Israeli-Palestinian women’s group launches personal crusade for peace

WASHINGTON — Three women sharing a hunger, not for fast food, but peace, chatted away in a food court at Washington’s ornate Union Station Monday — completely ignored in the rush of travellers grabbing a lunchtime snack.

But their gathering was poignant, and remarkable, because as each one admitted, it could never happen when they go home — because two are Palestinian and one is an Israeli.

Sherene Abdulhadi, a Palestinian Muslim, Roni Hammerman, an Israeli Jew, and Amira Hillal, a Christian Palestinian, are touring the United States to call for a renewed bid to forge peace between their communities.

“We are here together, but in Palestine, when we go back, we can’t see each other,” said Hillal, from Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, on the West Bank.

“[I live] 15 minutes by car to Jerusalem, but how to go there, how to meet them?” she asks, bemoaning Israeli checkpoints and years of suspicion and bloodshed between the two sides.

“How can any kind of normal life develop under these conditions?” asked Hammerman, who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is an Israeli peace activist.

The three women are the latest in a stream of Israeli and Palestinian women brought to the United States to argue for a new commitment to peace in their violence-torn homelands, by the US-based non-profit group “Partners for Peace.”

Their mission is to change the way Americans think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and to draw attention to the price paid by ordinary civilians for years of strife, occupation, terrorism and conflict.

All of them agree that they oppose Israeli settlements on West Bank lands, and they are close on other issues, so they have more views in common than many Israelis and Palestinians in their fractured homeland.

But they say they have found new understanding of one another’s lives from their trip, which features speaking engagements across the United States and meetings with US Congressional representatives.

“On a personal level, we understand each other’s position much better,” said Hammerman.

“It has been a great experience because for an Israeli to have close friends on the Palestinian side, that you meet on the daily or hourly level and you get along so well, it is an outstanding experience.”

The group, with speaking engagements in states as diverse as Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Maryland, Washington, DC and Virginia, argue that their ad hoc sisterhood gives them a unique perspective on the stalemate between Palestinians and Israelis.

“Because we are women and we are emotional, really I believe we can convince the people more,” said Hillal, who works for a joint Israeli-Palestinian community organisation on the West Bank.

While the Palestinian women referred to the Israeli policies as “apartheid” and placed much of the blame for their plight on Israel, they also turned their fire on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who coincidentally was in Washington last week.

“He has come to succumb to pressures from America. It is a facade, it is a mockery really, about how foreign policy is being shaped here,” said Abdulhadi, arguing that President George W. Bush had pressured Abbas to bar Islamic group Hamas from taking part in the Palestinian legislative elections in January.

Abbas, however, said in an interview with AFP on Friday that he had convinced Bush not to oppose the participation of the group.

The women were also disappointed that Bush, who had backed calls for a Palestinian state by 2008, said when he met Abbas that he didn’t know if nationhood would be secured before he leaves office in 2009.

“The Palestinian state is always like the coming of the messiah. It will always be in the future,” said Hammerman.

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