Elizabeth Harris-Sawczenko, Director, Council of Christians and Jews
I went to live in Israel prior to the first Intifaada. During those initial years I had experiences that were frightening and difficult due to the violence, general instability and fragility of life itself. Like many in our community I had only ever imbibed the Jewish/Israeli narrative but deep within me I always knew that I needed to find a way to connect with the other.
In 1993 an opportunity arose with the Oslo Accords. I was a working at a Jewish educational organisation where I met Palestinian counterparts for the first time: in particular a Palestinian woman, Itaf Abu Zayyad, wife of Ziad AbuZayyad a senior figure in the Palestinian legislature. We soon became friends despite our many differences. It was a powerful and I have to say very female experience, especially within the context of generations of mistrust and conflict. I do believe that women find ways to search for their common humanity. One has only to look at women’s contribution to the Good Friday agreement, the Israeli Women in Black during the first Lebanon War or the Israeli grassroots women’s peace initiative ‘Women Wage Peace’ to understand how key women are to bringing peace to the region.
A few years later, I was working in an organisation that safeguards civil and human rights in Israel. I started this job just days before the outbreak of the second Intifaada and was immediately plunged into numerous peace-building initiatives, with a team of Jewish, Christian and Muslim citizens of Israel.
In the middle of this Intifaada, my close Palestinian Christian colleague Antigona, who lived in Beit Jala, had her house demolished by rocket fire. She moved to Bethlehem in the middle of the chaos and spent the rest of the Intifaada in her basement to be safe from constant clashes between Palestinian and Israeli fire. Why do I share this with you? Because despite our different national and religious identities, every day of that intifaada I called her to make sure she was safe…and then one balmy summer night at the height of the conflict, the café opposite my home in Jerusalem was blown up. Anyone close to the blast died instantly. And yes, she was the first friend to check I was alive. So this is why I believe women have an essential contribution to peace and this is why I also believe peace is still possible.
On my return to the UK I resolved to translate my experiences into new contexts and particularly within my interfaith role as Director of CCJ: To support Palestinians and Israelis working together, for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, in particular through highlighting the work of women in the Peace Movement. Each year CCJ leads a Christian/Jewish Leadership study tour to Israel and the Palestinian Territories through a partnership with two wonderful Palestinian women friends and colleagues: Riman (a Muslim) and Nimala (a Christian). On IWD I salute all those women who bravely continue to fight for peace and press for progress.