Women have always walked. Mothers pacing back and forth to soothe a colicky baby. American Suffragists marched to demand the right to vote. Mothers and daughters marching for the Equal Rights Amendment, in the Me Too movement, on both sides of the gun control and abortion debates.
And three weeks ago, hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian women walked in Jerusalem to call for an end to the newly reignited hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians.
Two groups—the Palestinians’ Women of the Sun and Israel’s Women Wage Peace—coordinated the march, where signs in English read “Israeli and Palestinian mothers changing reality.” Their goal: to pressure their warring leaders to go back to the peace table and hammer out a political solution to their corner of the Middle East.
The two movements came into being after the Gaza War of 2014 and have been coordinating their efforts for the past two years, each working with its own constituency and then coming together for joint initiatives, such as the Jerusalem rally.
Dr. Yael Braudo Bahat, co-director of Women Wage Peace, told the Associated Press they were “hundreds, thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women, mothers who want a better future for their children.” Asking the two warring factions’ leaders to reach a peace agreement is “a lot,” she acknowledged, “but it’s doable.”
Palestinian activist Huda Abu Arqoob added, “And so, this is what we want to achieve: for the world to know that Palestinian and Israeli women are determined to bring peace to this land.”
Arming themselves now with peace goals in the midst of brutal fighting may seem quixotic at best. In a terror attack in the early morning hours of October 7, Hamas militants invaded a music festival inside the Israeli border with Gaza, slaughtering hundreds and taking women, children, and the elderly as hostages. Civilians, most of whom are still being held, were the target of the group, whose official stance, albeit softened in recent years, opposes Israel’s right to exist and is in effective control of Gaza.
Israeli military response to the terrorist assault was somewhat moderated by cautions from the US and other allies, but missiles have rained down on Gaza since the attack, and Israel’s government has ruled out any talks with the terrorists or any Palestinian authority.
Nonetheless, efforts by women in similar horrific circumstances have borne fruit before. Back in the 1960s and ’70s (the period known as the Troubles in Northern Ireland), Catholics and Protestants lived daily lives marked by terrorist bombings and sniper attacks, with the militant arm of the anti-British Irish Republican Army attacking because of political and social injustices, tilting against English soldiers.
Into this fray, in 1976, strode the Peace People, led primarily by women in Northern Ireland, who organized marches through urban and rural areas, distributed pamphlets, and gave speeches, all calling for peace. An iconic early march featured about 50 women pushing baby carriages along a road where the young children of a family had been killed a few days before. The marchers suffered from insults and injuries from IRA sympathizers who felt the women were giving in to English rule. A few days later, though, some 10,000 women, both Catholic and Protestant, marched along that same road. Saturday marches continued for months, and a rally later that year featured more than 100,000 people.
One goal of the Peace People was the dissolution of the IRA; its Gazan counterpart would be if today’s Palestinian women were to urge the end of Hamas.
The Peace People’s official declaration back in 1976 sounded a lot like what the Israeli and Palestinian women are saying: “We want for our children, as we want for ourselves, our lives at home, at work, and at play to be lives of joy and Peace. . . . We reject the use of the bomb and the bullet and all the techniques of violence.”
A very flawed and complicated peace process continued for the next dozen years, but the women who initiated Peace People are credited by scholars of the period with a steep drop in violence.
Some of the world’s women have been marching for what seems like forever. Since 1977, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in the heart of Buenos Aires, have gathered in that grand public space to keep alive the fate of the Desaparecidos, the “disappeared ones,” as many as 30,000 civilians, young men and women, students, journalists, or those declared to be leftists or social-justice activists. They were snatched from their daily lives, then detained, often tortured, and killed during the Dirty War of Argentina’s right-wing dictatorship from 1974 to 1983.
Who were these citizens? No records were kept; it was as if they had never existed, which was the point. But their mothers and grandmothers knew. They began gathering to demand answers from the government. Their marches and rallies were often met with official violence, especially during the 1978 World Cup, hosted by Argentina, when they were fired on—but they got the world’s notice.
The Argentine junta’s rule ended in 1983, but the women still gather for a very good reason. With the help of the American geneticist Mary-Claire King, 128 stolen children—babies of pregnant women who were allowed to give birth before being executed, the children then adopted out—have been identified. In some cases, their adoptive parents, often friends of the junta, have been found guilty of kidnapping.
Geneticist King, who was the scientist who showed the connection between breast cancer and mutations in what she dubbed the BRACA1 gene, has no particular connection to Argentina but was motivated to use her grasp of genetics to right the wrongs of Dirty War. She has since put her lab to work on human rights and missing-person cases around the world.
But it certainly isn’t a coincidence that, all these years later, Máiread Maguire, one of the founders of Northern Ireland’s Peace People, has been active in various Palestinian causes, including efforts to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza. She and Peace People co-founder Betty Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976. The person or groups who succeed at forging an enduring peace for millions of Israelis and Palestinians would surely be worthy of the same.
Feature image courtesy of www.womenwagepeace.org.