The New York Times recently published an article about a cohort of seemingly unlikely co-conspirators committing civil disobedience in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. A group of Israeli women smuggled a group of Palestinian women and girls from the southern part of the West Bank, through the Israeli barriers, across Israel to Jaffa, an urban area just outside of Tel Aviv. The purpose? Nothing grander than a swim in the Mediterranean Sea, as women, neighbors, and even friends. The action was inspired by Ilana Hammerman, who facilitated the first contraband seaside trip about a year ago. Ms. Hammerman was learning Arabic in the West Bank and there befriended three girls who expressed their desire to get out of the West Bank, if even for one day. Ms. Hammerman recounted her experience in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, describing their adventure together through the crossing points and to Tel Aviv’s beaches and amusements. Palestinian residents of the West Bank, male and female, although maybe a little more than an hour’s drive away from the Mediterranean coast, are barred in large (if not all) part from moving freely into Israel and back to their homes. The girls with Ms. Hammerman had never before seen the sea.
Despite the criminal investigation of Ms. Hammerman that followed the publication of the Haaretz article, her cross-boundary excursion prompted the formation of a group that calls itself We Will Not Obey. The women of We Will Not Obey protest the disparity in the freedom of movement between Israelis and Palestinians. The New York Times explains that Israelis may move freely between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean; movement for Palestinians is significantly more restricted. The women thus decided to repeat the defiance of Ms. Hammerman and seek other women who are willing to risk criminal punishment for the sake of showing their confined sisters the wild freedom of the Mediterranean. And not only does the organization facilitate beach trips; the Israeli women bring toys into the West Bank, share meals with their Palestinian counterparts, and wander Tel Aviv’s shopping areas together during these escapes. The women have achieved seven in total.
This story is extraordinary for at least two reasons. First, civil disobedience is so often thought of as something monumental, like the incredible movements following Gandhi or Mandela. The contrary actions of these women are beautiful in their simplicity. No, seaside trips for smuggled Palestinian women and girls may not feel hugely significant in a land dominated by heavy-handed security and bitterly prolonged divisiveness, but the bravery of the women, both sides risking criminal punishment, is inspiring and sends a message that yes, there are people who truly believe the Israelis and Palestinians can be neighbors, even friends, and act accordingly. Second, that women are committing civil disobedience in this area of the world is profound. The West Bank is dominated by male decision-makers (at least outside of the home, and arguably within the home as well), and although Israel clearly includes a mix of liberal and conservative, traditional and reformist citizens, the reigning rightist government reflects a significantly patriarchal approach to governing and offers no mystery about its stance toward liberties for the Palestinian people.
In the Forward to the 2011 report on the Progress of the World’s Women issued by UN Women, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon identified how essential it is to recognize women as agents of change. The conviction of the Israeli and Palestinian women participating in these acts of civil disobedience is clear, and the joy brought by their new connections is palpable, evidenced by the photo of the women dancing together on a Tel Aviv rooftop at the end of the day. Hopefully the men are paying attention and are inspired to also reach out peacefully to their neighbors, across the wall and to the sea.