Signed 25 years ago, the Oslo accords established an incomplete but historic rapprochement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Female activists and leaders were essential catalysts of this peace process, but a quarter-century later, research shows how sidelining them may have weakened prospects for a lasting peace.
How Palestinian women led an uprising and Israeli women supported it
Thirty years ago, during the uprising now known as the First Intifada, Palestinian women entered public life in unprecedented ways. After years organizing at the grass-roots level — through collectives, unions and associations — women in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip stepped into new leadership roles. When male leaders were detained, deported or killed, women filled the void, guiding some of the most strategic and nonviolent efforts of the five-year resistance movement against the Israeli occupation.
Women coordinated strike days, distributed secret leaflets outlining weekly protest strategies, ran agricultural collectives, set up “victory gardens” and operated underground schools. In some cases, they took over top political positions in highly patriarchal parties: Activists like Rabeha Diab and Zahira Kamal, in the liberation movements Fatah and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, respectively, issued directives and guided the uprising, often behind the scenes. The new documentary “Naila and the Uprising” chronicles women’s largely unsung daily activism during the First Intifada, showing how Palestinian women revolutionized gender relations in their own society while vying for national self-determination.
On the other side of the Green Line, several Israeli women supported the uprising. Spurred by the First Intifada, Women in Black organized in 1988 to protest the occupation. Women were also key players in human rights organizations founded during this period, including B’Tselem and the Israeli-Palestinian Committee Confronting the Iron Fist. Some Israeli women participated in nonviolent direct action alongside Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while several female Israeli lawyers, most notably Felicia Langer and Leah Tsemel, defended Palestinian activists in Israeli courts.
Women’s participation makes resistance and negotiations more successful
Nonviolent resistance campaigns have historically been twice as successful as armed struggles, typically leading to more peaceful and democratic societies. Women’s participation is key to their overall effectiveness. One study found that movements that included gender equality in their discourse were dramatically more likely to adopt nonviolence. Other research has found that higher levels of women’s active participation in resistance campaigns correlates with greater nonviolent discipline and higher probability of achieving their stated aims.
While the mass mobilization of the First Intifada was not new for Palestinians, the inclusion of women at every level of society, including schoolteachers, nurses, farmers and political leaders, played a central role in the strength and durability of the uprising.
Women’s gains during the Intifada spilled over into negotiations. When multilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians began in Madrid in 1991, three Palestinian women joined, more female representation than any other delegation.
But such advances were thwarted when exiled male PLO cadres negotiated an agreement with Israel behind closed doors. The Oslo agreements that followed were negotiated predominantly by those PLO members, sidelining the grass-roots Intifada activists who had effectively pressured Israel to the negotiating table in the first place. While female activists were arguably more connected to the needs and realities of Palestinians on the ground, the accords were ultimately negotiated entirely by men, excluding women not just from discussions, but also the process of government formation and eventually their central roles in civil society.
Several female leaders from the time expressed shock and disappointment after being undermined and sidelined by the Oslo process. Kamal, now a former minister and senior figure in the left-wing FIDA party, recently described how the women who had achieved so much were expected to step aside once the men returned.
Successful peace processes don’t sideline female leaders
We don’t know what would have happened if more women been included in negotiations after Madrid or during implementation following Oslo. But there is mounting evidence that greater inclusion of women in all stages of a peace process correlates with success in achieving and sustaining agreements. A study of 40 peace processes in 35 countries since the 1990s found that when women’s groups were heavily involved, agreement was substantially more likely than when women did not participate. In the post-agreement phase, influential women’s engagement resulted in longer-lasting peace.
For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, women’s engagement has made some recent, albeit limited, progress. In 2016, the Palestinian Authority adopted a National Action Plan for implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for equal participation by women in peace and security efforts. And a coalition of Israeli women spearheaded a civil society campaign in 2014 to promote an action plan, a campaign that has since stalled.
But such efforts are hemmed in by the ongoing occupation. The Palestinian Authority holds little autonomy and dwindling legitimacy and has been actively repressing grass-roots activism. And Israel cannot seriously implement Resolution 1325 while deepening its military occupation of the land of millions of Palestinians. Although women in both societies are participating in nonviolent activism and efforts to push their political leaders toward a peaceful settlement, these organizations will have to confront a hostile political environment, build legitimacy while navigating a deeply asymmetrical conflict, scale up while maintaining internal discipline and rally for equal rights in their own societies and in relations with their neighbors.
There were probably many reasons that the Oslo peace process failed. But in the face of growing comparative data, it is reasonable to assume that excluding 50 percent of the stakeholders did not help it succeed. While peace between Israelis and Palestinians may now seem a distant prospect, supporting women’s leadership and involvement in grass-roots organizing, peace-building and nonviolent resistance efforts on both sides of the Green Line may provide the opening to show what Oslo could have been.
Daniel Nerenberg is the communications manager for Just Vision, a nonprofit organization that promotes the work of Palestinian and Israeli grass-roots leaders. He has a PhD in political science from George Washington University.