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06. June 2008

Dr. Sara Roy © Elisabeth Kasbauer

Dr. Sara Roy in Vienna

Sara Roy © Elisabeth Kasbauer

Sara Roy in Wien © Elisabeth Kasbauer

Today itís About Sheer Survival

Elisabeth Kasbauer, Executive Director of Women without Borders talks with Dr. Sara Roy

Dr. Sara Roy is a professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard and has conducted research on the political, social and economic development of Palestine since 1985. As the daughter of Auschwitz survivors, she grew up in a domestic environment that defined teachings from the Holocaust as a moral obligation. She believes that these lessons apply to all communities.
Elisabeth Kasbauer spoke with her about the everyday life of women in the West Bank and Gaza, about the selective allocation of development aid and hopelessness in the region. Roy was invited to Vienna by the Vienna Institute for Dialog and Cooperation.

Elisabeth Kasbauer: When we consider the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the complicated nature of the subject makes it difficult to know where to start. Women are greatly affected by this conflict.

Sara Roy: The situation in Gaza and the West Bank is precarious at the moment. Women suffer in many ways: unemployment, broken families, inability to provide proper nutrition, lack of health care, restricted freedom of movement – the list is endless. Women are exposed to internal and external suppression. But there were many strong and engaged women during the peace negotiations in Oslo, and there were many female ministers as well.

E.K.: Is this period of hope in the past?

Roy: It was a period of possibilities, which is now over. Today it’s about sheer survival. The primary role of women is to keep the family intact and to preserve some semblance of normalcy in an environment that is so destructive. Women have to make sure that their families survive, and this brings us back to ground zero.

E.K.: Demographically speaking, the population of the West Bank and Gaza is very young.

Roy: In Gaza, the population growth and the fertility rates are some of the highest in the world. I have spent a lot of time in refugee camps, and there is no privacy at these places. There is an enormous amount of pressure on the whole community, particularly on women. I was so overwhelmed by the sense of density, the lack of privacy and the lack of any sense of thinking about myself. It’s as if thinking about yourself as a human being, as a woman, is selfish and illegitimate. And now it is even worse because the exigencies are so much more extreme. What are the main concerns of a Palestinian mother? To provide enough food for her children, to make sure they don’t get shot on the way to school, and to make sure they remain in good health. How do you get proper healthcare for your children? First, to make sure that, when you are pregnant, you will be able to get to a hospital and deliver your baby safely. But the number of home births in the West Bank and Gaza has gone up significantly because women physically can’t access hospitals because of roadblocks and checkpoints.

E.K.: Development programs have always been active in the region. How do you perceive the sustainability of these initiatives and where can they be found at the moment?

Roy: There is virtually no development aid at the moment. Most aid is humanitarian or based on emergency response. In Gaza there is no development at all. And the majority of these funds are used punitively; this is one of the major differences in developmental and economic systems today. And development as an objective has always been extremely problematic in this part of the world for political reasons; Israel has always constrained and precluded development. Economic growth would mean political empowerment, and that is simply not on the agenda.
Aid is also allocated in a very selective way – even humanitarian aid. The U.S. is largely to blame for this in my opinion, but the EU is also to blame because it goes along with the program. USAID will not fund a municipality, no matter how desperately needed, if that municipality is perceived to be run by Hamas. It is no longer a question of development or change; it is now a question of control.

E.K.: How is it possible that the Palestinian population was held hostage by politics while the whole world was watching?

Roy: It’s all about power. And it wasn’t just that the Israelis, the Americans and the international community chose not to address Palestinian society in a meaningful way; the Palestinian leadership itself, under Arafat, has always tried to marginalize civil society. If you empower a society, you create a potential threat to your own rule.

E.K.: Is there hope on the horizon? Yossi Beizlin, the leader of the social left-wing party Meretz-Jachad said recently: ‘We must accept that Israel will be divided and then we will have peace.’

Roy: This is the big question. The status quo is dreadful – for Palestinians and Israelis. If the situation isn’t resolved in a manner in which both peoples can live peacefully – and peacefully together – then it will erupt into even more violence.
Historically, the idea was that Palestinians had to accept the terms that Israel and the US defined for resolving this conflict. But Palestinians have learned their lesson; now they say, ‘deal with us as human beings, as equals, and we will engage with engage with Israel.’ They are prepared to live in peace with Israel, but will no longer accept pre-conditions, transitional arrangements or confidence building measures. They now demand reciprocity and mutual recognition. This is why Hamas has a lot of support. Hamas represents the only root, political root, that will stand up to the West, Israel and the international community and say ‘we are prepared to engage, but we will engage with you on terms that we define together, not terms that you impose on us.’

E.K.: This is a sensitive and internationally controversial question.

Roy: What is the alternative? The Palestinians are ready to die for liberation and humanity. They are no longer afraid of the military power of Israel. They believe that there is nothing left to lose.

E.K.: Many in this area have never known anything but war, destruction and violence.

Roy: Unemployment in the Gaza Strip is approximately 40%. Palestinians are no longer able to work in Israel; they have been replaced by workers from Asia and Romania. I hope that both sides realize how irrational the situation is. I find the situation personally desperate as well; I am Jewish and my family lives there. It’s a part of the world I have spent a lot of time, both personally and professionally. I have never felt such hopelessness as I feel now. This is true among my Palestinian friends and colleagues, and this is true among my Israeli friends and colleagues.
And there seems to be no solution in sight. My hope has always been that the international community would take a more principal stand, because historically it has done so. But now the EU has taken the US position and has abnegated its historical role in this conflict. So I have to wonder, what do we do now?
Palestinians have been denied an acceptable solution, but they were willing to tolerate unacceptable conditions for the last fifteen years in the hope that it would result in a positive solution. Now they understand that that is no longer the case, and the Palestinians mind-set has changed. This change in attitude coupled with the acute political situation and knowledge that there is now way out is extremely dangerous.

E.K.: You have been engaged in this subject your entire academic career. Many ask, to what avail is this research?

Roy: I am often asked this question. For me personally, the purpose of my research was to present a counter discourse, counter narrative and counter model to the one that was being given to us. My idea was always to educate people and to present a different paradigm on this issue. But I want people to one day say: "You can't say that we didn't know. We did know." The information was there.

The interview was published in the June edition of the Austrian magazine Südwind.


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