Al Zahraa - how an Oxfam partner organisation changed its activities during the Middle East conflict 2006

Al Zahraa is an Oxfam partner organisation that works with Arab women in northern Israel, close to the border with Lebanon. Al Zahraa aims to improve the status of Arab women in their own communities and in Israeli society.

They strengthen networks of Arab women's groups in Israel, and their conferences, leadership training courses, and educational programmes help to empower these women.

Since the conflict broke out between Israel and Lebanon in July, Al Zahraa have turned their attention towards demonstrating against the war, and providing practical help to school children and their families.

Trees Kosterman from Al Zahraa spoke to Oxfam about how the recent conflict has affected their work, and how her organisation is responding.

We felt paralysed since the outbreak of the war on 12 July. In fact we don't know what to do. During the first few days, we were angry. When the first Katyushas (rockets) started to fall on the Galilee, we were afraid, but all the time we told ourselves that this is nothing compared with the destruction and the killing in Lebanon.

During the first week we didn't go to work, because we didn't know how dangerous the rocket attacks were. But we soon found out how bad they were. Until now more than 40 people have been killed. 17 of them were Arabs. 50 per cent of the population in the Galilee is Arab Israeli citizens – Arabs who remained, or whose families remained here when the state of Israel was created in 1948. Of course, Arab Israelis suffer from the same problems as the Jewish population, but there is one big difference between them: the Jewish communities have bomb shelters, many of the Arab communities don't. Arab citizens hear the warning sirens, but don’t have any safe place to go to escape the falling rockets.

When we saw that the war was going to continue, we decided to return to the office to try to work, but our planned activities were very disrupted. We were supposed to have the annual member's assembly at the end of June. Most of our members live far away and they couldn’t come. Courses scheduled for the summer holiday season were canceled because it was too dangerous for people to travel. We intended to start our strategic planning process, but our consultant from Shatil, an organization in Haifa, couldn’t come as it was too dangerous to come out of the bomb shelter.

Our staff team, and the women we are in contact with through our courses, have been taking part in demonstrations against the war. Three Saturdays in a row we went to Tel Aviv to raise our voices together with Jewish women and men. Some of the rallies were organized by a consortium of women’s groups including Al Zahraa. Because I am Dutch, I have also been writing things for the Dutch press to raise awareness about how Arab Israelis have been affected by the conflict.

Alongside this campaigning, we are trying to raise funds for Arab women from our communities whose livelihoods have been affected by the conflict. I have started writing proposals to donors.

Normally, during the summer holidays in July and August, many women take their children to pick fruit in the orchards in the north, close to the Lebanese border. They need the money they earn to buy school uniforms and schoolbooks for the children at the start of the new school year. But this year, it has been too dangerous for them to pick fruit near the border. Women who are widowed or divorced have been hit especially hard by this loss of income.

It’s not just women who have been affected by the rocket attacks. There have been lots of economic repercussions. Most Arab men, who are the main breadwinners for their families work in cities such as Haifa, Karmiel, Malot, and Tiberias. In these cities and towns, businesses are closed, and the men are sitting at home. Many Arabs workers are on temporary contracts, so after the war began they were fired, or their contracts were not continued.

Al Zahraa have identified 50 vulnerable families – single parent families or those where the father is unemployed because of the war – and we will give them money to buy their children's school uniforms and school books before the new term begins at the start of September. In total, 150 school children will benefit.

A few days ago I visited a mother called Sobhya* who has six children, all under 18. Her husband has been severely ill for six years now. They receive financial support form the social welfare office of 2200 shekels per month ($500) and child allowance of 1000 Shekels ($190), but they spend 1000 shekels per month on medicines for the father.

When I visited Sobhya's house I was shocked by what I saw. The house is virtually empty and the walls are unplastered so the house is very damp in winter, which makes things hard for three of the children who are asthmatic.

While I was drinking a cup of coffee with Sobhya, her 9-year-old son Loay came up to me and gave me a plastic bag. He looked so proud. Inside the plastic bag were two new pairs of school trousers, which his mother was able to buy with the 750 shekel grant that we gave her.

The situation over the last few weeks has been so difficult, both for us, and for others in Gaza and Lebanon, and as usual, it is the women and children who are the most vulnerable. We think that it is so important for the children to enter the new school year in a good way. We are trying to do what we can.

Now there is a ceasefire, things are quiet in northern Israel and life is returning to normal. But the ceasefire isn’t enough. Meanwhile, we haven't forgotten about the Israeli occupation and the fact that the hostilities there are continuing.

*To protect her identity, the names in this story have been changed.

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