The Middle East conflict has no shortage of international law to guide its resolution. What is missing is really the political will of governments to undertake their responsibilities according to their mandate within the body of international law and international humanitarian law. This absence of political will has kept Middle East societies, particularly Palestinian society, lingering too long in a situation of perpetual fear and conflict.
Palestinian society has yearned for too long for peace and security. We have yearned to be able to move around freely without asking permission from young gun-toting Israeli soldiers placed practically on our doorsteps. We have yearned for the time when we do not have to worry about our children going safely to school. We have yearned for too long for the security of exercising our right to self-expression and self-determination without being thrown in jail.
I can say, as a representative of Palestinian civil society and the women’s movement, that despite these handicaps and with international support, we had come a long way in developing institutions to address Palestinians’ social needs for a future Palestinian state.
For example, the Palestinian women’s movement had succeeded at making inroads in addressing cultural values and attitudes particular to the Arab world that handicap the healthy development of girls and women. We Palestinian women were in the process of engaging ourselves in legislative development locally and internationally. And we were witnessing the development of a budding but vibrant young feminist movement, an essential sector for democratic development within Palestinian society.
But the last Israeli “reoccupation” of Palestinian controlled areas has resulted in the systematic destruction of all that we have achieved over the last ten years. The military onslaught was aimed at dashing any hopes for a coherent Palestinian state and identity.
In the eyes of the average Palestinian, our society has been effectively left at the mercy of a hostile state that continually violates with impunity through the illegal and endless Israeli occupation almost every law in the book regarding the behavior of states in armed conflict. Having no effective Palestinian state to defend our interests, nor an effective international third party to ensure the respect of the law, desperate elements in Palestinian society have felt they have no choice but to resort to their own means for self-defense.
Israel’s continued violations of the laws of conflict have resulted in a likewise violent and illegal response by Palestinian non-state actors. This cycle of action and reaction has allowed the Israeli state in the name of self-defense to use formal state military strategies and means against none state actors and the communities they belong to as collective punishment, leading the Palestinian community to feel that it has nothing more to lose. Palestinians understand that the political objectives of this military campaign are to break the Palestinian spirit and force them to accept an agreement that is no agreement at all.
For the sake of preserving life, and in order to make political negotiations possible, it is essential to create an environment of hope by immediately sending international peacekeeping forces with a mandate of protection. Any future negotiations must remain under international auspices to ensure respect for international frameworks. The two parties–Palestinian and Israeli–are not equal and should not be left on their own. Otherwise, the process will be dictated by the imbalance of power that characterized the Oslo negotiations, whose bloody consequences we are now witnessing.
Peace is made between peoples and not between leaders. A process leading to a sustainable and consequently permanent solution should be just, and should not be left to the confines of the generals, and should be transparent to the relevant societies.
We have to address and understand each other’s history with open minds. Our leaders have a responsibility to educate their societies about the other as a matter of policy. If we leave things only to government officials, we get Israeli generals and Palestinians who will not be defeated, and there is no room to negotiate. Women’s participation in any future peace process is essential to maintaining the connection between each society’s realities and its yearnings for peace and security.
We cannot afford to waste any more time, or any more lives. We need to think of a new approach. We as women want to bring a new understanding to the situation in the Middle East. We want to approach peace building in a way that will promote long-term stability. But we cannot do it alone. We are asking for the help of the international community. Women know instinctively that the use of force will never lead to peace, justice or even security.
Despite all the disappointments and recent setbacks, it is important not to give up on the region and, indeed, to capitalize on the strong need and desire existing in both societies for security and stability. The rule of law is essential for peace and harmony. We have to replace the rule of force, which has governed our region for too long, with the rule of law. This is the challenge before the international community.
Maha Abu Dayyeh Shamas is director of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling. This article was adapted from a presentation made to the United Nations Security Council, alongside Terry Greenblatt, director of the Israeli women’s organization, Bat Shalom.
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