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On the picket line with the Women in Black

by Margaretta D’Arcy

Tel Aviv Friday 24th November  
An Israeli friend told me that the Women in Black gather every Friday at the corner of a particular boulevard between 1pm and 2.   This extraordinary group of women has been standing out in public for 19 years. They are denouncing the illegal occupation by Israel of lands belonging to the Palestinians.   Their presence has captured the imagination of women worldwide. Now there are many groups, in many other countries, of Women in Black. 

In London women gather every week.   In Galway we have held a Women in Black solidarity action. We were joined by some American tourists who were delighted to find us there on the street. In the US they too were part of a Women in Black group. 

Unfortunately I lost all my e-mail contacts including the Women in Black a few years ago.   I knew that they had been nominated for the Nobel Prize last year. So it was with some trepidation that I waited at the intersection between a busy shopping street and the grassy Boulevard.   I was a bit worried because I was wearing bright green shoes.  The rest of me was all “in Black.”  I was quite prepared to take the shoes off and just wear my black socks (if they insisted).

 I arrived early so I could watch them arrive.  Perhaps I would be able to guess who they would be. Surely there would be some heralding, like huge banners appearing a few minutes before the time.  But there was no-one who looked in the least likely.   Perhaps I took down the wrong address?  Then I saw an elderly woman with a black plastic bag. She leaned it against a tree and took out some homemade cards on sticks.  Then another elderly woman joined her.   I moved closer.  Yes, this was the Women in Black.  

I needn’t have worried about my bright green shoes.  There was nothing at all dogmatic about their garments.  Other women joined, and a few men--bout fifteen of us in all.  A couple of younger ones gave out leaflets, and we stood there.   Apart from an elderly man on his bicycle who started an animated conversation, and a woman who barked at me, there was no hostility from passers-by-- just a weary resignation.  The papers were full of a possible new onslaught.  

Some headlines from The Jerusalem Post

IDF (Israeli Defence Force) plans large-scale Gaza operation.  Mulls retaking entire Gaza Strip.”

IDF chose not to use Israeli-made cluster bombs in Lebanon war  (instead they used cluster bombs manufactured in the United States)

Peace Now complaint that settlements were built on Stolen land‚ has government worried.

France authorizes troops to fire at Israeli jets over Lebanon.

 

Ramallah, one day before    
Just the day  before I had paid a visit to a women’s group in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. I got there by a local bus from outside Old Jerusalem. It was only a half-hour journey.  The usual anxieties:  Would the border be closed? Would there be long delays?  In fact there were no delays. 

From the bus I could see sparkling high-rise flats on a height. Below them was the Wall.  After passing a checkpoint, we travelled along inside the wall.  It prevented any sun from shining across the street.  A menacing, foreboding feeling of entrapment ... 

Inside the office of the women’s group, on the one hand normality. On the other hand was the knowledge that they could not leave Ramallah.  They were just then getting news of the situation inside Gaza:  no milk there for the children.  While inside Ramallah, the schools were closed and all administration had broken down because the officials had not been paid. Israel was withholding the legitimate funds to the Palestian authorities.  

I was told that in the election Hamas had the support of the village women. And why wouldn’t they?  Hamas had a good social security policy, which at least kept the women from starving. There was no market for their produce. 

 

Back in Tel Aviv    
In Tel Aviv, as I stood on the Women in Black’s picket line, I watched the citizens go by. They looked as if they too were trapped, locked inside their walls of ignorance and trapped, unable to pass outside their borders.  After an hour we went across the street.  “We always go for a little refreshment. Join us there.”

  Aliuyah Strauss and Havla Keller told me about their other work. They go inside the jail, making contact with the women political prisoners. There are 120. Some of them have children with them.  There also 300 minors:  10 of them are girls between 14 & 17.  None of them can receive any visitors from the occupied territories.  They are allowed to write one letter every two months. 

Aliuyah and Havla also visit the hospital. There, Palestinians who have been injured by Israeli forces are brought.  (In one notorious case, a party of civilians had been shot at whilst picnicking.)  Only one relative is allowed to visit. And this relative must stay in the hospital all the time and is not allowed to leave, even to buy food.  The Women in Black have volunteered to bring food in. 

While I was on the picket, a young woman came up to ask if the weekly picket was still going on.  She said that ten years ago she had written her thesis on the Women in Black. “Did you ever come back to support them?” I asked. “Oh no,” she said, “I’ve finished the thesis and I’m now a PRO for a music company,” and she merrily went her way. 

Every bit of information from Aliuyah and Havla was given to me in a matter-of- fact way:  This was their life.  As it was Friday, they had to get home to prepare food for the Sabbath. They had to pick up and look after grandchildren and pick up their husbands-- just normal elderly women doing what they can. 

Aliuyah had just returned from a peace conference in Stockholm.  Havla said, “We do what we can. It may not be much. It may not be effective, but at least we are here.  No formality:  whoever turns up is welcome.  At times we are attacked.  Today was very quiet.”  Their very matter-of-factness was moving.  So was their humility.  “We don”t have any hierarchy or offices.” 

     Later that evening I was invited to a party. “All the left will be there, you will meet everyone.”  I mentioned my experience at the boulevard and the great work the women were doing.  They all knew the Women in Black and had at some stage participated in the picket.  But their main current preoccupation was the administrative changes going on in the university: Their union had organized a shutdown the previous Tuesday in protest against these changes.   The university had been closed for an hour.   I brought up the question of the boycott of the universities:  some supported it, some didn’t.  They gave an impression they were powerless. “Whatever we did, who would listen?”  

When I pushed about their experience in the army (all Jewish Israelis have to do national service), one radical student, who was helping to organize a big rally in defense of Gaza, said that she had been in the intelligence sector and had fortunately not been sent into the West Bank but to the Egyptian border to intercept phone calls, monitoring words like “bombs” etc.  It gave her good experience of military terms which she could use when making speeches to denounce the occupation.  I tempted her to break her secrecy oath on my camera, but she refused. She said she owed everything to the Israeli state, her education and her life style. She was basically a very loyal citizen. 

 

     I came away convinced that the present Israeli constitution is untenable.  At the beginning the Arab community made up 20% of the population which never accepted a Zionist state.  They were completely ignored and have been consistently. And they are treated as second-class citizens.  Borders are made and may be remade. Wwalls are built, walls can come down.  I  kept on having a dejavu of life in the seventies in Belfast--the same excuses in the universities, the reality of life on the Falls Road, the military everywhere, the same hustle and bustle of trying to get on with a normal life. In fact it is a glimpse of hell.  The growing calls throughout Western Europe for boycotts, cultural and academic, might arouse the radical left of Tel Aviv.

 

NB:  for information about Women for Women Political Prisoners: --

          www.coalitionofwomen.org <http://www.coalitionofwomen.org/>

        gazasiege@yahoo.com

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