Security for Whom? / Sarai Aharoni

Sunday, January 28th, 2007 | 12:34

(Talk at the Haifa Symposium: “Security for Whom?”)

Exploring the diverse meanings of the term “security” remains a challenge for many groups all over the world. The meaning of security in the Israeli context was raised last week in the city of Haifa at a symposium entitled “Security For Whom? An Alternative Conference”. Organized by two organizations, Isha L’Isha–Haifa Feminist Center and the Coalition of Women for Peace, the gathering offered an alternative view about security issues from a feminist perspective.

In Israel, the word “security” is a key symbol that refers mainly to national security issues seen as the highest interest of the country. This perception is evident in the “Herzliya Conference”, an annual high-profile event which provides a platform for politicians and generals, including the Israeli prime minister and general chief of staff. This year, the Herzliya Conference focused on Israeli security in the wake of the Second Lebanon War and the Iranian nuclear threat. The feminist symposium in Haifa was held in parallel as an alternative to the Herzliya Conference in order to provoke a public debate about the hegemonic notion of “security”.

Since very few women hold decision-making positions in the Israeli political system, it has been difficult for local women’s organizations to gain power from the “inside”. The absence of a public debate regarding women’s perspectives about national security has triggered a small group of feminists and peace activists to create an independent space for reflection and action. The Alternative Conference was designed to focus on issues that have been silenced and neglected by the dominant discourses of security, and to discuss the consequences of Israel’s “security policies” for the residents of Israel and the region in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War.

In their opening remarks, Nabila Espanioly, director of the Altufula Center in Nazareth, and Prof. Dalia Sachs of the Haifa University jointly expressed the need to formulate an alternative definition of “security” by “deconstructing the term itself”. According to them, this alternative definition needs to take into account the diverse experiences of civilians, including women, children, national minorities (i.e. Israeli-Palestinians) and people with low incomes. They also questioned the silence of local women and men regarding the effects of Israeli bombings in Lebanon, stressing that we need to understand the long-term connections between the lives and well being of people on both sides of the border.

A similar view was presented by Parliament Member Zehava Galon, one of the only Israeli politicians to speak out against the war. Criticizing Israeli politicians for being inexperienced, arrogant and irresponsible in their disregard for the lives of soldiers and civilians, the PM claimed that the war could have ended faster—or been avoided altogether—if diplomatic measures were taken more seriously. On a personal note, she shared with the audience the difficult emotional experience of being alone, as a woman politician talking about peace in the midst of war.

It is clear that in order to present an alternative definition of “security” we need a systematic understanding of women’s lives and experiences. The work done by Isha L’Isha during the past five years has taught us that the particular effects of the ongoing conflict on the lives of Israeli women need to be treated as historically and culturally situated. This means that those working to assist and empower women and girls in conflict zones cannot assume the specific vulnerability of women, but rather they need to document it constantly. This was the rational behind a report presented for the first time at the Alternative Conference entitled “The negative impact of the Second Lebanon War on the economic and social status of disadvantaged women in the north”.

The report was compiled by the Mahut Center in order to outline the personal stories of 130 Israeli women from low socio-economic backgrounds. These women had suffered severe economic, occupational and emotional hardships due to the fact that all governmental support, including the welfare system, failed to aid the Israeli civilian population during Hezbollah’s rocket attacks. The report highlighted the fact that the war left many of these women in a state of desperation accompanied by an overall loss of trust in the government. Strong military measures have been the focus of local and regional security policies for years. This has had a tremendous effect upon the political power of the Israeli military elite, lead by the army, which paradoxically became stronger during the period of the “peace process” (1993-2000). However, other means of controlling and policing populations do exist. For example, fear of the “demographic threat” (the numeric balance between Jews and Palestinians) has been used to created legislation meant to minimize the number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Palestinian activist Terry Boullata explained in detail the result of these measures, especially the fact that tens of thousands of Palestinians living in the West Bank have restricted access to basic services, due to the lack of official residency documents. These practices are presented by Israeli decision makers as a necessity, resulting from “national security” concerns, and are neither questioned nor criticized by most of the Israeli public.

An even deeper silence exists when it comes to Israel’s nuclear arms strategy. Attorney Merav Datan from Greenpeace International and Dr. Helen Caldicott, president of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute (Australia), spoke about the link between nuclear arms and security. Both stressed the fact that nuclear arms pose a global threat and should not be perceived as a local matter, or as a way to achieve actual security. The ecological and physical effects of nuclear weapons should be better acknowledged, and international mechanisms are needed to encourage disarmament. Merav Datan expressed the view that NGOs need to express a clear demand for a Middle East that is free from all nuclear arms. She also recommended that Israel and the Arab countries revive negotiations about arms control.

In a militaristic society in which most of the population serves in the army and is educated to unreservedly support its actions, it is very difficult for women to raise a civil voice. The heart of this dilemma was presented at the end of the symposium by Hedva Eyal, general coordinator of Isha L’Isha. She spoke about the ways in which Israeli women are educated to become “mothers of soldiers” while many men from low socio-economic backgrounds join the army in order to gain a better future for themselves and their families. These are among the main obstacles that prevent the civil society in Israel from developing an effective anti-war movement or a new peace camp.

The women who attended the conference were primarily activists. For them, this was another step in the ongoing effort to break the hegemonic, masculine perceptions of security and to challenge the notion that only “real men” can talk about nuclear arms or decision making processes. But above all, it was meant to show that some women do not accept the role that assigned to them by culture and society vis-à-vis security issues—they do not wish to remain silent. Approximately 200 women and men arrived in Haifa to prove that despite the persistent silencing of women within the hegemonic discourse on national security, women in Israel have a political voice.

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