East to debate the current most relevant issues affecting their region. The strength, intelligence and dignity of these women defied any stereotypes of a subordinated class. The respect they expressed for their fathers, husbands and sons in these predominantly patriarchal societies-and the stories they told about how they were empowered by them, were equally unexpected.
The first MEWC was held in 1997 in Istanbul, Turkey. In the opening remarks, WFWP Japan President, Motoko Sugiyama explained that, „not only are women the nurturers and preservers of traditional cultural and social values, they are predisposed to resolving conflicts and making peace“. Maureen Reagan said something very similar at the WFWPI side event at the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. „We need only look into the mother’s role in families to find the most effective models of mediation, reconciliation and peace-making.“
What is it that makes this tool so elusive to formal peace processes? In the 13th MEWC conference in Greece, titled, „Reconciliation: A first step to lasting peace“, the Focal Point on Women’s Issues for the United Nations Institute on Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) pointed to one important factor. Reconciliation between states is difficult because the enemy remains „faceless“. Understandably, the aggressive /defensive mind-set of most designates at the negotiating table who usually represent vested interests, is not very conducive to allow such sincerity and mutual concern to surface. Rarely were women considered important partners in these fora. However, statistics now show that the participation of women tends to dramatically increase the sustainability of peace accords (UN Women).
Over the 17 years I participated in these conferences, I was often called on to facilitate the sessions where emotions were expected to get hot. No matter what else was happening in the region, the state of affairs between Israel and Palestine seemed to have either predominant or underlying influence. It seemed that every year, days before we were to convene, violence would flare up and already at the registration desk, the passions were strong.
My first experience „mediating“ was a shock. It seemed there could be no resolution of the differing views and no dampening of emotions. The debates felt like personal attacks, even though they were actually aimed against nations and policies, not individuals. The rules of our meetings were that everyone should be able to speak (respectfully) and–very importantly, everyone should listen sincerely to the other. Sometimes, we had to stop the debates when it began spiralling out of control and take a break to fresh. The first time that happened, I fully expected that most would not return to the meeting room, but everyone did. Their desire for a future peace brought them back to try again. Sometimes, I’d even notice the ones that seemed to be having the most vehement exchanges 10 minutes earlier were standing there calmly eating cakes together.
So much was learned through these experiences and I am sure that each one could empathize with the pain of all those who spoke out. Many of these important women leaders had painful personal tragedies stuffed deep inside. They had lived or witnessed injustices that could spark anger and emotion–almost uncontrollably. With some of the very eminent, I could see that they were surprised about themselves, how their emotions flooded out, even in this very special „safe“ environment. There were great heroes of these exchanges. There were times when the lone Israeli participant seemed to receive all the pent-up anger of the entire region related to the Palestinian occupation. Most people would’ve crumbled under that weight as I thought I would have.
But as more victims began daring to make themselves vulnerable to the „enemy“, everyone understood that we were all victims at some level, and perpetrators, or at least obstructers to peacebuilding at another. One beloved former government minister from Jordan expressed the painful memories of being evicted from her home as a young child, how it devastated her parents, how it had affected her entire life. Probably unintentionally, her words came out like an accusation aimed in one direction. But most remarkable was the way that one lone Israeli, also a former senior government official, received the anger and pain, as if she had caused it. There was no „but!“ in her response. She hesitated long as if wanting to be as sincere as possible and apologized. It is difficult to describe the power and depth of that moment. My first thought was, „Peace is actually possible“, if only this could happen at negotiating tables.
Some strategists may reject the idea of reconciliation as a methodology in peace-making. But, one of my favourite quotes often comes to mind, „People often think that politics move the world, but that is not the case. It is culture and art. It is emotion, not reason, that strikes people in the innermost part of their hearts. It is when hearts change and are able to receive new things that even ideologies and social regimes change as a result.“1„Mother of Peace: A Memoir“ by Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times Global Media Group, originally in Korean (Co-Founder WFWP).
What was noted was that only through so many years of investment in programs in these nations and for these gatherings, such trust and vulnerability was possible. It built up incrementally over the years, even though new participants came each time. In 2011, the organizers decided that we would start bringing in 30% younger women and build on our future women leaders global campaign. Friends from earlier conferences helped us find the best candidates from their nations. Sometimes these younger women were even more outspoken. I remember so vividly one discussion that escalated dramatically when a testimony was given about the death of a relative just days before when the Israeli tanks drove through the streets. Exchanges got more and more out of control and Mrs. Hisea Kobayashi (SG for WFWP-Japan in the ME) and Dr. Zoe Bennet (President of WFWP- ME) and I exchanged nervous looks. As I tried to shout louder and remind everyone of the Rules (that is, „listen to one another“), one loud young voice called out of the crowd, insisting to speak. She was Palestinian. To our amazement, she chastised the women representing the Arab countries, saying that what is more hurtful to a Palestinian than even what Israel has done, is when their brother nations, especially the wealthier ones, turn their backs. The room went silent.
In 2014, the 18th meeting was held in Jordan for 2 days and then moved to Jerusalem so that Israeli participants could also attend. Everyone was affected by the tensions. Some participants could be in life threatening danger if seen in a photo with the „enemy“. I saw those exceptional leaders flinch or even turn away as they were introduced to someone they shouldn’t be seen with. It was painful to me, barely understandable. A highlight of that conference was the speech and presence of a renowned Palestinian medical doctor, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. A few years earlier, while tending patients at a hospital in Israel, he lost his two beloved young daughters when rockets were fired into his home in Palestine. The room quieted as he described his shock that day, but he went on to explain that he decided to create an organization, „I Will Not Hate“ that currently provides scholarships for young women. That conference too, ended with many personal steps toward mutual understanding and reconciliation.
In July of this year, the 21st conference was held in Vienna at the United Nations, as it had been at the UN in Geneva in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2012. As if a culmination of the entire series, the depth of candid self-reflection was remarkable. The highlight was at the plenary presentation of the director of „Save Israel, Stop the Occupation“. She presented an analysis of one aspect of the Israeli education system where Jewish children are taught from an early age that they are the real victims of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Yet, she said, most Israelis have never met a Palestinian. She described her fear that if her nation’s government doesn’t soon reflect and reconsider their policies, they will bring destruction upon their people and even the nation.
To a surprised Arab Moslem audience (30%), she explained that there are so many, and increasingly more, civil society initiatives in Israel that promote networking and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. There was something so powerful and clear, with vested concern for both sides, in the way she critiqued her own government for their unapologetic ignorance/ injustices. The mature and uncomplicated way she had understood and already internalized reconciliation seemed to prevent any need to react. That mindset would be very effective at the negotiating table.
The atmosphere in the room was excited, as with a new discovery. From the audience, many hands were raised to respond when the speech finished. Still I fully expected at least the first few voices might take the chance to remember some of those specific injustices, as any speech from that country’s representative would have triggered in the past. But not one! The series of comments were of appreciation, one saying, maybe there is hope for peace after all“. Probably each person in that room was in some small or large way changed. Some will go back home and tell their experience, and maybe some will just work harder with greater conviction.
As each successive year when the MEWC meets, the organizers, myself included, perceive the foundation of resolve and „break-throughs“ of the years before to be intact. Even with as many as 40-60% new participants, there is always the sense to be picking up where we left off, as if a preparatory training had been required of the new participants.
The 22nd Women’s Conference on Peace in the Middle East was held in Larnaca, Cyprus with the theme, „Humanitarian Work with a Vision“. The new education curricula, „Building a World of Peace the Women’s Way: A Guide to Empowerment and Peace Leadership“ developed by WFWP-Europe and WFWP-Middle East was introduced to delegates. The 2-day program, was guided by WFWPI President for the ME, Zoe Bennett. Almost 30 participants, many with long experience in the UN, government, NGO, academia or business fields contributed substantively to the debates:
An overview of the issues and results of 21 years of WFWPI’s engagement and advocacy at the UN Offices (New York, Geneva and Vienna) was presented by the WFWPI UN Office Director, me. Even as I was speaking about the importance of communication between the local NGO’s/ purveyors of local knowledge, and the decisionmakers, the idea was brewing among participants to go directly to the UN Security Council, requesting its urgent attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Delegates that included activists, leaders and even former government members of Israel and the Palestinian territory gathered late into the night to compose an impassioned letter addressed to the President and the Members of the Security Council. At the closing session the letter was unanimously accepted by all delegates.
Two months later, I was able to arrange an audience at the Security Council Chambers in New York with its President at that time, HE. Jose Singer of the Dominican Republic. I tried to convey that ours was not just another good intention, but that the passionate convictions of the women engaged daily for peace and reconciliation throughout Palestine and Israel were convinced that now is a window of opportunity that perhaps the political leaders there had not even recognized. I left him with that plea, sensing that he sincerely wanted to believe it, but obviously, the Security Council member states could not be convinced. Disappointed, but undaunted, the women of the region will continue in their missions.
In order to accommodate greater participation from the Gulf States, the 23rd MEWC was held in Kuwait in partnership with a local NGO, the Women’s Pioneer for Peace Initiative 1325. There were about 40 participants, most of them Kuwaiti: Civil society leaders, representatives of governmental agencies, municipalities, universities, as well as journalists and writers. A representative of the royal family (Sheikha) was very engaged during the meetings. Kuwaiti public media were present, and a journalist from Yemen, as well as guests from the other Gulf countries, Syria, Japan and Europe. I was given the opportunity to introduce our WFWPI advocacy work at the United Nations, and our UN internship programs for young women and men. There was much enthusiasm, beyond our expectations, as the UN is not necessarily the most trusted institution in the region.
Partnerships and friendships were forged. During one outing, we were invited to an exhibit of women artists, accompanied by proud men from the Kuwaiti society and royal family. Memorable for me was meeting one of the talented jewellery designers, a beautiful young woman covered from head to toe. Her eyes and matching smile were all I could see, but they told everything. After she spontaneously pinned one of her brooches, symbolizing „women’s peace“ on my jacket, I said to her in a quiet tone, „I wish I could see the face that must match your kind smile“. During her break, 20 minutes later, she motioned me from across the room to follow her into a hidden corridor, where she lifted her veil and not to my surprise, it did!
Due to Covid, our last two conferences were held virtually. From the computer screen, friends from across the vast, very diversified region expressed their longing to meet again in Geneva, or Greece, or one of the NENA region’s states. Personally, I felt such familiarity, wiser to the cultural and religious distinctions of each of the nations, and able to interpret gestures, inferences or even just quiet. Since 2002, when I first joined the WFWPI Middle East Women’s Conference team, I’ve made friends with several hundred women from several dozen nations of the region. I’ve heard and assembled so much more that could ever be found in reports. My experience with the resolute, patient quality of women leaders, especially mothers leaves me with no doubt in my mind that a Middle East peace will come through the women, even if they choose to make it look like it was the men’s doing.
Titelbild: Hannah Busing / unsplash.com