Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank is facing strong opposition in parliament. As the prime minister tries to garner support at home, three women from the region are touring the United States, speaking out against the Israeli occupation. The women - two Palestinians and one Israeli, each of a different faith - have similar stories and messages.
The three speakers' mission is straightforward, to discuss the reality of living with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and to promote awareness of non-violent protests against the occupation. Because of the occupation, and resulting travel restrictions, the women were not able to get together in Israel or the Palestinian territories.
Just hours after they met for the first time in Washington, the trio spoke about their lives to a crowd assembled at the Middle East Institute. A 26-year-old Christian Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, Marianne Albina, says many Palestinians she knows feel helpless and hopeless.
"The suffering happens so much on a daily basis, that our mind classifies it as normal life," Ms. Albina said. "So when people ask me, 'How has the occupation affected your life?' I don't think of the difficulties that I have from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep. But I think of things like how my friend from Ramallah, that is only seven miles away from where I live, could never come and visit me in Jerusalem and see the life I have in Jerusalem."
Israeli Gila Svirsky lives in West Jerusalem. Raised in the United States in a Zionist, Orthodox Jewish family, Ms. Svirsky moved to Israel almost 40 years ago at the age of 19.
The activist believes both Palestinians and Israelis have a right to live in the region, and both suffer as a result of Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, and Israeli forces in the territories.
"It's not just Palestinians who are paying the price," Ms. Svirsky said. "In Israel, we have had a thousand people killed or thousands and thousands who are injured as a result of suicide bombings, as a result of soldiers who serve in the territories."
Israel's embassy in Washington says these are disputed territories and their future status will be determined through negotiations. Spokesman David Siegel says the problem is Israelis don't have a credible partner for peace.
Israel re-occupied parts of the West Bank and Gaza in an effort to improve security after the second Palestinian uprising began more than two years ago.
As part of that operation, Israel's forces moved in to a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin. Israeli officials say the effort, known as Operation Defensive Shield, was an attempt to defeat terror networks operating in the camp.
Palestinian Muslim Hidaya Said Najmi lived in Jenin with her husband and three children when the military launched the offensive. She says she wept when she saw the devastation to the neighborhood, buildings and homes after the troops left. Using her degree in architecture, Ms. Najmi works with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency as the senior design engineer in charge of rebuilding the camp. It is a chance for the mother of three, who says she is not political, to give Palestinians hope for a better life.
"Palestinians are still struggling for freedom," Ms. Najimi says. "Freedom which is the right of every human being. It's not a gift to be given by anyone. Palestinians have the right to resist occupation and to live a normal life like everyone else in the world."
Ms. Albina, the Palestinian Christian speaker, asks people to pay attention to the messages of non-violent Palestinians who are resisting the occupation, not just the violence of suicide bombers.
"Do not ignore our daily peaceful resistance as we cross checkpoints, go to our workplaces and go to university," Ms. Albina says. "We do that peacefully. We do that trying not to become bitter and angry."
Ms. Svirsky, the Jewish Israeli, adds that the Israeli peace movement, too, is virtually unknown. In 2001, Ms. Svirsky and 500 other women blocked access to the ministry of defense in Tel Aviv, to protest Israel's restrictions on Palestinians. She says although 17 women were arrested and detained overnight, news of the demonstration did not spread.
Despite the difficulty in getting a message of peace across, Ms. Svirsky says people in Israel and the Palestinian territories have the same hope she does.
"The Israelis by this point are fed up with the conflict, and so are the Palestinians. Israelis want peace and security and so do the Palestinians," Ms. Svirsky says.
The women will repeat that message as they travel to several U.S. states as part of a speaking tour called 'Jerusalem Women Speak: Three Women, Three Faiths, One Shared Vision.'