With phased hunger strike, Israeli women urge new attempt at peacemaking

A symbolic 50-day fast being held outside the Prime Minister’s Residence is a counterpoint to last summer’s 50-day war with Hamas

Enduring the summer heat, a group of women from across the country are camped outside the Prime Minister’s Residence. Their aim: to implore Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to renew peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Organized by Women Wage Peace, a grassroots organization established nearly a year ago, the women have embarked on a symbolic 50-day fast. Each participant is fasting 50 hours at some point during the period of the demonstration, which began July 8 and runs to August 26, the same dates as 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.

The women have set up a tent on Azza Street, around the corner from the Prime Minister’s Residence, both to guard them from the sun and to provide a safe space where women can discuss how best to end the conflict.

The last round of negotiations, brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, collapsed in April 2014 after nine months in which Israeli and Palestinian negotiators attempted to deliver a framework agreement of a final status peace treaty.

Shortly after the talks fell through, a series of violent acts — the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens by Hamas members, followed by the murder of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Jewish extremists — erupted into the 50-day Operation Protective Edge.

While last summer’s military operation caused devastation among Israelis and Palestinians, Women Wage Peace is hoping that this summer’s Operation Protective Fast will begin a healing process.

Members of Women Wage Peace sit on Gaza Road, near the Prime Minister's Residence, fasting to encourage peace negotiations (Eric Cortellessa/The Times of Israel)
Members of Women Wage Peace sit on Gaza Road, near the Prime Minister’s Residence, fasting to encourage peace negotiations (Eric Cortellessa/The Times of Israel)

“We are demanding that leaders end the bloodshed in the region,” Lilian Weisberger, a member of the group, told The Times of Israel. “As mothers, we say, ‘It’s enough.’ We need to speak up because we are worried about future generations, and we don’t have the privilege of giving up.”

For Weisberger, 54, the fast is both political and personal. “One of my sons participated in the Gaza war, and that was a horrible time for me. I was feeling a lot of despair and fear,” she said, holding up a sign that stated “I am fasting” in Hebrew.

Weisberger isn’t an anomaly among the members of Women Wage Peace; many are there because they have children serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Hadar Kluger, an organizational committee chair for Women Wage Peace, has a son and daughter currently enlisted. Her son is a pilot and her daughter is an IDF officer stationed close to the Gaza border.

“That situation is what influences me [to be here],” the 49-year-old Haifa resident told The Times of Israel. “I know that there is a possibility that they will have to fight another war. So I’m afraid for them.”

Women Wage Peace was founded in the wake of Operation Protective Edge. The NGO says its mission is to influence “politicians and opinion makers to work vigilantly towards achieving a political agreement” and “to give women leadership roles in planning, decision making and negotiation process centers, in order to reach an agreement.”

Marie-Lyne Smadja, one of the organization’s founders, emphasized that women bring a level of empathy to the table that will be necessary for Israelis and Palestinians to reach some form of accommodation; she also tried to counter claims that the group’s orientation was clouded by naivete.

“We recognize that it will be very difficult and that Israel does face a lot of challenges to reach a peace agreement, but it is also our position that it is in Israel’s overwhelming interest to always be trying to achieve peace with its neighbors by talking, empathizing and engaging in serious negotiations,” she said.

Acknowledging the murderous track record and extremist religious imperative motivating organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, Smadja said there were no easy solutions, but insisted that Israel “can’t afford to wait for the perfect circumstances.”

Since its inception, the group has grown rapidly and now has more than 7,000 registered members and 12,000 followers on Facebook. It relies on crowdfunding in addition to private donations.

“Financial growth is very important for us, because it allows us to expand our reach and consequently recruit more diverse women interested in promoting peace,” Kluger said. “Not everyone here has children in the army. Some are just interested in ending violence between Arabs and Jews.”

Women Wage Peace activists near the Prime Minister's Residence. (Eric Cortellessa/Times of Israel)
Women Wage Peace activists near the Prime Minister’s Residence. (Eric Cortellessa/Times of Israel)

Because of Israel’s compulsory military service, however, most of the mothers in Women Wage Peace do have the experience of fearing for their children’s fate in the face of combat. Dena Maltinsky, 66, is participating in Operation Protective Fast ten years after her two children served during the Second Intifada.

“As a result of last summer — of the horrible memories and horrors of last summer — I felt quite strongly that something needs to be done now,” she said. “We cannot wait. We need to start talking [with the Palestinians] so that we solve this terrible situation between us. Because when you’re talking, you’re not shooting.”

Sometimes passersby argue with them about the protest. Maltinsky views the exchanges as healthy even when they’re noxious. “Sometimes it’s painful, but I also believe that it is necessary,” she said.

Meanwhile, the symbolic fast contains another layer of metaphorical significance for some of the women there.

“I believe that fasting is an action that helps us really be present,” said Noga Tsvi in the final hours of her own fasting stint. “Doing things of routine — like eating — makes us forget. We need to remember.”

Smadja had a similar feeling: “The fast is a form of meditation. It is also a way to think about the past in the hope of improving our future.”

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