After 50 years of occupation in Palestine, friendship across a separation wall

Wars have been fought, walls built and separation policies enacted. But we share a common belief that peace is possible. We refuse to be enemies.

Yifat Susskind Aisha Saifi
8 June 2017

Yifat and members of Midwives for Peace. Photo: Jessica Alderman.

After crossing multiple checkpoints and Israel’s more than 25-foot high separation wall, we gathered up on Aisha’s rooftop, where she’d planned a barbecue for our families to share. Our boys made fast friends, quickly overcoming the language barrier between them as they bonded over playing with Legos. We loaded up plates, enjoyed the open air, and talked about our lives and our work. All around us, we heard the noises of Palestinian families in the West Bank going about their days.

This is a scene that occupation tells us should be impossible: Yifat, an Israeli woman, and Aisha, a Palestinian woman, cooking and laughing together while we watch our children play. Through 50 years of occupation, wars have been fought, walls built and separation policies enacted that make our friendship an unlikely one.

Aisha was a toddler in 1967, just learning her first words when the Israeli military occupied Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. When war broke out, her family took shelter in a cave, huddling for some 10 days with little to eat or drink. Less than a hundred miles away, Yifat was only a few weeks old, her parents’ first baby, when her father left to join the war.

When the fighting subsided, and Aisha’s family emerged from their shelter, they found half their village empty, because so many families were forced to flee. In Yifat’s home, her parents imagined that by the time of her first smile, the land that Israel had conquered would be returned. In those early days, Israelis were told by their government that the occupation was temporary.

But 50 years on, the occupation continues, and it’s hard for most people to imagine how things could change. Gaza, once economically self-sufficient, is now an open-air prison, with 2 million people struggling to survive, denied their rights to water, medical care and other basics. In the West Bank, where Aisha lives, a network of Israeli settlements and checkpoints encircle people’s lives, separating communities. They block people from getting to work and school, and even keep women in labour from reaching clinics or hospitals.

As the occupation has dragged on, our resistance to it has shaped the course of our lives.

Meanwhile, we’ve grown up from girls into women, defined ourselves, built friendships and raised families. As the occupation has dragged on, our resistance to it has shaped the course of our lives.

Aisha became a midwife to shepherd the next generation of babies into this world in health and safety. She helps pregnant women and new mothers trapped by roadblocks and “settler-only” roads to access healthcare for themselves and their babies. She coordinates the Midwives for Peace group that brings together Palestinian and Israeli midwives to exchange birthing skills, share resources and model what peaceful co-existence can look like.

Yifat devoted her life to human rights and, as a young woman, worked as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace and solidarity organisation in Jerusalem. She documented human rights violations in occupied Palestine and ran campaigns to demand an end to the occupation. As the director of MADRE, she’s spent years supporting women’s organising worldwide, including the vital work of Midwives for Peace.

Our work for peace defies the occupation, and our friendship prefigures another possibility. When politicians and media tell us that we can’t trust each other, that our friendship can’t scale the wall of separation that Israel built, we resist. We resist by refusing to be enemies.

We resist by refusing to be enemies.

We know that our true enemy is the occupation that has shadowed our lives. We’ve seen too many Palestinian children return a blank stare when asked what they want to be when they grow up. They can’t fathom a self-determined future with the walls of occupation closing around them. We’ve heard too many Israeli children told that they are despised by their Arab neighbours, never being allowed to question that. This is how adults plant the seeds of fear and sadness and grow the next generation of occupiers.

What will it take to plant different seeds, to end the occupation and create another future for our children?

We begin by providing concrete aid to people who need it. That’s what MADRE and Midwives for Peace do when we support women who provide prenatal care and attend to the births of women otherwise denied basic health care.

Fundamentally, we build a different future by demanding an end to the occupation. We align ourselves with grassroots activists who are organising peacefully. When Israeli youth refuse military service, or when Palestinian families and neighbours set up peace encampments in the West Bank, welcoming Israelis to join them as activists, not occupiers, they bring to life today a vision of what peace could look like tomorrow.

We are Palestinian and Israeli, and we share a common belief that something better is waiting for us. We see the possibilities hovering beyond our realities. Sometimes, a glimpse of peace is two women chatting, cooking and watching their children play.

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