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At-Home with Gila Svirsky

2 November 1996
Subject: Hand in Hand in Hebron

Israeli Jewish and Palestinian women confront Israeli soldiers

It all began three weeks ago when a group of Israeli women crossed an abyss of cultural differences and visited Hebron, hoping to come up with some joint peace action with Palestinian women. After our initial ceremonial meeting in the office of the mayor, we began to meet twice weekly in the local women’s center — not a bastion of western feminism, but a place where the empowerment of women is carried out in the context of fundamentalist Islamic tradition. Third World women will know what I’m talking about.

In warm and mutually respectful meetings, using local English teachers to construct a halting common language, we decided on a plan for a grand peace march through the streets of Hebron. Some tension arose in our efforts to find slogans for the march that would be acceptable to us both. While our side vetoed “Jerusalem for Muslims Only,” the Palestinians took us aback by vetoing all our slogans that implied legitimacy for the state of Israel — “"Two States for Two Peoples,” etc. “We personally agree with this,” they said, “but in Hebron we cannot carry such signs.” It was disappointing to us that they could not defy that position, and perhaps even shared it. Nevertheless, we were all eager to find that narrow ledge of consensus on which we could cling to each other and balance together. It felt to us all that from this beginning, both sides could build a firmer footing.

As the official negotiations between Israel and Palestine alternately advanced and floundered regarding the redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron, and as Hebron settlers stepped up their level of violence, we decided that a mass march could never take place in this volatile atmosphere. The Palestinian women had come to the same conclusion and we decided to postpone the event, but we were all reluctant to let this opportunity slip from our fingers. "Let’s hold a small march," suggested Amal, their chief decision-maker, and we all agreed at once. We set the date for Thursday. Yes, a work day and a school day, but we were determined to make at least one modest statement before new political realities overwhelmed our enterprise.

Hebron is a town without pity — 120,000 Palestinians and 400 Jewish settlers, the latter protected by a staggering number of Israeli soldiers. As if this firepower were not enough, both the Palestinians and the settlers in Hebron have stockpiled huge arsenals waiting for someone to light the match. Hebron is a city isolated and demonized throughout Israel, only Jews hostile to Arabs ever attend prayers at the religious site, and tourism has treated them like lepers. We knew it would not be easy to find women to enter the jaws of a population with such hatred in their hearts for Israelis. And we knew that marching together with Palestinians in full Muslim regalia would not win us points with the Israeli soldiers who have orders to break up any Palestinian demonstrations.

To make matters worse, in the days preceding our scheduled event the settlers in Hebron were involved in two shooting incidents against Palestinians. Following this, a phone call from a senior army officer warned peace groups not to even think about demonstrating in Hebron in the near future, as the settlers there have two new squads — “one to shoot Palestinians and the other to shoot left-wingers who come to town.” After several hours of discussion, we decided to go through with the march: first, because one does not give in to bullies and intimidation; and second, because we have an important statement to make and we intended to make it.

Thursday morning came and thirty of us set off for Hebron with a mixture of trepidation and hopefulness. Along the way, we reviewed contingency plans in the event of confrontation with settlers or the army, set up a buddy system (“if your buddy gets arrested, make sure that you’re arrested too”), and distributed stickers for our inside sleeves on which were printed the numbers of the three mobile phones we had with us. Knesset Member Tamar Gozansky joined us, and she was delegated chief negotiator in the event of confrontation with the army.

At the women’s center in Hebron, we met our partners and were led by them to the rallying point. Another small group awaited us there. “We’ll be right back,” Amal said, and they returned half an hour later with dozens of girls they had recruited from the nearby high schools, all carrying signs and ready for action. Amal gave the signal and we unfurled a huge 30-foot banner that proclaimed, purple lettering on white, our three agreed-upon slogans in Hebrew, Arabic and English: “Implement International Agreements,” “Settlements Are an Obstacle to Peace,” and “Yes to Peace! No to Occupation!” We began to move down the street headed toward the center of Hebron, Palestinian women interlacing with Israeli women, pushing the banner in front of us like a skirt protecting this child of peace yearning to step out and be seen, but still afraid.

As we turned the corner into the main street, the whole city of Hebron seemed to wake up to our presence. We blocked cars in both directions, drivers pulled over to watch, storekeepers came out to see what all the fuss was about, market vendors put down their tomatoes and shook our hands, greeting “Shalom, Salaam, Peace” as we walked by. A huge procession formed behind us, more women, children, shoppers, loiterers, the unemployed, the revolutionaries, the bored — even two horses appeared out of nowhere, their young riders standing on horseback and holding aloft our signs, as our now huge procession made its slow way through the center of town. Media people — ever orbiting the Hebron planet in hopes of a camera-worthy tragedy — swooped down on us, filming, snapping pictures, taking notes in tiny orange pads. I found myself talking into lenses in unrehearsed platitudes: “Solidarity of Israelis and Palestinians... no more bloodshed... no more violence... a true and just peace.” A Palestinian woman put her arm around me and I put mine around the woman on my other side, and we were all marching with our arms together, “yad be-yad” as we say in both Hebrew and Arabic, “hand in hand.”

None of us had envisioned that it would be this powerful, this inspiring. We stopped waiting for the sound of an explosion, stopped looking for the disaster. Now we were feeling buoyed by the sense of common purpose, by the great longing in all our hearts for those very platitudes — no more bloodshed...a true and just peace. Thus we marched through the streets of that town of despair, feeling hopeful for a whole morning, hearing the sounds of a song that all of us were marching to together, though we walked in silence.

I feel again right now as I felt yesterday, unwilling to let go of that moment. I don’t think we ever will let go, not those in Hebron nor those of us in Israel who experienced it. It was not a piece of paper signed between governments, but it was a vision of something that can really be, that can really happen, a vision of a reality that is more profound than paper, and that could light the darkness until we find our way to get there.

Back Introduction
January 1991: War Is a Crime
March 1996:  Bombs, Revenge, and One Iota of Hope
  2 Nov 1996: Hand in Hand in Hebron
  4 Apr 1997:  Children Still Alive and Abdallah
25 May 1998:  So We Won’t Die in Any More Wars
10 July 1998:   Lena Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
  2 Aug 1998:  Lena’s New Home... Destroyed
  3 Jan 1999: Rifle Grenade #400
  9 July 1999: A Housewarming for Peace
23 Jan 2000: The Politics of the Tree
18 Oct 2000: On Violence by Israeli Arabs
10 Nov 2000: Peace Efforts in Israel
22 Nov 2000: We Refuse to Be Enemies
23 Nov 2000: Meeting of Women MKs for Peace
26 Nov 2000: Views of Faisal Husseini
28 Nov 2000: Lack of coverage for women’s events
  1 Dec 2000: Principles and Action
  8 Dec 2000: Women in Black today
30 Dec 2000: On the Way to Crowning Jerusalem with Peace
Letters from Jerusalem, 2001
Letters from Jerusalem, 2002
Letters from Jerusalem, 2003
New & recent letters from Jerusalem (2004)
Resources and Links

About the photo above: In the narrow alleys of Hebron, Israeli and Palestinian women together confront Israeli soldiers.

Text and graphic © 1996 Gila Svirsky.

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