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Day 5: The Recurring Nightmare of War in Gaza

29 November 2012

As we mark this year’s 16 Days of Activism, I affirm from experience that militarised violence does devastate any chance of peace in the home. The strong link between ending violence against women and ending wars was restated for me, as I watched the latest Israeli military Operation “Pillar of Defence” in the last two weeks.

I was immediately drawn back into the trauma of military Operation “Cast Lead” (OCL) which began on the morning of Saturday 27 December 2008, when Israel broke the ceasefire agreement with Hamas, as Gaza children made their way to school. As Israel’s longest and deadliest incursion into the blockaded Gaza Strip, “Cast Lead” preceded 2012’s “Pillar” in a long line of strategic military efforts to render the daily life of Palestinians “unbearable”.

Photo of man and ruins in Gaza
Photo: Vanessa Farr. Gaza, 2009

As OCL began, I was at home with my family in a flat overlooking a heavily-guarded pedestrian crossing through the infamous – and illegal – barricade that separates Palestinians in the West Bank from those in East Jerusalem. By Sunday evening, the violence reached us too: we awoke to the sound of M16 rifle fire as Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers fired seemingly endless rounds of bullets at Palestinians on the other side of the barricade who were protesting the Gaza attack. Inside Gaza, more than a thousand civilians were going to die in the next 22 days.

As those days dragged endlessly on, I was glued to the internet, frantically phoning friends inside Gaza for news, gripped with fear that people I loved might not make it. When Israeli troops finally withdrew, an event that was carefully timed to coincide with President Obama’s first oath of office, it was finally possible for me to go into the Strip to see for myself what had happened.

Nothing could have prepared me for the devastation of Gaza after relentless bombardment, shelling, incursions by tanks and well-armed combat troops. The place was flattened, the ruins still smouldering. Mature orange and olive trees, a major source of livelihood and nutrition, had been ruthlessly uprooted; roads were shredded by tanks; and the Strip’s sole industrial zone had been systematically destroyed. Around USD 527 million of damage had been caused.

“To exist is to resist”, say Palestinians, and that was evident everywhere in the aftermath. Male friends told me of their admiration for women’s courage – risking their lives, they had usually been the ones to go out to find food and water in the thick of the fighting since it was known that the IDF, having labelled every male in Gaza a “terrorist”, would shoot to kill any man on sight.

Women spoke little about how they had felt in that time they were outside: they were just doing what Gaza women have done since al nakba: making their families’ lives liveable. They did talk of the courage and kindness they had seen in men. One told me how a passer-by had tried to help her family get their disabled uncle to safety during fierce shelling. He had stood and cried with them as, helpless to move the old man, they had had to leave him to die in the flames that engulfed their home.

Photo of woman in ruined kitchen in Gaza
Photo: Vanessa Farr. Gaza, 2009

One mind-numbingly brutal aspect of the attack was that the kitchens of Gaza homes had been particularly, it seemed systematically, targeted. House after house had had a single corner – the downstairs kitchen corner – carefully bulldozed through by tanks. It was only when I saw women hunched over cooking fires in the open air that I realised just how cruel it is to destroy a family’s kitchen.

The heart of Palestinian homes, the place of familial sustenance, nurturance and tradition, had been deliberately torn out. Now, all that offered newly homeless people some modicum of comfort was a primitive fire. “They want to make us feel like savages,” said Fatma, as she struggled to cook on smouldering twigs.

It wasn’t until the months and years after OCL ended, though, that I realised how damaged Gazan families had been. Survivors began to speak of what it felt like to live on when everyone you love has died, including Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaisha, a gynaecologist well-known to his Israeli patients, whose three daughters were blown up by a shell.

Then relief at still being alive slowly turned back to fear and exhaustion as the blockade remained in place and the ceasefire trembled on a knife edge. The humiliation of not being able to protect their families meant that some men started using violence at home.

The violence extended well beyond Gaza, of course. After the incursion ended I listened, appalled, as the shrill rhetoric denying the Palestinian right to resistance and self-defence in the face of Israel’s settler colonial policies grew louder. It grew even louder as the full extent of the damage done to Gaza’s trapped and helpless civilian population was revealed.

The violence of OCL never really stopped, although its scale was dramatically lessened between January 28th and 14th November 2012 . In this latest escalation, all my memories of the horrors of OCL came flooding back as the IDF attacked Gaza from the air and sea while Hamas retaliated with weaponry effective enough to reach Al Quds, Jerusalem, where I have dozens of friends. Again, I was frantically Skyping with those inside the blockade – were they all ok? For a second time, I read the heart-breaking testimonies of mothers crazed with fear for their children and husbands. Once more I listened as Western leaders justified the cruelty and scale of Israel’s offensive in what journalist Amira Hass describes as “a tremendous propaganda victory” for Israel.

Yet again, I thought about how the cold nights and lack of food and water were adding to Gazan’s torment. As I saw the sad parade of crumpled small bodies being carried by weeping adults, I could hear children crying in fear on both sides of the border as they wet their beds in the thundering mortar fire, learning anew that nothing can be done to protect them from the terror of Israel’s military might or Hamas’s indiscriminately fired rockets.

Each time Israel attacks blockaded Gaza, each time Hamas and armed groups escalate the violence by shooting rockets back, each time either side claims that it has upstaged the other, a little more of the fragile fabric of Gaza’s life is shredded.

This 16 Days, as we stand once more in solidarity with stateless, homeless, refugee, blockaded Palestinians, let us neither forgive this war against the helpless, nor do anything more to support the angry men that wage it.

For in the end, this latest undermining of the efforts of Mahmoud Abbas to work through non-violent diplomacy for the recognition of a Palestinian State is not a show of superiority. It is only another attestation that patriarchal militarisation will never cease its violence until all other voices are silenced.

By Vanessa Farr, WILPF MENA Project Special Advisor

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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