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NGO PRESS CONFERENCE ON MIDDLE EAST SITUATION

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

7 May 2002

Despite the recent comment made by United States Secretary of State Colin Powell that expectations should not be too high for the upcoming peace conference on the Middle East, the Director of an Israeli women's peace organization said at a Headquarters press conference today that expectations needed to be higher than ever.

Terry Greenblat is the Director of Bat Shalom, an Israeli women's peace organization that, together with its Palestinian counterpart, the Jerusalem Center for Women, formed the Jerusalem Link, an organization of Israeli and Palestinian women working for peace. She said that if the major players around the table were going into the process with low expectations, "we're all in even more trouble than I had realized". Unbelievably, as dangerous as the situation was, nobody was even considering that women might have something to contribute.

She was joined by Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, Founder and Director of the Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling in East Jerusalem, an organization dedicated to the promotion and legal status of Palestinian women. She is also on the Board of the Jerusalem Center for Women, which is the Palestinian half of the Jerusalem Link. Both women had been invited to address the Security Council later today in a closed-door Aria Formula meeting on the situation in the Middle East, in the context of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security.

Gloria Steinem, member of the Advisory Council of Equality Now, an international human rights organization working for the advancement of gender equality, introduced the participants, who also included Jessica Neuwirth, the President of Equality Now. Ms. Steinem said the organization had brought together two women who were willing to sit on the same side of the table and put that historic and bloody conflict on the opposite side of the table.

Ms. Steinem added that the message to the Council was that women had been and continued to be the greatest hope for the peacemaking process and had been and continued to be excluded from that process. Women had always been recognized as a bridge in peacemaking, from the Irish women who won the Nobel peace prize to Women in Black who began in the Middle East and whose work had spread to Bosnia and beyond.

Ms. Neuwirth said that among the many issues on Equality Now's agenda was the political participation of women and their role in conflict resolution. Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) had reaffirmed the important role of women in preventing and resolving conflict, and stressed the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.

Women had an essential contribution to make at the highest levels of decision-making, especially in times of global crisis, she said. She, therefore, welcomed the Council's interest in hearing from Israeli and Palestinian women. That was one important way in which it could contribute to its own implementation of resolution 1325 (2000). Hopefully, the Aria formula meeting would be just the first step in a consultative process that brought women into peace negotiations at the highest level.

Ms. Greenblat said she planned to tell Council members that they needed women because if the goal was not simply the absence of war but the creation of sustainable peace by fostering fundamental society of changes, "we are crucial to everyone's security concerns". Women were needed because wars were no longer fought on the battlefields -- "the war has been brought home to us." More civilians than soldiers had been killed in the Middle East conflict and others around the world.

Wars were being waged on doorsteps and living rooms, and women had historically a vested interest in keeping families and communities safe, she said. Women continued to hold human rights and the sanctity of life as paramount values. Unfortunately, those were too easily "bartered away" as either obstacles to security policies or as incongruent with national liberation aspirations.

She would tell the Council that women had developed a process and a "socio-political fluency" that kept authentic and productive dialogue moving forward, even as the violence escalated around them and they continued to terrorize one another. Most importantly, women were learning to continually shift their positions towards each other without tearing out their national roots in the process.

Ms. Shamas said that, amid all the talk about who would participate in negotiations, civil society was being excluded. In the Palestinian context, there was no portrayal of society's needs, including security-related concerns, and aspirations. All forums created to resolve that too-long conflict should be transparent and involve civil society representatives, particularly women who had ideas about resolving the conflict.

Past negotiations had taken place behind closed doors, and neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis had understood what they were being asked to surrender. That had created distrust at the community level. Greater civil society representation in any future framework would lead to more willingness to give in. Now, both societies knew what was at stake if they did not arrive at a practical and realistic solution. Both sides were losing their children, and there was no end in sight.

"We have to move very quickly and immediately to give hope to the people so they would not resort to actions that will just make things complicated further and further, she said." It was unfortunate that so much blood had to be shed before the importance of openness and inclusion of all sectors of civil society had been realized.

She said she would urge the Council to immediately deploy an international peacekeeping force with the mandate to protect. It was important that the army moved out of civilian areas. That would at least minimize the points of friction between the Israeli army and Palestinian society and mitigate the anger. It was unrealistic for one side to expect security when the other felt oppressed. It was very dangerous now for both sides; a political solution must be found.

Asked to further define her role in today's Council meeting, given that they were not government representatives, and clarify her call for a multinational presence, Ms. Shamas said the Palestinians had been talking for many years about the need for a multinational presence in the areas. Israel had always resisted that. It was more essential now than ever to have that presence. The need for protection was essential, as everyone now saw the consequences of not having a multinational presence there.

True, they were not governmental representatives, but governments could also be supported by civil society teams. Direct third-party involvement that included women should be part of the peace process. Legal representatives should ensure that whatever was agreed was within acceptable legal frameworks and not left up to the imbalance of power between the two parties. She believed the Council was capable of evolving frameworks that were more transparent and inclusive.

Ms. Neuwirth explained that the Aria formula had been devised to enable the Council to hear from non-State actors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). So, it was under that formula that the Council was holding its meeting today. A similar meeting with Afghan women had been held in December, and on several other occasions, to try to bring the voices of women into the Council.

How was Ms. Shamas, a Palestinian woman, able to work with an Israeli woman without raising eyebrows in the Arab world? another correspondent asked.

Ms. Shamas said that the Arab world understood that peaceful co-existence required negotiation with people like Ms. Greenblat, who was someone she would like to have as a neighbour. At the same time, there were "elements" in Israeli society with which she could not work. "I think we need each other; they need us, we need them," she added.

Together, they had participated in demonstrations; Israelis had moved into Palestinian houses and "confronted the bulldozers" to protect Palestinian households, she said. That information must be heard in the Arab world; people must understand that Israelis had broken all sorts of barriers in support of Palestinians.

Ms. Greenblat said that without the particular kind of "social courage" displayed by some of the Palestinian women activists -– walking the line between maintaining legitimacy inside their own community and stretching out a hand to Israelis willing to grasp it –- had contributed to some small successes.

Ms. Steinem asked rhetorically why that greatest hope could not be found anywhere in the policy discussions of the United States.

Ms. Shamas added that, in the final analysis, it would be the two peoples dealing with each other. A relationship of parity should evolve between the Palestinians and Israelis. Seventy-five per cent of Palestinians were younger than 17. Future generations should live in peace. A solution must be found to the military conflict, which was eroding all prospects for development.

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