Jewish, Israeli Arab, and Jordanian women join together to celebrate peace at the third annual walk of Women Building BridgesIt was a sight you don’t see very often in Israel – or anywhere else for that matter: 3,000 women from all walks of life out for a walk to demonstrate their commitment to peaceful coexistence.
Eta and Alif, Jewish and Arab public-health nurses and long-time friends, were among the walkers, moving side by side past a scenic border kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. They said they welcomed the opportunity to come together under the forum called Women Building Bridges. They were not under the illusion that their participation in the walk would bring peace to their region of conflict. But they dared to hope it could help.
“I hope this will start a dialogue between women, and from there something good will begin,” Eta said, as Alif nodded with approval. “Women are different than men; for men, it’s all about honor and war. Only women can succeed in bringing peace.”
That was the basic reasoning behind the launching of the third annual walk and cultural exchange sponsored by national and local government agencies in Israel, including the Beit She’an Valley Regional Council, City of Beit She’an, Keren Kayemet l’Yisrael, Development Authority for the Galilee and Negev, the Ministry of Science, Sports and Culture, the Society for the Advancement of Women in Sports, and Partnership 2000.
On this balmy November Friday, the organizers of Women Building Bridges handed out pink water bottles at the start of the 4.5-kilometer walk around the sun-dappled fish ponds of Kibbutz Gesher (a symbolic location as ‘gesher’ means bridge). The collective community is situated in the Jordan Valley within view of the Jordanian border.
“Our joint aim is to strengthen the connections between women on both sides of the border, and to create a climate of communication and peace, fraternity, closeness, and communication among women of different backgrounds,” said Ofir Auslander, one of the day’s coordinators.
Old Gesher, the area adjacent to the kibbutz, withstood attacks by the Arab Legion and by Iraqi forces during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Today, despite the bullet holes still visible in Old Gesher’s original police station, the setting is lush and serene. Organizers say the site was chosen to provide a meaningful context for the event.
As they walked, groups of women – some having risen before dawn to catch one of 26 buses or various carpools from all corners of Israel – chatted amiably and enjoyed fresh fruit, klezmer music, and other entertainment along the route.
The marchers accepted greetings from the Israeli ministers of education and science, as well as General Manzur Abu Rashad of the Institute for Peace and Regional Economical Development in Amman, Jordan, who accompanied a delegation of two dozen Jordanian women.
Then, participants moved on to an open-air festival that featured belly- and salsa-dancing lessons, arts-and-crafts displays, volleyball games, and cultural performances. Some participants took an optional bike ride to and from the Island of Peace, an Israeli-Jordanian border park designated as a symbol of the 1994 treaty between the two countries.
Nura, who described herself as a committed but often frustrated Israeli human-rights activist, participated in the walk with her daughter and granddaughter. But while she made the effort, she was not optimistic about its effects.
“Nothing will come out of this,” Nura told ISRAEL21c without bitterness. “It is just important that women – Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians – hold hands together in hope for the future. It’s like a little candle trying to be kept alight in a storm. We have to keep this little light until better days.”
Her daughter, Idit, said she also didn’t believe any concrete result would ensue from the day’s events.
“We have to look at this as an opportunity to show that there are a lot of voices concerning peace,” she said. “We are not politicians, but this gives us hope and the ability to say, in a different way, that we are concerned and that we are looking forward.”
Idit added that Israel’s recent observance of the 12th anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was a reminder for people to not let others do the work for them.
“When he was working for peace, many of us just sat in our houses instead of going to rallies. Today, we wonder how we could have stayed at home and not come out to give him encouragement. Now, we have to come out on a regular day and say it loudly.”
Leila, a traditionally garbed Muslim from an Arab village in the center of the country, was more optimistic.
“I think this will help bring peace,” she said as she walked around the pond with a group of peers from a Palestinian women’s organization called Fatma. “When we become friends with other women, that is how it starts.”
Although most participants stayed in homogeneous clusters during the walk, they started to mingle as event coordinators handed each woman a pressed-tin dove to hang on a line as she completed the circuit. Drummers tapped out the beat to “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu” (Peace Will Yet Come to Us) while women danced inside the circle holding Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian flags aloft.
Israeli soldiers guarding the grounds mingled easily with participants, tasting ethnic treats offered at booths – such as a Druze dish of cheese-spread soft flatbread, drizzled with olive oil and za’atar, wrapped in a paper cone.
A contingent of women from Cleveland, Ohio, melted into a mixed conga line. Earlier, they had crossed one of three area bridges over the Jordan River along with the Jordanian contingent and representatives of the host Israeli region, Beit She’an. The crossing was a demonstration of fellowship between Cleveland and Beit She’an, which are paired as part of Project Partnership 2000.
Michal Weinberg, a longtime member of the Beit She’an Regional Council and an organizer of Women Building Bridges, said Jordanian women had participated in the past, but this year they arrived the previous day and did sightseeing and folk dancing with their hosts.
“It is not easy to communicate because our only common language is English,” she said. “But it is worth the effort, because peace is made between people, through relationships.”
“Next year, I hope to realize our dream of planting trees together,” she said. “There is a lot of symbolism in this part of the Jordan Valley, and we have many agricultural and academic projects in the works.”
Despite, the predominantly female-focused event, a few men joined the festivities as well, like Ben Ami, a 50-year-old kibbutz resident.
“I think it is right for Jews and Arabs to be together in peace,” said Ben Ami, originally from Russia, who came by to look at the art displays set up at Old Gesher. “Only good things can come of it.”