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Joint Israeli-Palestinian Women Seminar in Turin

On June 18-21, GI held a joint Israeli-Palestinian seminar for leading women in Turin. The seminar was jointly implemented with the Italian peace NGO, CIPMO.

18-21.05.09

The Israeli and Palestinian GI offices jointly executed a three-day seminar in Turin, Italy for politically active women to discuss how to promote the involvement of women in the peace process and how to increase the cooperation between the two groups. The seminar participants included 6 Israeli and 7 Palestinian women. Discussion among the participants focused on the role of women in the conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in general.

The seminar included a panel on the role of the Geneva Initiative in the political process with GI Director General - Palestinian office Nidal Foqaha, GI Director General - Israel office Gadi Baltiansky, and CIPMO Director Janiki Cingoli. Also, Fadwa Al Sha’er, General Director of the Palestinian Interior Ministry gave a lecture on the position of women in the social and political structure of the Palestinian Authority. MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) presented on the position of women in the social and political structure in Israel. The Israeli and Palestinian delegations were led by MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) and General Director Fadwa Al Sha'er respectively. Following there was a public event with for 150 people in which heads of media and other organizations participated.

A survey conducted at the end of the seminar indicated that nearly all the participants sided with the principles of the Geneva Accord.

Participants in a group discussion

 

The seminar generated reports in Italian media outlets.

The following article appeared in Ynet on 27.06.09 (translated to English):

Peace starts with shopping and ends at the airport
“Women are more pragmatic” claimed the organizers of the Israeli-Palestinian women’s seminar which was held in Turin, Italy. Y-net’s correspondent returned loaded with different feelings about the dialogue, the hostility, the open-hearted corridor chats, the strict security check, and – also – the reconciliation through shopping vision.

Efrat Weiss, Turin

Will a women’s meeting manage to bridge, even by a bit, the wide gaps between bitter enemies, where so many leaders have failed over the years? As far as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned one has to go as far as Europe in order to receive some of the answers to this complicated question.

Last weekend, a group of women from both sides met in Turin, Italy under the auspices of the Geneva Initiative. The aim: an attempt at dialogue while surfacing the issue of women’s status and place in each side’s respective societies. Women, from left and right; Jewish and Palestinian, who are trying to promote their agenda in a different way, which will ultimately lead to an improvement in their place in society and perhaps bring us closer to ending the conflict.

Gadi Baltiansky, Director-General of the organization which initiated the seminar, explained that research shows that it is women from both sides who show greater support for reaching a final-status agreement. “Women are more pragmatic and prefer to concentrate on the future instead of the past.”

“Simultaneously, women’s voices are hardly heard. Officials who make political decisions on both sides are men. This is why we have initiated a series of activities with leading women from both sides, with the aim of enabling their voice to be heard in an organized and effective manner,” said Baltiansky.

Even before the arrival to Turin, one could sense the differences and the heavy load which each of the participants brought. The point of departure is the Israeli Ben Gurion Airport. The Israeli women arrived from Jerusalem and central Israel. The Palestinian women arrived from Ramallah, East Jerusalem, Jenin, and Gaza. On Thursday, two separate flights depart from Ben Gurion Airport: the first with El Al and the second with Lufthansa. The separation in the airplanes is not coincidental.

Italy’s temptations remained outside of the fence
A few kilometers outside of Turin, in northern Italy, the two groups met on an isolated, lush hilltop. Not far from the Swiss border, the big city and snow-covered Alps are visible from every spot. The place which has been designated for the three-day seminar appears to look like a guesthouse or a dull conference center, from which an escape to outer Italian temptations is difficult. And Italy certainly knows how to offer such temptations. Behind the seminar’s funding is Janiki Cingoli, an Italian who has recruited funds from various organizations in order to promote Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

The first session began abounded with polite smiles between the participants. Very soon, however, the differences of opinion emerged. For some, this is the first encounter of this kind. According to the Palestinians, Israelis are occupiers. The conversation is in English further to the claim that the Palestinian women cannot speak Hebrew and the Israeli women cannot speak Arabic. It appears that, on this issue too, there is room for mutual wariness.

No later than at the seminar’s opening, in the first session, the organizers chose to speak about the Israeli-Palestinian problem and the change which has been brought about by the election of new American President, Barack Obama and his Cairo speech. “We will never agree on the past, the only thing we will be able to agree upon is the future” declared Baltiansky, in an effort to prevent clashing and finger-pointing.

The hostility and the tense atmosphere began to dissipate when the conversation focused on women’s problems, and each participant spoke about the status of women in the society in which she lives. The seminar is led by two women: on the Israeli side MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) and on the Palestinian side Fadwa El-Shaer from Ramallah who holds a central position in the Palestinian government. The balance between the sides is meticulously kept without any exceptions: if an Israeli woman spoke for 5 minutes – so will a Palestinian woman. If the Israeli deviated from her allocated time by a moment – the Palestinian woman will get a minute’s “compensation.”

Open-heartedness in corridor conversations
In this manner, from dawn till dusk, sessions were held on the status of women and on how women could influence the peace process to a greater extent and in a different manner to men. In the background, the tension does not subside. And still, it is during the informal conversations – cigarette breaks, coffee, sitting sessions in the lobby late at night, without a formal framework and without tailored clothes, on a one-on-one basis – that the most genuine and difficult words are said.

Only then, for example, one of the Palestinian participants exclaimed that Giald Schalit is sitting in prison because he killed Palestinians. She said that during one of the terror attacks on the French Hill in Jerusalem she heard a loud noise from her home in Shu’afat and took to the streets with her neighbors. They clapped their hands and asked how many Jews had been killed. She also raised a different claim according to which all the Jews who were murdered in terror attacks after the Oslo process were in fact victims of road accidents.

But a different voice was also heard. The voice of a mother who stands in line with her children to cross at a check-point and is cursed and humiliated by Israeli soldiers. And another mother who said that she needed to leave Nablus to go to the Ramallah University where she had to take an exam – but Israeli soldiers prevented her from doing so, despite her pleas not to miss the important date.

Another Palestinian said she lived with her family in Syria until they were exiled by As’ad (the father) and forced to live in Gaza – where she never succeeded in connecting to the people or place. According to her, during one of her journeys to university, despite her modest dress, she was made to return home for not having worn a veil. And again, a different voice of a Palestinian who said she fears walking around in Israel because of the possibility that a suicide bomber will explode next to her.

In those same informal conversations, the Palestinian women spoke about their daily battles with their families and societies for taking part in an activity organized by the Geneva Initiative. About the necessity for them to explain to their husbands why such activities are important. And another participant revealed that only her mother, and not her father, knows of her participation in the seminar. Another woman said that her friends refer to her as “traitor” because she meets with Israelis.

It appears as though the Israeli women’s statements which could be regarded as extreme are appreciated by the Palestinian women who claim that this is the real Israeli side – even if they disagree with it. As time progresses, the tone softens, but the tense atmosphere remains. The Palestinians repeat the claim that Israelis are occupiers and the Israeli women speak of the heavy toll that terror attacks claim.

To the question of why such a meeting needs to take place outside of Israel’s borders, Baltiansky replied: “we would be very happy to hold such seminars in Jerusalem or in the territories, but Israelis are not allowed to go to the territories and the security establishment prevents Palestinians from entering Israel for more than a few hours a day.”

Economic peace? Resolving the conflict through shopping
When women meet, no matter where they are from, they will always have a shared understanding and attempt to deal with challenges from a different view point. One that requires the rationale and emotional understanding that we need a better future, not only for us, but also for our children and grandchildren. Of course, one must not forget that we are sitting and discussing these issues in Italy. That same understanding that connects between nations finds a shared pleasure in shopping.

At the end, everyone groups together for a photograph, smiles to the camera, and exchanges contacts. The Palestinians presented the organizers with a gift – a genuine, traditional Palestinian dress. Even during this special moment the opportunity to insult was not missed and apologies were made for the open package which was the result of strict security precautions which wanted to certify the dress was not a bomb.

And after the good-byes, the way back is made in two separate paths. The Palestinian women departed from one city and the Israelis from another. And again the sky boundary and distance was kept between the El Al and Lufthansa flights. The Palestinian women explained that they refuse to fly with the Israeli airline due to the security check that they will have to undergo and because they refuse to have security guards sit next to them. They also claimed that they refuse to fund Israel.

Each woman goes back to her own world and her own reality. A minute before, utopia comes apart when the Israeli women arrived at Milan airport they told the security guards that the suitcases which they are carrying were left unauthorized in a room with Palestinian women. Now, increased security and searching into personal belongings in suitcases has become familiar to Israeli women too. Is this how they also feel?

On the flight home, it is hard not to wonder what the seminar would have looked like if it had taken place during or in closed proximity to a terror attack in Israel or a military operation in Gaza. Things would have probably looked and sounded different. Either way, in a place where leaders have failed thus far, perhaps new hope will stem from the feminine voice. On one basic thing we were very close to agreeing: through dialogue and conversation – even in the absence of an agreement – one can decrease hate and increase understanding.

 

This activity was made possible by the Spanish Cooperation Office – AECID