Dr. Sumaya Naser Farhat, 58, has spent most of her adult life fighting for peace. Despite setbacks and continuing violence in Palestine, this professor of Botany at Birzeit University, Palestine is hopeful that stability and sanity will prevail in the Middle East one day.
Co-founder and former director of the Jerusalem Centre for Women, a Palestinian NGO that has worked closely in the past with Bat Shalom, an Israeli women's centre, Farhat is unable to visit Jerusalem anymore or to continue the dialogue with Israeli women due to military roadblocks and curfews. The result is that the peace initiative she started two decades ago, along with a group of Israeli women, is in limbo. The education programs and peace strategy meetings that Jerusalem Link - the umbrella organization for Bat Shalom and Jerusalem Centre for Women - are also on hold.
So, she is forced to work as an individual, organizing training sessions - on conflict resolution, non-violence, civic leadership, human rights, tolerance and empowerment - for as many women and youth as possible. The winner of numerous international peace awards Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights and the Augsburger Peace Prize, Farhat talks about building a peaceful future for Palestine. An interview.
Q. It is truly tragic that even post-elections, Palestinians are now fighting fellow Palestinians...
A. The situation in Palestine today is chaotic but it is a logical consequence of all these years of occupation by the Israeli military, which is at the root of the problem. Palestinians are not used to the rule of law anymore. Over the years, everything in Palestine has been systematically destroyed. We have been brought up on destruction and have to learn how to build civil society. What the world is witnessing is the painful process involved in rebuilding a Palestine that has been destroyed by war.
Q. What is the role of women in Palestinian society today?
A. When the situation is so radically political and so volatile, women choose to retreat into the background. They are quietly but actively dealing with non-political issues like education, family, health and social services. All these activities are as important as our participation in politics. In the confusion and chaos of the politics of the day, the voice of women has been silenced for the moment.
Q. But you continue to speak and to work...?
A. When it became impossible to work through organizations, I branched out on my own. We are a team of eight women and we continue to visit families, schools and universities to hold workshops for both women and men under the idea of 'Training the Trainer'. We conduct seminars on communication, dialogue skills, tolerance and conflict resolution in the hope of empowering a new generation of leadership. The way politics was played in the past will not work.
Q. What, then, is the new way of politics?
A. The previous generation of politicians in Palestine were revolutionaries. That era is now over. Today we need politicians who will help us rebuild civil society and not fight wars. What you see in Palestine today is a power struggle between the older generation of politicians and the aspiring ones. The tragedy is that the people don't need a spectacle of power struggle. They pine for freedom, liberty and security. The entire struggle for a homeland and to end the occupation is now on hold. That energy is now diverted to the rivalry between politicians within Palestine. This is a catastrophe for the people who are already suffering.
Q. And what do you think is the responsibility of the international community in the current situation?
A. The world must understand that the people of Palestine feel a tremendous sense of solidarity with the Hamas today. People agree with the Hamas when it says that it prefers governance through an advisory council and believes in teamwork instead of endless rule by one individual, as was the practice of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the past.
It is irresponsible of the international community to boycott the democratically-elected Hamas. It is irresponsible of the defeated Al Fatah politicians to oppose Hamas with the help of some members of the international community under these circumstances. The older generation of politicians must accept that people are disappointed in them for having failed to bring about peace and security for the Palestinians. They must allow younger politicians to fulfill this responsibility, and help instead of hindering them.
Q. What have you learnt from your work in the past?
A. In the past, I talked only to women about alternative ways of making peace with Israel. Today I realize that peace-making and nation-building are processes that include both men and women. It is too much of a burden for women to shoulder it alone. Another mistake of secular Muslim women like myself was to make little effort to communicate with women from radical Muslim families. A huge divide was created within the community of women in Palestine. Today, one-third of my work is with women who favor Hamas.
Q. What is role of women within Hamas?
A. In the last elections, 12 women won seats to the Parliament. Out of this number, eight women are from Hamas. I find female politicians from Hamas very active in social work. Hamas is extremely close to the grassroots. What I find in common with them are shared experiences and problems of all women caught in a war that all of us are against.
I have created a cross-cultural forum where women from different backgrounds meet to share views on how to deal with fear, violence, trauma, and our common lack of mobility and independence. We do not discuss Islamic jurisprudence yet. I believe that we must act wisely and it is most unwise for one Palestinian to pick quarrels with another Palestinian just yet.
Q. What is the priority in Palestine today?
A. To allow each individual to have faith in their own self. We have to inspire the young to remain hopeful of a better life and show them that there are other ways besides war and violence to deal with problems.
Q. And what is the source of your hope?
A. The look in the eyes of the young people I work with, where I see nothing except humanity, dignity and a love for life.