During the Balkan war of the early 90s I traveled to Croatia and Bosnia to meet refugees forced from their homes and left at the mercy of any country that would take them in. Surprisingly, they were just like me: middleclass women with homes and professions and families and dreams. Except they had just lost everything.
Some years later I began traveling regularly to sub-Saharan Africa to help establish ministry partnerships with local African churches serving families facing extreme poverty and AIDS. I remember listening to the stories of African women and realizing they too were just like me: mothers who would do anything they could to provide a good life for their children. Except they were infected with a virus that would kill them and leave their children motherless.
On subsequent trips to Latin America, North Africa, and the Middle East I discovered more women just like me. Except they were suffering in ways I never have—and probably never will.
Most recently I met such women in the Holy Land during an extended visit to Israel and Palestine. All of the women I met, Jewish and Arab, were committed to a secure, strong Israeli state. However, they were also committed to ending the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
These women showed me the human rights abuses that occur under the ongoing military occupation. Because Palestinians are not citizens of Israel, they do not have the civil rights of Israeli citizens. Instead they are almost completely controlled by policies established by the Israeli government and enforced by the Israeli military. Practically speaking, Palestinians have limited access to water, to health care, to housing, to education and to jobs. They have limited mobility, not only outside the West Bank and Gaza, but within those areas as well. All the while, the land designated in 1949 for a future Palestinian state keeps shrinking as the Israeli government appropriates that land for Israeli purposes, including Jewish settlements.
Jewish settlements are basically communities for Jews only established on land inside the West Bank. Some settlements are small outposts; others are large cities. Some are populated by young couples looking for a safe, affordable life, which settlements offer because living costs are subsidized by the Israeli government. Others are populated by more ideological settlers who are seeking to make a religious or political point, saying, “This is our land, and we will populate and claim it.”
To make matters worse, these settlements are built on land that was previously farmed by Palestinians or that had Palestinian homes on it. Suddenly the trees, water rights and roads of that land pass from Palestinian families to Israeli settlers. The Palestinians look across a road or razor wire fence to the olive trees they used to harvest or the fields they used to plow, and they ask why.
I saw a heartbreaking example in Aboud, a Palestinian Christian village filled with warm and hospitable people who graciously opened their homes to me and my friends. Unfortunately, the young women I met in Aboud feel increasingly hopeless as a neighboring Jewish settlement takes more and more of the olive orchards that used to sustain the village economy. Each olive tree crushed under an Israeli bulldozer signals another drop in job opportunities for the young women of Aboud.
The more I've seen life under a military occupation, the more I understand why so many women—Jews and Arabs—are working so hard to end it. I've been especially inspired by Israelis who love their country, but also advocate for freedom and dignity for Palestinians.
Roni is an Israeli Jewish grandmother whose house is near the Gaza border. In fact, I feared for her life during the recent Gaza/Israel violence, and was relieved when I heard through mutual friends that she was safe. Despite the threat under which she lives, she continues to work tirelessly to build relationships between Israelis and Palestinian civilians in Gaza—connecting them on cell phones because neither group can physically cross the border.
Hagit is an Israeli Jewish activist who documents and presents to the Israeli public the abuses that occur against Palestinians in the West Bank. She has received many death threats from Israeli extremists for doing this, but she continues.
Dahlia is a brilliant Israeli professor and writer who tells Israeli and American Jews: “I love my country, but that doesn't mean I support everything my government does.” I've read the hateful criticism she's received, and am humbled by her courage to speak what she believes is true.
I love all these women, but the one who has impacted me most is Robi Damelin.
Robi has always fought injustice. Growing up in South Africa, she spoke out against apartheid, and when she moved to Israel in 1967 her passion for justice nurtured a love-hate relationship with her new country. She loved the reality of a homeland for the Jews, but she hated the occupation.
Her son, David, felt the same way. When it was time for David to serve his mandatory 3 years in the Israeli military, he considered refusing. But in the end he decided to serve as an officer and set an example to other soldiers by treating Palestinians with dignity and respect.
Then, on March 3, 2002, David Damelin was killed by a Palestinian sniper.
Robi, of course, was beside herself with grief. Even so, to honor David's memory and to try to prevent other parents from experiencing such loss, she became a spokesperson for The Parents Circle, a group of more than 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost an immediate family member in the conflict. They join together to share their stories, to empathize with one another, and to grieve together.
“Then,” says Robi, “we can stand together on stages in schools and before governments and tell our stories of loss—but also our stories of reconciliation.”
Robi has become my friend and mentor. She's a mother and a grandmother—just like me. But she and the other peacemaking women I met in Israel are more than that: they're heroes. They believe in the security, freedom and dignity of all the people in the Holy Land—Christians, Muslims and Jews—and they aren't afraid to see and to speak the truth, even when that truth is unpopular or controversial. My goal for 2013 is to become more like them.