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Mission accomplished?: Israel's "four mothers" and the legacies of successful antiwar movements.

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.

--Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom


Four Mothers--Leaving Lebanon in Peace, according to journalistic and academic sources, was a remarkably successful antiwar movement--"probably the most influential protest movement in the history of Israel," according to one observer (Shavit, 2006; see also Frucht, 2000; Sebag, 2002; Hermann, 2006; and Sela, 2007). Between 1997 and 2000, movement activists helped turn Israeli public opinion against a counterinsurgency war that Israel had been fighting in Lebanon since 1982. The group, which was the only national grassroots movement active against the war at the time, was founded by the parents of soldiers assigned to combat in Lebanon, most of them residents of collective kibbutz communities in the Galilee region in Israel's North, along the Lebanon border.

The Four Mothers name adopted the image of the Biblical matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. Movement leaders, including this article's first co-author, used both religious and secular nationalist imagery to appeal to Jewish Israeli public opinion, which, in the course of the Four Mothers protest, shifted from less than 35 percent in favor of unilaterally ending Israel's military presence in Lebanon to more than 70 percent in favor (Arian 1997, 1999a, 1999b).

This opinion shift was attributable not only to the movement's demonstrations, lobbying, petitions, and media and public education campaigns: Increasing Israeli casualties in Lebanon, some dramatic military disasters, and the government and military's inability to articulate attainable goals and strategies for the war were also important factors. However, as the Four Mothers protest expanded into a national movement, it managed to garner considerable media and public attention to its message: that Israel's 16-year-long war in southern Lebanon had failed to protect the northern communities--the war's ostensible purpose at that stage--and had pointlessly endangered two generations of Israeli soldiers as well. As one of the movement's slogans put it, "Our husbands were fighting this war when our boys were still babies. We don't want our grandsons to still be fighting it" (Ben Dor). In 1999, in the context of national elections and antiwar trends in public opinion, Labor party leader Ehud Barak pledged to withdraw the army, if he were elected prime minister. Barak was elected prime minister and then in May 2000 ordered the soldiers' return to Israel. Four Mothers--Leaving Lebanon in Peace, as an ad hoc movement focused on ending Israel's military involvement in Lebanon, voted to dissolve itself soon afterward.

Despite widespread support for ending the war in the lead-up to the withdrawal and afterwards, and despite considerable esteem for the movement's accomplishments, even from right-wing nationalists who opposed its goals, the legacy of the Four Mothers movement, within several years, became sharply contested among the Israeli public. When war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah organization broke out in July 2006--after Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers near the border, and following the abduction of another Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip by the Palestinian Hamas organization--Israeli nationalists blamed the Four Mothers movement for having caused the war. This attribution was based on the proposition that, had the movement not caused the army's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, its ongoing presence there could have prevented Hezbollah's carrying out cross-border raids and acquiring the rockets that it fired into Israel in 2006.

The Four Mothers movement was also blamed for undermining the morale of the army and for making Israeli society less able to tolerate military casualties in war, for weakening the military's deterrent capabilities, and for inviting attacks by emboldened adversaries. Thus, Israeli withdrawal in 2000 was an act of appeasement that encouraged not only Hezbollah aggression, but also attacks on Israelis by Palestinian militants within the West Bank and Gaza in the intifada (uprising) beginning in late 2000.

It is worth noting that even media outlets considered to be relatively dovish took this line, especially in the early days of the war when public opinion sought to strike back in response to the soldiers' kidnapping. In this climate of fear, the approach that the Four Mothers movement had advocated, using non-violent actions to solve the problem, was lost in both public discourse in Israel and in the words of some former activists, which were picked up by the media in support of the pro-war consensus.

However, a government-appointed commission in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon fiasco concluded that the war's negative outcomes for Israel were a result of its political leaders having made "a vague decision without understanding and knowing its nature and implications. They authorized the commencement of a military campaign without considering how to exit it" (Winograd Report, 2007). By re-invading Lebanon in 2006, Israel inadvertently strengthened Hezbollah politically and weakened Israel, its military superiority notwithstanding. Might this outcome have been prevented if leaders of the Four Mothers movement, which was no longer active, had made an effort to revive the movement's messages and remind the public of its contributions to ending Israel's earlier war in Lebanon?

This article raises theoretical and a practical questions concerning the evaluation of antiwar movements' impact or success. On a theoretical level, it explores whether the chief criterion of success should be recognition for an essential role in bringing a war to an end, or if criteria should also include the ability of movement representatives, in the aftermath of their activism, to advocate effectively for the social and political lessons they draw from their protest experience--a concept for which the article uses the term "legacy protection and promotion." Drawing on the experiences of Four Mothers--Leaving Lebanon in Peace, the article asks how veterans of ad hoc antiwar protests, might go about promoting or safeguarding their movements' legacies.

Contesting the Legacies of Successful Antiwar Protests

Claims made by right-wing Israeli nationalists about the Four Mothers movement and about the Lebanon war--specifically, that Israel's withdrawal was a disastrous mistake caused by the protest--repudiated lessons that movement leaders and supporters hoped to instill. These lessons were that 1) resort to military force in hopes of solving complex political and security problems failed to accomplish declared objectives; and 2) such "wars of choice" were counterproductive and wound up harming Israeli interests--as Israel's 18 futile and costly years of military involvement in Lebanon showed.

What motivates contests over the legacies of successful antiwar protests? For many social movements, as Meyer (2006) notes, the stakes of claiming credit are high for movements' reputations and ongoing influence. However, for an ad hoc movement such as Four Mothers, the majority of whose activists had no interest in leading or being centrally involved in social movements after their goal of ending the Lebanon war was achieved, there were no compelling political reasons to be concerned with the movement's legacies or further establishing the movement's reputation. Movements whose goals for social change entail long-term or multi-generational efforts are necessarily concerned with movement survival and continuity; the Four Mothers movement was not.

In the course of their protest, movement leaders did, however, challenge the idea that retaliation and "hitting back" is a key source of power and security. They thus contested a widespread, deeply-held political and moral worldview among nationalists, which incurred an emotionally fueled backlash against the movement as having betrayed national interests and, perhaps unwittingly, abetted national enemies. Those who have promoted and supported costly and unsuccessful wars often find it politically and psychologically expedient to shift blame for the war's failure onto antiwar protesters, rather than to accept responsibility. Many Israeli politicians and military leaders--who, due to the tendency of high-ranking officers to go into politics, are overlapping elites--had personal and professional stakes in not acknowledging the extended occupation of Lebanon to have been a self-inflicted national wound.

Some right-wing nationalists in Israel may also have been motivated to discredit movement activism by concern that Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon would set a precedent for its withdrawal from other territories under Israeli military occupation, particularly the West Bank. These situations differ markedly, since Israel had no settlements in or ideological ties with Lebanon, which also facilitated the politics of the Lebanon withdrawal. Thus, acknowledging the failure of past war policy might constrain the government's ability to wage war in the future. Such constraints on executive power are typically resisted by government officials, particularly those with nationalistic and hawkish outlooks.

Movement leaders did not claim security expertise equivalent to that of army leaders and security specialists, even though some activists did have experience in military and security affairs and the movement successfully solicited endorsements of its positions from distinguished military officers. Yet, by pushing to legitimize participation in national-security policymaking by ordinary Israelis, in whose name the war was being fought, they advocated wider inputs into such policymaking by civilians. The activities of the Four Mothers movement in this respect attempted to subject Israel's army "at least partially to non-military logics" (Levy, 2008, 134). Movement leaders, by recruiting participation from retired intelligence officers, were able to present a rational, well-informed critique of the Lebanon situation, along with "rebuke of the military system, questioning the moral basis of employing young soldiers in a hopeless mission of fighting guerillas" (Sela, 2007, 69). In the Four Mothers case, as with other antiwar movements (Marullo and Meyer, 2005), attempts to redefine state-society relations and to alter power relations between authorities and challengers (Giugni, 1999, xxiii) are likely to prompt a negative or suspicious response from those in government and society who favor maintaining relatively narrow policymaking inputs.

There was also an important gender component to the political backlash against the Four Mothers movement, both during their years of activity and in the years following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. The movement's identity was understood primarily in maternal terms by Israel's media (Lemish and Barzel, 2000) and the public, as well as by many activists themselves--even though a substantial portion were either men or were women who were not mothers. In any case, the women who were the public face of the movement broke from their socially sanctioned roles as bearers of the nation's soldiers or mourners for children killed in war, and instead used their moral authority to accuse state officials of pointlessly endangering or wasting their children's lives. They evoked censorious and sometimes quite derogatory responses from those who believed that female citizens had no place in national-security debates.

Movement leaders were particularly concerned to deflect criticisms that activists were motivated mainly by hysteria over their children's safety. Concern for their sons' well-being did, to be sure, powerfully motivate many protesters. However, in stories that appeared in mid-2006, in which former activists expressed ambivalence about the outcomes of their protest and supported a military response to the contemporary crisis with Lebanon, reporters played up the women's regret for previous antiwar activism. This story angle tended to reinforce stereotypes of Four Mothers activists as unstable, fearful flip-floppers who changed political positions based on their emotions. Reporters played up the angle of remorse or repentance, even when the opinions expressed by former activists in support of the 2006 war were more akin to ambivalence (e.g., Shavit 2006). The evident interest in the repentance story may also reflect the media's tendency to depoliticize the work of former activists, which reassures the public that earlier political activism was a transient phase of no lasting significance (McAdam, 1999, 118).

Overall, arguments over the movement's legacy can be seen as continuations of earlier arguments between supporters and opponents of the war while the movement was active. The familiar claims were that that antiwar activism weakened the army's morale and the nation, and that Israel's withdrawal would embolden Hezbollah (e.g., Honig 1997), along with the protesters' counterclaim that what weakened the nation the most were politicians' ill-considered commitments to elective wars.

These ongoing arguments also reflected a phenomenon common after lost wars: Right-wing nationalists' portrayals of war outcomes as the result of betrayals on the home front. As documented in German nationalists and militarists' responses to the loss of World-War I, in France after the lost Algerian war, and in post-Vietnam America, nationalists and militarists have propagated "stab-in-the-back" narratives. These assert that the war could have been won militarily, had the soldiers' spirit not been undermined by unpatriotic, supposedly morally degenerate, Leftists (Lembcke, 1998; Rotter, 2003). Such mythologizing is often accompanied by cultural reassertions of sharply dichotomous gender roles (Theweleit, 1987 and 1989; Gibson, 1994; Jeffords, 1994), which may give added impetus to post-war criticisms of women peace activists.

Even those antiwar activists who have contributed to discrediting disastrous wars and to ending them have had little lasting influence on the militarized natures of their societies and their approaches to security and foreign policy (on the experience of anti-Vietnam war protest, see Katz 1983). The political right was also assisted in erasing peace movements in Europe from its analyses of factors that ended the Cold war, and from the apportioning of credit for these outcomes, by the relative slowness of peace activists to claim credit for their part (Meyer, 1999).

In sum, post-war political and cultural backlashes against the achievements of antiwar movements appear to be a predictable element of such movements' struggles and one important reason why such struggles have difficulty achieving the lasting social and political impacts they seek. Arguably, the likely political backlash should be taken into consideration by antiwar movements concerned with their political influence and legacies. In this regard, the concept of movement success extends beyond changing military policy and should include the movement's ability to define in the public sphere what it achieved. This element of success is important so that the positive achievements of the movement will last and can potentially affect future policy arguments and inspire future social movements.

The struggle to define lessons from Israel's 18-year Lebanon war and the Four Mothers movement's role in ending it is an example of a wider phenomenon whereby hard-line nationalists succeed to a significant extent in reframing antiwar movements' achievements as, at best, misguided appeasement, if not intentional betrayal of the nation's interest. The Second Lebanon war in 2006 showed the Israeli public to be capable, within a very short time, of forgetting the lesson that resort to force in response to non-existential threats often incurs unanticipated costs, as well as undermining one's own political goals.

The 2006 Lebanon war, in this regard, exemplified a process in which nationalists actively promoted unlearning lessons promulgated by antiwar movements such as the Four Mothers, and relearning faith in the resort to force that a fairly recent, failed war should have discredited. The default attitude--that nothing in the Arab-Israeli conflict ever changes and war with the Arabs is inevitable--reasserted itself among the Israeli public, which forgot how much it had disliked having Israeli ground forces stuck in Lebanon. This process also entails relearning unquestioning faith in military and political authorities, and transferring feelings of insecurity onto a political adversary within. Those who speak out against a new war are again viewed with suspicion and hostility. The effect is once again to narrow the inputs into security policymaking that successful antiwar movements have, often only temporarily, expanded.

Activists and Movement Legacies

Many antiwar activists might agree that the seemingly inevitable post-war backlash against activists' efforts makes it worth trying to define the legacies of their movements--during the protest and after the movement's dissolution. Activists have only limited potential to control how the public and history judge their efforts but, given these limits, they may still be capable of influence. However, activists may not take up the challenge due to factors including limited resources, the movement's self-presentation and values, and internal disagreements: After a single-issue antiwar movement disbands, the tendency of activists, understandably, is to return to normal life without expending additional effort on defining the movement's meaning and political lessons. Leaders of ad hoc antiwar movements do not typically see themselves as professional activists. In the Four Mothers case, none of the leadership had previously been deeply involved in political protest. Indeed, they emphasized publicly that they were not serial protesters for peace, since mainstream Israelis see such protesters as unrealistic.

Four Mothers leaders saw and presented the movement's goal as "simply" ending the war and its casualties, and most of them, after this goal was achieved, looked forward to returning their full attention to families, professions, and neglected elements of their normal lives. Beyond the wearing effects of years of daily activism, movement leaders' self-conception did not include becoming advocates for their own political legacy. Moreover, doing so implied an ongoing commitment to politics that might well lead them into political careers, such as happened with some leaders of Israel's largest peace movement, Peace Now.

By contrast, Four Mothers activists considered themselves a truly grassroots movement of "next-door neighbors" and worked hard to project this identity, which was apparently part of the movement's appeal for the media and public. The movement derived legitimacy and credibility from its very lack of professionalism and its leaders' lack of aspiration to formal political power. Nor did activists see themselves necessarily engaged with matters of high politics in the Middle East peace process. Part of their reluctance to expand the goals of their protest stemmed from concern about not overestimating what they could achieve, and from a moral stand in regard to the use of power and success. Testifying to one's own achievements appeared to them excessively self-promotional--appropriate perhaps for politicians, but unseemly in grassroots activists. The culture of the kibbutz movement, which influenced the movement's founders and many of its participants, prized doing over talking, which made activists reluctant to comment excessively on their own work.

Some Four Mothers activists were also conscious of their potential to serve as role models of women's organizational ethics and behavior, even though feminists criticized them for stereotypically female behavior when they renounced power and success and returned to the private sphere. After doing what they thought was right, and having achieved the goal of returning soldiers to Israel, their attitude was something like, "We did our part by bringing the war to an end, and it's now the public's turn to evaluate the results of our actions and perhaps take them forward" (Ben Dor).

Even at an intellectual level, it is not clear that the responsibility of activists should include evaluation of their own accomplishments. In any movement's immediate aftermath, there is less detachment toward and perspective on what it has achieved or failed to achieve than would befit an historiographically valid evaluation. Although glad to have contributed to ending the war, and to have received recognition for doing so (Sontag, 2000), leaders of the movement were ambivalent about their achievements insofar as they did not know whether the impact they had made on the country's politics would last: At times that impact seemed substantial; at others, a mere scratch on the hard surface of politics, or a step forward that could well be followed by more backsliding on a Sisyphusean slope. Activists' uncertainties about the nature of their legacy, and their wariness of the subjectivity of their own assessments made them tend to avoid self-evaluation.

In fact, at the time its founders dissolved the movement, they were concerned that some former activists might continue to issue messages or take actions in the movement's name that would damage its reputation and legacy. For example, on the day the army's withdrawal from Lebanon was accomplished, movement leaders decided to hold a demonstration at the Ministry of Defense--where the group, over the previous three years, had routinely held protests and vigils when there were Israeli casualties in Lebanon--and to present flowers to the prime minister. However, at the same time, a somewhat marginal group of activists within the movement decided to go instead to the Lebanese border where media had gathered to cover the withdrawal. There, with groups of Lebanese and Hezbollah followers cheering and parading as if in victory, the small group of Four Mothers activists made an effort to talk with the celebrating Lebanese. The scene, which was carried by the media the following day, put the movement in a foolish and shameful light--as if its members were begging the national adversary for forgiveness and pleading for a chance to talk with them.

The problem of internal divisions grew in an unforeseen way when this minority of activists tried to establish a new movement with the Four Mothers name, using the fact that they had participated in the movement and claiming to promote movement policies. However, those who wanted to continue using the political influence that the movement achieved during three years of intense advocacy and media exposure lacked agreed-on goals; they would have had an organizational identity and a name, but no direction or cause. Others, outside the movement, also suggested that the Four Mothers group might take up a variety of social issues. Continuing under such circumstances, the founding group felt, would only discredit the movement's actual achievements. They also feared that messages issued in the movement's name after its dissolution might contravene what they believed the movement actually stood for. The founding group, therefore, eventually resorted to legal action to prevent anyone's speaking thereafter on the movement's behalf.

The at-times-bitter divisions within the movement, stemmed partly from cultural and regional differences not unusual among Israeli social movements (Safran, 2006). In the case of Four Mothers, the tensions between kibbutzniks from the country's periphery, who had founded the movement, and urban activists, who had joined later and who were not typically parents of combat soldiers, diminished possibilities for agreement concerning what the movement's legacies were and how best to advocate for them.

A more important obstacle than factionalism, however, was that movement activists had no agreed-on direction or shared ideals that might provide a basis for continued activity after the war ended: The only common political platform the group had was that Israel should "leave Lebanon in peace." In the sense that the shared platform was limited to ending the war, activists might well have had a difficult time defining their own legacy, and might have proven unable to agree on such a definition. Assuming that agreement had been possible, however, and that the movement's leadership had recognized the need to take pro-active measures aimed at legacy promotion or protection, what might they realistically have done?

Conclusions: Considering How to Safeguard Movement Legacies

In thinking about approaches antiwar movements might take to promoting or safeguarding their key political legacies, one may distinguish among three types of thinking: 1) an analytic perspective concerns the efficacy of what a movement actually did; 2) what might realistically have been done at the time the campaign ended; and 3) speculation on what might have been done under ideal circumstances.

In considering the first approach--what actually happened--it should be noted that ending a war does not mean the end of interaction between the adversaries: A state of active hostilities is transformed into some other state of relations. A movement formerly active against the war may decide to advocate what this new state of affairs should be. Following the end of the Lebanon war in 2000, the Barak administration failed to establish an alternative security regime for Israel's northern border. Although the six years that followed were largely without hostile incident, the absence of a security regime among Israel, Lebanon, and other interested parties was the permissive cause of the eruption of war in 2006 following Hezbollah's abduction of Israeli soldiers.

After Barak's election in 1999 and his promise to bring the soldiers home from Lebanon, the Four Mothers leadership formally changed organizational policy to focus on the government's need to establish security measures for the northern border. Movement activists met with the prime minister in Barak's office and talked with him about the importance of not getting drawn back into Lebanon with any new Hezbollah attack. As non-experts in security and diplomatic matters, movement leaders did not set forth detailed policy suggestions. They did write letters, talk with officials, and issue statements about the need for the government to attend to border security following the army's withdrawal from southern Lebanon. But little or nothing was done about some populated areas of the border between Israel and Lebanon, which lacked even a fence (Orland, 2007).

To help document its activities, the group in its last meeting voted to use its remaining funds to support an archive for preserving the legacy of the movement. However, this was not the same as seeing the group as keepers of a message, which would have entailed a level of activism more focused and coordinated than anything that took place after the movement disbanded.

In the second evaluative context--what might have been done under prevailing circumstances--antiwar groups, at the end of a war they opposed, could use their influence to press for third-parties to draw lessons from the war experience, as government appointed Winograd commission did after the 2006 Lebanon war. It appears that Israel's Lebanon policy in the 1990s derived more from ignorance and bureaucratic inertia among senior public officials than from anything resembling coherent policy goals. Senior Israeli politicians, Sela (2007, 69) notes, "were poorly informed about the original causes of maintaining [Israel's] 'security zone,' let alone its function and role under the current Lebanese and regional conditions." Politicians repeatedly disclaimed responsibility for policy, preferring to accept the professional opinion of the military. However, military leaders were themselves divided over and unable to explain the purpose of the war. An independent commission in the wake of the Four Mothers protest and the end of the war could usefully have made recommendations aimed at avoiding repetition of the sorts of systemic policy errors that the war entailed, and the movement could have advocated for its appointment.

It is perhaps only in an ideal world that activists could have also contested attacks on the movement's history and legacy--most basically by reminding audiences of the actual policy options facing the country at the time of their protest, and of these options' relative costs and benefits, and by debunking the myth that the movement's protests had kept the army from winning the war in Lebanon. This type of post-war activism might entail education campaigns designed to keep what activists consider to be the war's real lessons in the public view. Such education might publicize the origins of the country's involvement in the failed war, and differentiate wars that are clearly necessary to ensure the country's continued existence from "wars of choice" that often involve lengthy, ultimately futile counterinsurgency campaigns in foreign territory.

It would likely prove difficult to coordinate such messages, be they ad hoc responses or more concerted campaigns, and there is no way to keep ex-activists from taking even public positions that appear to renounce movement ideals, as happened when some Four Mothers activists discussed in the media why they supported the reinvasion of Lebanon in 2006. When the group was active, its leaders met continually to address questions of what messages to send the public and how to adjust such messages in response to the changing political context. But after a movement is no longer active, deciding what its message should be and fine-tuning messages to changing political contexts is virtually impossible.

In retrospect it appears advisable that, before a movement disbands, its leaders agree to guidelines for some form of consultation among former activists regarding statements to the press, use of the movement's name, when and how to respond to criticism of the movement, and what the most important legacies of the movement should be. This process might benefit from the involvement of a third-party facilitator from outside the movement.

The Four Mothers movement met the criterion of success concerning the implementation of new policies that addressed the grievances of the group. The record is more ambiguous regarding the criterion of acceptance of a group as a valid spokesman for a legitimate set of interests (Gamson, 1990, 31) in security-policy discourse: While the group did consult with Israeli policymakers, including prime ministers and a range of civil and military authorities, such meetings were at the movement's initiative, and neither during the protest nor afterward were they or comparable groups invited into the policy process.

Some analysts of social-movement success (Rochon and Mazmainian, 1993, 77; Kitschelt, 1986) emphasize "structural impacts" and systemic changes that increase opportunities for influence from social movements. These society-wide changes in institutions and values cannot be produced directly by ad hoc antiwar movements, such as those led by soldiers' family members--although the incremental and indirect effects of such movements are worth considering. Their main contributions to societal-level changes can come by virtue of normalizing participation by groups that were previously silent on the war, as happened with protests by the Four Mothers movement and its 1980s forerunner, Parents Against Silence (Wolfsfeld, 1988). Antiwar groups can also set precedents for civilian inputs into military policy, although in the Israeli case, and also in the United States, the military's professionalization and the diminution, in practice, of the idea of a "people's army," has been motivated at least in part by the desire to limit what military leaders have seen as excessive civilian input (Levy, 2008).

Clearly, promoting or safeguarding movement legacies cannot be accomplished in some simple fashion, and, as noted above, even internal agreement concerning what the movement's legacies are may be hard to achieve. Nevertheless, the experience of the Four Mothers movement showed that its leaders' attempts to put the movement's history away like a sealed box in a drawer were impractical and unrealistic, because that history was inevitably going to be brought into current political and national-security debates. As Faulkner observed, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

Particularly for movements with a grassroots identity, whose organizers do not intend to continue as activists after the movement ends, the questions remain, first, whether or not to leave the definition of the movement's legacy up to whoever is interested in commenting on it--with the understanding that movement critics are likely to fill any vacuum. Second, assuming that activists desire to take action that influences how the legacies of their movements are defined, albeit to a limited extent, what steps can realistically and collectively be taken? While this essay offers no definitive answers, it proposes that these questions are worth grappling with for activists as well as socialmovement theorists.


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Author:Dor, Rachel Ben; Lieberfeld, Daniel
Publication:International Journal of Peace Studies
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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