Desperately seeking security

by Gila Svirsky
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JERUSALEM - In Israel, the concept of "security" is a powerful one. It is used to justify all military activity, including the occupation of Palestinian territories and the vast budgets applied to it. Indeed, a mystique has developed around security --"national security" is a phrase invoked not just to increase military budgets, but also to silence criticism and prevent transparency. Recent efforts to prevent the publication of testimony about the Second Lebanon War were pursued on the grounds of "security". "Security risks" can be used as a rationale to prevent defendants from seeing the evidence against them in court. Only the highest officials are privy to full information about security related matters, and they prevent this information from seeing the light of public scrutiny and debate. And because of the role of men in the security establishment -- making all the major military and political decisions -- men and their views are valued and privileged over women and their views, deepening inequality. Much more could (and should) be said about all this.

Security, however, once meant something much broader than its military definition. Sometimes it's hard to remember that older use of "security", but efforts to revive it have been made in recent years. It is called "human security" and includes areas of activity such as:
  • economic security (having a job, a roof over one's head, access to health care);
  • personal security (safety from gender-related violence, protection from crime, having one's children safe from drugs); and
  • environmental security (knowing that one's tap water is clean and pure, having access to clean beaches, having clean air to breathe).
For several generations, however, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have had security, not in its narrow nor in its broader sense. Both societies have lived in an ongoing state of fear and insecurity for many years. And although Palestinians have paid a higher price than Israelis for this conflict, it is quite clear that Israelis also live in a perpetual state of fear and insecurity.

Yet if you talk to Israelis about the occupation, they will tell you that Israel cannot leave the occupied territories because of "security". Security, they will say, is best served by remaining in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, constructing a huge "security fence", and laying siege to the Gaza Strip. Oddly, few Israelis stop to think if these military measures are providing the long-sought security… or, in fact, have been counterproductive, only deepening the fear and insecurity.

The women's peace movement in Israel has begun to work on this problem. We call it a campaign to "reframe security" -- to broaden our conception of it. We seek to demonstrate to Israelis that security is not the end-result of having a strong, aggressive army, but rather the product of a broad range of activity, which includes living in a society that cares for its poor, reduces violence, protects its natural resources and co-exists in peace with its neighbours. Indeed, this campaign seeks to instil the understanding that "peace is the best way to promote security".

As part of this campaign, we take Israelis on "reality tours" to show them the Separation Wall. We bring them into the homes of Palestinians who are cut off from their land, jobs and schools by the Wall, and we give Palestinians an opportunity to tell about their lives and how the Wall has changed them. For most Israelis, this is the very first time they have ever spoken to a Palestinian. We bring the Israelis to checkpoints, and have them observe the soldiers' treatment of Palestinians trying to cross. We also take them to see parts of Israel that have been neglected by the political leaders -- the slums, the shelters for battered women, the untreated garbage, the trafficking in women, the inadequate health care centres, the poorly equipped schools. Each participant goes on a number of tours to see several aspects of the problem. We help Israelis draw the connection between a society that is pouring its resources into occupation and settlements, and failing to address the social problems that exist within it.

These tours are powerful experiences. They reach beyond what Israelis see in the media, showing them a slice of reality they have never before seen. And then we ask: Do you think that the policies of our government have enhanced your security? Or have they actually compromised it?

We are hoping that the old conceptions will gradually give way to a new understanding: that Israel will never be able to address the needs of our population until a just agreement has been reached with our neighbours. That security -- whether in the narrow or broader sense -- is compromised by failing to achieve a political accommodation with the Palestinians.

For years, women have focused on human security issues -- better schools, health services, poverty programs, violence issues, etc. -- but not named it "security". Now, instead of fighting the concept, we are working to reframe it so that it will promote the kind of society that we want to live in.

This campaign is more than a strategy. It is a fundamental belief that all these forms of security are critical -- and that it will never be possible to realize a common zone of peace, prosperity and progress -- not for Israel and not for Palestine -- until a just and lasting settlement of the conflict is in place.

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* Gila Svirsky is a veteran peace and human rights activist, and currently chair of B'Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. She was co-founder of the Coalition of Women for Peace and is an ongoing member of Women in Black. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 17 May 2007
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