The Only Solution for Real Security
3rd Space: Hello, Yael. Really good to see you. And welcome to 3rd Space.
Thank you for speaking with us in the midst of such a devastating crisis. The brutal attack and seizure of hostages by Hamas has catalysed the catastrophic and equally devastating deaths of thousands civilians in Gaza. A humanitarian crisis of unthinkable proportions. We want to acknowledge the enormous heartbreak and horror of the whole situation. And how much we appreciate your voice and perspective.
For our audience, I want to share that you and I have known each other for decades. We have shared a spiritual history as well as an activist one. Your voice is particularly important at this time because you’ve been intimately involved with a large organisation, Women Wage Peace, who have been working with Palestinian women for years now to bring leaders from both sides together to forge a just political solution, to what has been an ongoing crisis.
You also work for an NGO, Road to Recovery, that brings Palestinians who are seriously ill, most of them children, from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel for medical treatment. So, you have quite a background in all this.
Can you start by telling us how you came became involved in Women Wage Peace, your perspective and experience of what’s happening?
Yael: I think when I lost my brother when he was a soldier at a young age, I was very aware of the effect this had on my whole family. And later the endless cycles of violence again and again and again and again – which led nowhere. But I think for many years, I thought there was no other option, and then suddenly Sadat came to Israel. And we had peace with Egypt. And then later with Jordan. And then the Oslo Accords.
Although in the end it didn’t work, there was hope. And when Prime Minister Rabin was deep in the peace process, we actually felt that there could be an end to all of this; that we could just live normal lives. Then Rabin was murdered. The whole peace process collapsed. And a lot of people got very discouraged.
But for me, it showed that it’s possible. We still have peace with Egypt and Jordan. It’s fragile because of everything that’s happening now. But we still haven’t had a war with these countries for ages. The history we have with Egypt is horrible, it’s bloody. A year before Sadat came to Jerusalem, he was willing to sacrifice a million Egyptian soldiers, just to fight us. And then a year later he visited. He was very brave. He paid with his life. But he came. And we have a peace.
So, I’m very sure that it’s possible. And I’m very sure that not only is peace possible, but I’m convinced it’s the only solution for real security. Violence is never the solution. Just look around the world. When you’re attacked, you fight back. But in the end, after hundreds, thousands of people have been killed; after horrific destruction and the endless suffering and trauma of each cycle, we end up in exactly in the same place. Things don’t change. These cycles do not give anyone any more security, just more suffering and more trauma. There is never real security unless there is some kind of peace.
So, I joined Women Wage Peace after the war in 2014, which was again very bloody, horrible. We (the women) said “Enough! We can’t do this anymore”.
Women – a Different Perspective on War
Yael: I think the thing with Women Wage Peace is that it is women-based. In most of the world, but particularly in this region, everything is run by men. And they don’t do a good job, to say the least. Women have different ways to deal with conflict than men do.
Women and children also pay the highest price. So, women have a different perspective on the price of conflict. Women are more willing to persevere, to negotiate. So, women need to be involved.
Part of my activism has been to demand from any government, Left, Right, or Centre, to sit at the table and come to an agreement with Palestinians, with everybody involved. And at least half the negotiators have to be women. Right? Otherwise, we just continue with the same way of looking at things, same head-to-head clashes. Women are half the population. It should be clear that they should be at the table.
3rd Space: Could you say a bit more about what that perspective is that women bring? What is different in your experience?
Yael: Well, if you ask women anywhere, and not in front of the cameras because sometimes women will say different things in front of cameras, all they want is for their children to be safe. They will say, “We bring them into this world. We protect them as children. We want them to grow and just live a normal life.”
There’s generally more willingness in women to listen to the other. More willingness to understand even if we do not agree, to empathise with the other. To create peace, you have to really listen. Our leadership has become lazy. They rely on military force because its much harder to create peace than launch a war. But in order to build peace, you have to really listen, you have to really care, be willing to think together.
From the beginning of WWP it was very important for us to work with Palestinians. And in the last couple of years a sister movement, Women of the Sun, has emerged with thousands of Palestinian women who come not only from the West Bank, but also from Gaza. Women who say ‘’We don’t care who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Nobody wants to kill the other. We just want to live free, peaceful, normal lives.
So, I think the ability to come together, the ability to do things together and not have to be ‘the one’, not be so focused on ego, on winning or losing, but on creating a mutual win-win situation is more natural for women. But, more important than anything is the freedom to be able to work, to raise children of their own, to feel secure. The whole issue of feeling secure is wider than just war. It’s literally to be able to live in this world and feel free, secure as a whole community.
I want to say that the ongoing relationship that WWP has with the Palestinian women is still happening now. Under such intense circumstances it’s always more difficult, but this has never broken the connection.
3rd Space: That is really something.
Yael: Yes. Just three days before this horrific attack by Hamas, we had a huge event organised by Women Wage Peace and Women of the Sun. Three thousand women. Representatives from many embassies attended in support of us. The Irish ambassador reminded us that no one believed peace was possible in Northern Ireland, until it happened. It was powerful. We were together. And we were calling leaders on all sides to sit at the table.
Three days later this crisis erupted. One of the founders of the Palestinian movement wrote the day after it happened, saying “We tried to bring peace. We were not given the time to make it happen. But we will. We will try a thousand times more until it eventually happens.”
3rd Space: That’s a profound and rare voice. A rare perspective to be able to express in the face of such destruction. It speaks to the depth of trust and connection the two organisations have forged.
Threads of Humanity
Yael: Yes. But it’s not only organisations. The charity I work for, Road to Recovery, is basically made up of Israeli volunteers. People who offer to drive their private cars to bring Palestinian patients from the checkpoints of Gaza and the West Bank to hospitals in Israel. A lot of these patients are babies and children, but not only children. They all have very severe illnesses that cannot be treated in Palestinian hospitals. We are continuing to drive even now. In ‘normal’ times, we take hundreds of patients a day. Now it’s down to between ten to twenty, only the most difficult cases.
Just the other day, I drove somebody from the West Bank. And between his broken Hebrew and my broken Arabic we somehow managed to have a conversation. He came with his little daughter, six years old. We were both agreeing on so much. He said, ‘Most of us just want to live in peace, just want to be left to our own lives. Most of us don’t want to kill, don’t want to murder, don’t want to kidnap, don’t want to bomb… we just want to live’.
We spoke about our families. It felt a bit surreal because at the beginning of the drive, I had to explain to him that if we hear a siren, we will have to stop the car and seek shelter lying on the ground. But for the rest of it, everything was just so normal. He also said that sometimes he has the feeling that if we didn’t have the leadership we have, then actually everything would be fine. He said the leaders just want money and power. They sit in government, but they don’t really care about the suffering of their people. ‘If we were just people with people, we’d find a way to get along.’ He’s right. So much conflict is generated by the leadership on both sides.
“I Judge Leadership that Responds with Revenge“
3rd Space: All over the internet you see voices conflating Palestinian and Israeli civilian populations with the positions and actions of their governments. People supporting one ‘side’ against the other. The stories you share of your and others’ experiences are so important because, as you say, many ordinary civilians represent something very different to the hardened positions of their leaders. Something very human. It’s important for that voice to be heard.
Yael: Yes, but I don’t judge people who don’t share this. What happened on Saturday with Hamas, seems to have come right out of an ISIS workbook. I think they wanted to terrorise us. It was horrific. So, if I hear somebody who’s been through this, or people who are terrified call for revenge, I don’t judge them. But I do judge leadership that responds with revenge, because it’s their job not to lose their heads, not to let their emotions take the better of them.
If someone feels uncomfortable about the way I’m writing now on Facebook, I just say ‘let’s talk about it when it’s all over. For now, I send you a big hug’. I think a lot of people don’t have the room now for this. For me, it’s the other way around. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if it has to do with the spiritual work we did, or with other things. But for me, I can’t separate the suffering of our children from the suffering of the children in Gaza. And if I see babies dying, Israeli or Palestinian, they are still babies. They are innocent. They didn’t harm anybody, and they should not be part of this conflict.
I want my voice to be heard because I think it’s important that people remember that there are civilians on both sides. But that at the same time people are traumatised, and yes, whatever people feel is legitimate.
3rd Space: I think that’s important for all of us to hear. Grief, rage, and the desire for retribution are primal reactions to pain and loss. But I appreciate the distinction you painstakingly make between innocent civilians on both sides who are suffering, and the leadership of a State whose responsibility it is to maintain a sane and calm perspective, as hard as that may be, in order to able to lead their people out of further harm and devastation.
As you said earlier, this has been sorely lacking for a very long time. Since the Oslo Accords there’s been very little real progress. It’s a crisis that’s been largely abandoned by regional and international powers.
Responses to Crisis
3rd Space: There’s been a lot of dissent recently with regards to the threat to democracy in Israel by the current government and its policies. Many young people have been engaged in protest, and refusing to participate in military service, which itself is radical for Israel. Where do things stand now given the raw intensity of war and the fact that both nations hold a collective trauma.
Yael: A lot of the most recent wars we were involved in the over the past two decades were… [pauses]…I don’t know how to translate it…but they were a kind of war of ‘choice’. It’s not like there was no other option. Where if you look at the Yom Kippur War which was in ‘73, we were attacked from all sides. We had to respond because otherwise Israel would have been annihilated.
I think maybe for the first time since ’73 – that’s fifty years ago – we have not suffered an attack of this scale. We had big wars, horrible wars, like the Lebanon War. But we started this. And what I mean by “started”, I’m very careful using this word, is that it was supposed to be a limited scale operation against Hezbollah, who were bombing our northern border constantly at the time. And it turned into a long, bloody war.
But the attack that happened on Saturday is something that we haven’t experienced anything like before. I mean the degree of horror, the level of cruelty, the sheer number of terrorists that came in…. it’s just never happened in the whole history of Israel. This immediately took people back to the pogroms, to the Holocaust.
Tens of thousands of Israelis returned from abroad, people who were living overseas came back to be trained and returned to their units to fight. This left behind thousands of broken hearts, mothers who cannot sleep. I don’t have children of my own, but I have nephews whom I’m worried sick about. Everybody is affected.
This government is the worst government we’ve ever had. They were trying to take this whole country in a direction that is not just autocratic but theocratic, because there’s so many religious and ultra-religious people in it. They were trying to undermine the power of the Supreme Court, the only check and balance on the government. Already there was a big protest movement involving a lot of groups that came together to not let Israel become anything other than a democracy. Now, there’s a question as to whether we really are a democracy or not, because the West Bank is mainly under Israel and military rule. That’s a whole other discussion. But those of us Jews and the Arabs who have Israeli ID and live in Israel, we do experience some kind of democracy here. And this was about to be taken from us.
A Government in Chaos
When the war started on the 7th October basically the government and the state as an institution, didn’t function at all. In fact, it was total chaos. As an Israeli, I have a lot of criticism about Israel. But what happened internally in the last week and a half in terms of the level of civic assistance is amazing. People who were evacuated from the south to safe areas of Israel have received free counselling, food, therapy, and money because they lost everything. People have opened their houses as a refuge. And many from kibbutzim around the country have gone into places that were raided by the Hamas, where people were killed or evacuated, to milk the cows and take care of the fields.
This level of volunteering and support has reunited this country, which hasn’t been united for ages. Meanwhile, government representatives, ministers, coalition members who try to visit these places are, for the most part, being kicked out in disgrace. People are realising that we are actually functioning much better without the government; and that the whole internal conflict came from the leadership which is supposed to take care of everybody, no matter who voted for them or not.
I don’t know now where young people stand. I think everything is changing all the time. Everybody is in survival mode. I think we’ll have to see at the end. And I hope this ends soon. I don’t believe it will…but I hope so. We’ll have to see what’s left then.
Hamas versus the People of Gaza
Yael: I also want to say that in many places that were raided there were people who were peace activists, like my friend (Vivian Silver) who was abducted. She has been a peace activist for years. And in the organisation I work for, we have a lot of drivers who used to go to the Erez checkpoint on the border with Gaza to bring sick people to hospitals in Israel. Even now, many of them, not all, but many, say that ‘we were abandoned years ago because successive governments didn’t try to reach a political agreement that would allow both sides to live some kind of normal life. And until that happens, we will never be safe here’.
People who’ve been through this trauma can still separate Hamas from the people in Gaza. Again, not all of them, you also hear a lot of calls for revenge. But what I’m saying is that there are people who are able keep their humanity in the middle of all this trauma. These people break my heart because they are people who saw their family member killed, or kidnapped, and they can still say ‘children are suffering, also in Gaza’.
If we were able to feel empathy for all people, and I have to admit, I don’t feel empathy for Hamas for what they did. I don’t have any compassion for them. But I do have compassion for those who did not do this. Palestinian civilians, children. They are now victims too.
This is why it’s so important for us in this organisation to work with the other side. Because when you get to know people, you speak with them, you hear from them, it makes them a person. It gives them a name. You laugh together, you eat together, and you cry together. You share stuff with them, and they share stuff with you. Then you cannot think about them in terms of revenge, in terms of annihilation, you cannot demonise a whole collective because to you they are people.
3rd Space: It’s so important to hear this. As you say, we’ll see what happens when the dust settles and the urgency for a ceasefire has been met.
The description of the responsibility civilians are taking for each other, and how uniting this has been, is very moving. It’s also very interesting because from what I’ve read, Netanyahu was counting on a different kind of unification. Unification based solely on revenge.
You Don’t Have to Pick A Side
3rd Space. In your Facebook posts you’ve mentioned that Israeli Arab and Jewish groups who have lived and worked together for years, have also stayed together through this crisis?
Yael: In one of the previous rounds of conflict, I think in 2021, there was communal incitement by somebody who is now the Minister of Internal Security. That is, incitement of people in mixed cities where Jews and Arabs live together. There were riots and people killed each other. It was horrific. So, since then, in those cities groups of citizens, Arabs and Jews, decided to prevent this happening again by working together on the ground to make sure that nobody will be able to take advantage of the situation.
There is some incitement against Arabs. And it’s not easy to be an Arab Israeli now in Israel. It’s scary, very scary. And yet half of our medical staff are Arabs. Arab citizens work in pharmacies, supermarkets, in so many areas of life. And it’s up to all of us Jews, if we see any violence against Arabs, to stand with them.
So far this has not reached prior levels of violence. I think there’s more alertness to this within the society. And I hope, I really hope it won’t happen again. But you see, Jews are watching one media and Arabs are also watching news coming from Arabic countries. These show different things. There’s fake news on both sides, and different focuses. It’s complicated.
3rd Space: It would be a miracle if that relative peace between the Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews can be held through this. The work your NGO and others are doing to maintain cross border relationships seems critical. As we come to the end Yael, is there anything else you want to say, or add?
Yael: Maybe just two things. Whoever is listening or reading this from wherever in the world, including leaders, if you want to help in solving this conflict, I don’t think it helps to just side with one side, whether it’s Israel or it’s Palestine. I really think it’s important for people, for all of us, also for leaders, to try to embrace both. I’m not saying not to criticise one side or the other.
But the world always has to pick a side it seems. You don’t have to pick a side. There’s a lot of side-taking, then riots start and this whole conflict spreads. The thing is, once you side with one side, it just increases the trauma of the other and vice versa. I don’t know how to say it, but try to hold both sides tight, and calm everybody down. If this conflict is ever going to end, its because somehow somebody creates a ‘trauma treatment’ for the whole area.
It’s not about picking sides. It’s about picking the side of humanity. It’s about being human, it’s about empathy. It’s about trying to hold complexity, and trying to support all sides, so that they can calm down and come together at the table.
3rd Space: Thank you, Yael. The work that you and others involved with Women Wage Peace and organisations like Road to Recovery demonstrate this. What’s profound and deeply moving is that your words are not just theoretical. Not just ‘lofty ideas’. You are actually doing the work, embodying what you are talking about. And that’s incredibly challenging for anyone in the middle of such destruction.
I was going to ask you what we can do to help, and I think you’ve just answered this – to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric, not to take sides, and not be partial in our own views. Instead, support those on both sides who are trying to maintain a line of communication, a thread of humanity to create ground that a peace process or political solution can still emerge from.
Yael: Yes, and the second thing is that in order to continue, both Women Wage Peace and Road to Recovery need help in the form of donations. Especially now. You can donate to Women Wage Peace and /or support The Road to Recovery.
3rd Space: Thank you, Yael. We appreciate your incredible courage, as do so many others reading your Facebook posts. The bonds you’re forging in these medical trips are part of creating a future yet to come. It’s critical that they can continue.
Thank you so very much and keep safe.
Yael: Thank you. We’ll speak very soon.
Header photo of Yael credit to Bruce Shafer. Photo of Yael with friend credit to Tamer Ganor Zandman.