Three women from Israel and the Palestinian territories were invited to the United States recently to talk about their aspirations for peace in the Middle East. The women, who had never met before, said they were struck by the similarity of their message. Three women, from Jerusalem and Ramallah. Three religions. Three stories.
Muna Shikaki, a Palestinian Muslim, works in Ramallah for the Palestinian non-governmental group, Defense for Children International. She said, although she had never before met the other two participants, they all shared a similar vision for an end to the bloodshed in their homeland. "It was extremely fascinating for me to find out that even though we'd never spoken before, we'd never met before, we'd never even shared what we were going to speak about before, yet during our time together, we've realized that we almost have the same message to give, even if we have different experiences," said Ms. Shikaki.
She says all three women called for an end to Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and equality for Palestinians. Ms. Shikaki said she was taken aback by questions about why the Palestinians want their own state, particularly coming from Americans. "I mean, there was nothing called America 250 years ago," she said. "There was nothing called Israel 50 years ago. Does that mean there are no Israeli people now, or there are no American people now? I think that was very strange."
Ms. Shikaki says she felt many of the hundreds of people she spoke with during stops in Washington and (the U.S. states of) California, Oregon and Texas were pro-Israel. She says she feels she was able to shed light on the difficulties Palestinians face in the occupied territories, including Israeli checkpoints, travel restrictions and curfews.
Another participant, Adi Dagan, an Israeli Jew, works for the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem. She is also an active member of an organization called "Checkpoint Watch," which documents the actions of Israeli army officers at checkpoints around the city. She said she had not expected to find so much agreement with the two Palestinian women. "We met in the United States and we heard each other speak at the first time at our first panel, not before. I think we were all surprised to see how similar our opinions are about the political situation, and about the suffering of the people," said Ms. Dagan. "It's just been great to meet two Palestinian women who are true pacifists, and who have such an eloquent and very intelligent way, you know, talking about the issues."
But the reality of life in Jerusalem, Ms. Dagan said, is living with violence and the fear of violence. "If there is an attack, a suicide bombing on a bus or in a coffee shop, then you're more reluctant or tensed when you're going on a bus or to a coffee shop, and you even might try to avoid it. It's very subjective," she said. "You know, some people are more afraid. Some people are less afraid. Each of us has his own individual safe map, you know, safe places to go to, but generally, it's kind of a depressing way of life."
The third participant - 62-year old Jean Zaru, a Palestinian Christian - works for a Quaker organization in Ramallah (the Ramallah Friends Meeting in Palestine). She says she was encouraged by what Ms. Dagan had to say. "Because the American public does not hear the peace voices in Israel, and we have to encourage peace voices and cross-boundaries and network with them," she says. "So, I was happy that she [Ms. Dagan] is being heard in this country."
Ms. Zaru says one of the first things she did was get Ms. Dagan's phone number in Jerusalem. She says she would like to have the Israeli woman speak to different groups in Ramallah after they return home.
The U.S.-based group, Partners for Peace, a non-governmental organization working to promote a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, brought the women together.