By Joanna Chen
My friend and I arrive late at the protest tent of Women Wage Peace in Jerusalem. Temperatures are soaring; a car bursts into flames on the main highway, forcing us into a huge traffic jam that snakes up the steep incline into Jerusalem. No matter. The women at the open-air tent are happy to see us. We are offered water in plastic cups and I am handed a blue cloth necklace with the words “I’m fasting” written on it in Hebrew. I take a step back, shake my head. No, I’m not fasting.
The day before, I opened an email from Women Wage Peace, reminding me that I had signed up. I’d promised a friend that I would go along with her to a protest meeting and she had handed in my name. Now I was faced with a questionnaire and a request to explain in two or three sentences why I had agreed to join. I was unable to fill this out because, quite simply, I did not know. I had great excuses — too much work, the unbearable heatwave. The truth is, I didn’t want to go. The ongoing stalemate in peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians has led me to believe that I will not change anything by denying myself food.
Women Wage Peace was formed a year ago in response to the so-called Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Over two thousand Palestinians were killed back then and thousands more were injured. There were also Israeli losses; both sides suffered deep trauma.
That summer, Israeli warplanes rumbled above my house in the Ella Valley with frightening regularity, night and day, en route for Gaza. I grew to dread that sound. That was when I went to visit the nuns of Bet Jamal, a short drive from my house, and asked in desperation what I should do. How could I continue living in a country full of such animosity? “Be here,” said the nun who opened the door to me.
One year later, I present myself at the Women Wage Peace tent. I visit on Day 35 of Operation Protective Fast, and there are 15 more to go, mirroring the number of days of last year’s war. I’m wearing a white T-shirt, as instructed in the email. I am handed a turquoise ribbon, which I obediently pin to my T-shirt. Now I am one of them, a group of woman of all ages and professions, mostly Jewish but not exclusively so. Over the past year, over 14 thousand women have joined the organization, and many women drop by the tent to express solidarity. Everyone is united in a desire to reach a viable peace solution, regardless of their political affinities. A group of Palestinian women visited earlier in the week from Bethlehem, as did one brave woman from Hebron.
This gathering is not a solution to the extreme hatred on both sides, but it is a show of strength and determination. These days, surely this counts for something. Last week, a 16-year old Jewish girl was killed at Jerusalem’s gay parade by an ultra-religious extremist. A few hours later, a Palestinian baby and his father died in a fired started by Jewish settlers.
One of the organizers of womenwagepeace.org, Lili Weisberger, has startling eyes the color of the ribbons we all wear. She patiently explains to passersby the power that women have when they club together.. “They did it in Liberia,” she says, referring to the successful peace campaign carried out by Nobel prize winner Leymah Gbowee, “and we can do it here.” After a few hours in her company, I begin to believe her.
The tent is just a few steps from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence, a heavily-guarded building patrolled by stern-looking men with Ray-Ban shades and wires hooked around their ears. From time to time they inspect the tent, poking around in the trash can and examining the gasoline can that powers the modest generator. Next to the tent is a small family sitting around on cheap plastic chairs, protesting the fact that their son was put into a foster home by the authorities. The woman wears a leopard-skin dress with lacy shoulders. She asks one of the hunger strikers what she thinks of the dress. Very nice, she answers, smiling palely.
Every time the road is closed to allow Netanyahu access in and out of his residence, we all leap up, grab flags and posters stuck to boards and stand in a long line. Hunger and oppressive heat are forgotten for a moment. Perhaps Netanyahu will see us. Perhaps he will stop and exchange a few words with us. After the cavalcade disappears, the sirens and the flashing lights, things return to normal. We ease back into our chairs, pass water around from a polystyrene cooler, check our cell phones, check how long has passed. From time to time, motorists honk as they drive by, and we wave. Two men in a sports car cruise by the tent, roll down their windows, and yell at us to get back into the kitchen. Come talk to us, one of the women responds.
Twice a day, there is a ceremony. Those who have completed the fast remove their turquoise necklaces and hand them off, like a rite of passage, to the next in line. Every day, more women join.
The next morning, we stand in a circle, holding hands and singing in English and Hebrew. I’ve never been the touchy-feely type, and feel vaguely embarrassed by this. What the hell, I tell myself, after a moment’s hesitation. I join in. After the singing, we sit in a circle and each woman explains why she has come to the tent. I listen. One woman relates her feelings of isolation and how she wants to share her feelings with others. Dorit Noy, a 75-year old great-grandmother from Eilat in southern Israel, has traveled six hours on a bus to fast here for the second time. She says enough of her family has fought in wars for her lifetime. Solly, who lives close to the border with Gaza, tells how she sat in shelters the whole of last summer and how no child should have to do that, whatever her religion or nationality. I am also asked to speak, to explain why I have come. The microphone is handed to me and I think for a moment. I’ve come to show support, I say, and I mean it.
Later, I go to the nearby café to do some work and wait for my friend
to finish her fast. Back in 2002, this café, then called Moment, was the site of a suicide bombing that left 11 people dead and more than 50 injured. I order a coffee. The women who are fasting have been given permission to use the restrooms here, and every so often a woman in white with a turquoise necklace passes my table. I feel guilty sitting here, drinking coffee. I gulp it down quickly. After an hour, I wander further down the busy thoroughfare, ironically named Gaza Street. It’s blazing hot out and people move along the sidewalk languidly. I watch them, wondering how long it will take for the next outbreak of violence to begin. I turn and walk back to the protest tent. Like I said, it’s the least I can do.