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Women in Black

8 - The Years of Perseverance -
Between the Gulf War and Oslo

Gila Svirsky

 

In the Aftermath of War

After the Gulf War ended for Israel in March 1991, it took time for the peace camp to recover, including the Women in Black vigils. Most of the vigils around Israel never reopened at all after the war, leaving only 12 around the country. In Jerusalem, where 120 women had attended each vigil in the months before the war, weekly attendance now dropped to 50, and took another half year to painstakingly edge back up to80. Some of the reduction in attendance reflected anger at the Palestinians for having applauded Saddam Husseins hurtling of missiles into metropolitan Tel-Aviv. Some women, at least in Jerusalem, were angry at the radicals who had thrown sisterhood to the wind. And others, particularly those from the small kibbutz vigils (2-5 women), were simply worn down from the years of aggression against them and discouraged by the outlook for increased aggression after the war. The interruption of the war had broken the inertia of attendance. We made our contribution, some women seemed to be saying, and now its time for others to do their bit.

The vigil now entered 3years and 8 months of steadfast attendance that was very different from the first three euphoric years. Now coming to the vigil was an act of commitment and loyalty, not an exciting Friday happening. Not surprisingly, it was primarily the more radical women who remained, although some moderates like me also couldnt bear to give it up. And attendance was now compulsory wherever the vigils remained, as every warm body counted more than ever. Several eulogies were written, noting that Even on the left almost no one will cry when theyre gone. Those who go their own way have to figure that this might happen. [1] But notices of our demise were premature.

In Jerusalem, despite our smaller numbers, the hubbub that had surrounded the vigil plaza continued unabated, as if nothing had changed. By this point, Women in Black were so well known throughout the world that we had become a regular Friday tourist attraction. Someone suggested that the vigil be written up in the Michelin guide. Not only was it a pilgrimage site for left wingers from other countries, it also drew clusters of Israelis who disagreed. Often there were more supporters, opposers, tourists, and media than Women in Black ourselves. The Gulf War may have ended, but occupation was still a fact of life for 2 million Palestinians, and the plaza remained the battleground for left and right attitudes about it...and those who came to witness the confrontation and immortalize it in words and pictures.

Women in Black now began to make concerted efforts to increase our numbers. We asked women to try to recruit their friends, but this was not effective. Our stereotype had gone from bad to worse, having stood on the vigil in the last weeks of the Gulf War when the rest of the country had closed ranks, earning usthe reputation of flaming radicals. This is when we applied for funding to publish a booklet about the diversity of views of Women in Black or to put an ad in the paper displaying the mildness of our views, but no funding came through for either.

One strategy was to encourage women who planned to be away from home on a Friday to drop in on another vigil. This way, a Woman in Black would not be lost to the vigils even if she were out of town. We also tried to thicken the vigil where it had become sparse and was on the verge of folding. On two consecutive Fridays, a carload of Jerusalem women drove north to join the waning group at Zikhron Yaakov, now down to two hardy souls. We hoped that having a 10-woman vigil would encourage local women to return to their regular vigil ways, but the effort had no substantial effect.

A meeting of Women in Black was called at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, where the first kibbutz vigil had begun. Some of the voices from this gathering reflect the discouragement that had set into the movement. Some excerpts from the minutes:[2]

Hanna Knaz, from Kibbutz Gan Shmuel:

When I look around searching for the peace camp, I see nothing. Women in Black are the only group that protests the occupation. Its perhaps the only thing that keeps me going when its hot and there is no shade.

Anina Korati from Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin:

Sometimes I tell myself, youre an older woman, you already did your bit, you can rest on your laurels. But I have one son in the reserves serving in the West Bank and a grandson serving in Lebanon. I cant rest easy... But reality is changing, and our impact seems minuscule in light of world events. Whats the alternative? To do nothing? Thats even worse.

Yaffa Gavish fromTel-Aviv:

What meaning has our long vigil had?...Has our perseverance changed anything? Perhaps in a large sense we have not had an impact on policy, but I believe we have a special role. In Israeli society that is so chauvinist, the occupation has brought new heights of nationalism and racism. Standing on the vigil gives a clear message that we do not accept this.

Ester Levanon-Mordochfrom Kibbutz Gazit:

Im in a surrealistic situation. I stand at the Megiddo Junction and my daughter does her army duty inside Megiddo Prison... Our protest has a visual effect. When we are few, outsiders believe that our position has lost support... I do not stand on the vigil to save my soul. I want to be effective. We must ask ourselves if standing is effective. I dont even know how I find the strength to continue to stand.

Yael Ring from Kibbutz Beit Alfa:

I come to Women in Black to say that there is no consensus around occupation...I have no illusion that we are having an effect on someone...But we are a living reminder that a few kilometers away, an occupation is raging and we cannot go along withit.

Hannah Safran fromHaifa:

The [Gulf] war has done something terrible to us. This experience seemed to prove that reality is stronger than we are, that we have no control over some reality...The war caused deep tremors, and the fact that women are leaving or dont want to continue is a result of these.

Vera Jordan from Kibbutz Ramot Menashe:

I stopped coming to the vigil because I ran out of energy. Its now beyond me...We did the vigil for history, and thats important. I didnt stand there for myself, but for the Israel that I want to see. For my son,for my grandson. Its important for every woman to know what she did during the great wars against racism...Women are a conscience. But we still must ask ourselves if we are effective.

Debby Lerman from Tel-Aviv:

Its obvious to others that we are fewer women. Thats a problem...We began as bearers of the torch, then we kept the ember glowing, and now we are lighting a match. Its a predicament, but one match is better than nothing.

Unidentified woman:

I respect Women in Black, but inside I dont believe that it makes a difference. Arabs have problems of racism, and an Arab woman is different from a Jewish woman. Im an Israeli Arab and belong to the Palestinian people. Demonstrations of the left dont make a real difference, but I respect them.

Fatma Yunis from Kefar`Ara:

I think we must continue...As an Israeli Arab, I dont feel I belong to the state of Israel because Israelis view me as an enemy. I dont enjoy the benefits of Jewish citizens. Arabs do the dirty work to support their families. As an Arab woman, I think my people must rely only on themselves. But we must not despair, we must carry on...In the territories there is poverty, and mothers have nothing to feed their children. They dont see those who want peace among the Jews. The Jewish woman stands on the vigil on herown behalf, to help her own children, not just for the Palestinian people.

Miriam Frank fromKibbutz Gan Shmuel:

I havent gone to the vigil for quite a while. I dont think we have any impact, and if we do, then its negative and not positive.

Clearly, the days of euphoria were over, and now other forms of motivation had to kickin.

A Peace Prize from Germany

It was at this time that the Women in Black movement in Israel was announced to be one of the two annual recipients of the Aachen Peace Prize, referred to by some as the alternative Nobel Prize for Peace. This award has-been given annually since 1988 by Germans who wish to protest the bestowal of peace prizes upon people and organizations who represent policies of power and militarism reformed warmongers, so to speak.

In announcing the award, the Aachen Prize Organization stated, For three and a half years, Women in Black were steadfast sometimes in the face of hostile opposition and even violence in a vigil that demands an end to the Israeli occupation and progress in the peace process.

Some Women in Black expressed reservations about accepting a peace prize from Germans, particularly in light of opposition to the award by the Jewish community in Aachen. These reservations were dispelled for us when it became clear that the Aachen organization is composed of 30 organizations and some 100 individuals that have been outspokenly anti-Fascist. Many began their public activity during World War II in anti‑Nazi undergrounds which took part in the rescue of Jews and other persecuted peoples. Among members of the organization are representatives of the Social Democratic Party, peace movements, Physicians Against Nuclear Arms, and others.

Award of the prize took place in the city of Aachen on September 2, 1991. Two Women in Black had travelled to Germany to accept in the name of the movement ‑ Ismahan Farah, an Arab woman from Haifa, and Magdalena Hefetz, a Jewish woman from Jerusalem. In one passage of the eloquent acceptance speech, Magdalena relates to the complexity of the issues involved in this award:

We know that this choice was a difficult one; we know that claims were made that choosing us means choosing an enemy of Israel; and we well know the significance of this for you in the Germany of today...

Dear members of the Peace Prize Organization, in giving us this prize you re‑affirm that Israel can also be treated critically, and that one can distinguish between the people, many of whom want peace, and our government which would perpetuate the occupation. In your reference to us, you note that not everyone who criticizes the policies of the government of Israelis a hater of Israel. The opposite is true: you have demonstrated that it is possible and indeed necessary to criticize the policies and actions of the government of Israel, and at the same time to love Israel and to support those who seek peace for it. In this same way, we are bound to our country Israel and love it, and we shall continue to struggle for the humanity within it.

The Aachen Peace Prize carried a monetary award equivalent to about $3,600. I wanted Women in Black to keep all the money to cover movement expenses, such as the newspaper advertisement placed annually to invite men to join us for one June vigil. But the vast majority of Women in Black objected to using the prize money on ourselves. Following a survey of women on the vigils throughout Israel, it was decided to spend $2,000 of the award to help set up a womens library in the Gaza Strip a joint project of all the womens organizations in Gaza. And the rest could be used on us.[3]

Award of this prestigious prize had absolutely no effect on vigil participation. Most women, in fact, did not understand the significance of the award, as it had been ignored by all the major media, although press releases had been sent to them all. In Germany, it received major media coverage.

Conference Time: Madrid and Women in Black

In the fall of this, our fourth, year (1991), a Jerusalem contingent of Women in Black organized a conference to infuse new life into the movement. Over 200 women showed up from all over Israel many from vigils which had long shut down, but where women still felt strongly identified with the movement. The major issue on the agenda was how to revive the vigils. There were workshops on Learning from the achievements and failures of the vigils; How to be a Woman in Black when the immediate environment (family, friends, kibbutz, etc.) is not supportive; and, simply, Coping with burnout. A number of ideas for strengthening the vigils came up, including publishing a newsletter to reduce the isolation of distant vigils and to network better among ourselves, a project that I took on. One highlight of the conference was the award of certificates to over thirty vigils, some still standing and others that had ended with the war. You could see the pride on womens faces as they collected their certificate and acknowledged the enthusiastic applause from the rest of us as they stood for recognition.

However, a few days before the Women in Black conference convened, we had learned together with the rest of the world of plans to hold a Middle East Conference on Peace, set for late October 1991 in Madrid. This event took everyone by surprise. Our disbelief that the intransigent Likud government of Israel would really make concessions for peace was offset by the hope that maybe, despite it all, Prime Minister Shamir had seen the light. And so the Women in Black conference also debated the question of how Women in Black as a movement should respond to this changing political reality. And was it really changing, or was this just a ploy by Shamir to defuse American pressure on Israel? Practically speaking, we asked ourselves if the vigils should adopt a second message to accompany End the Occupation. Some suggested adding not words, but a white flower of hope to the black garb of mourning. As usual, the women chose to leave the decision to each individual vigil, and not rule on a national basis. No vigil changed its format, although some added signs intended to encourage the initiatives at Madrid.

From our national conference, Women in Black wrote the following text in Hebrew, Arabic, and English and faxed it to all the Arab and the Israeli delegations at the Madrid conference:

The national conference of Women in Black calls upon all the participants in the Madrid Peace Conference to begin a process that will end the Israeli occupation of the territories and create a framework for peace in the Middle East that will ensure security and independence for Israel and the Palestinian people.

We note with dismay that women are under-represented in all the delegations; we believe that increased participation of women would significantly enhance the efforts toward dialogue and peace.

With courage and steadfastness, Women in Black have demanded an end to the occupation and the initiation of peace efforts. We are hopeful that the process begun in Madrid will lead to a just and lasting peace for both peoples.

Finally, at nightfall we ended our conference with a mass vigil on the highway connecting Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. Almost 150 women stood illuminated by the highway projectors and flashing red lights of police cars there presumably to ensure that the vigil would not interrupt the smooth flow of traffic. We stood at the side of the road wearing black, carrying our trademark signs, and let the flashing strobe lights of five patrol cars draw somber attention to us. We could not have done it so well without the Israel Police. It was a fleeting moment of presence, a harking back to the former days of size and power, though nowhere near the 500 or more women we could have mustered just a year earlier.

Steady As She Goes

Sumud, steadfastness. This is the Arabic word that stands for the Palestinians clinging to their views despite all adversity. It means not being shaken from the ultimate goal, not deviating from the path to achieve it. It does not convey the concept of aggressive pursuit; it implies quiet waiting. The power of nonviolent resistance.

During these interim years of Women in Black, I sometimes thought of the vigil as an expression of sumud. I do not mean by this to compare the many years of Palestinian suffering to our small weekly sacrifice, but there was something similar about the way Women in Black plodded on during these years, quietly and steadfastly, without any end or good prospects insight, when the hopes that had been raised by Madrid melted into the scenery of ongoing death and violence. We were all sunk into a kind of fatalism, recalls Knesset Member Shulamit Aloni, despair, a feeling that we have no way to influence this country in favor of peace.[4]  By December, we managed to return to a regular weekly turnout of 80-90 women in Jerusalem, but many vigils in the north and south carried on with only 2, 3, or 4 women. It could not have been easy. None of the vigils that had folded in the rest of the country ever revived.

The death and violence resulting from the occupation continued unabated during the fifth year of Women in Black (1992) and now the vigil was beginning to feel useless, bereft of impact. Some weeks it felt like a huge effort to get back out there. Events happened the Gulf War, the Madrid peace talks, egregious acts of terrorism on both sides and Women in Black seemed to have nothing to do with them, no effect. With our inability to modify our message or change our symbols, the Jerusalem vigil seemed to have placed itself outside the maelstrom, utterly disconnected from both the good and the bad. There we were, through it all, with the same old signs and costumes, and still the occupation raged. And those vigils around the country that had added new slogans did this increase their effectiveness? I doubt it. I think the message of the vigil was our steadfast presence, regardless of any modifications in the signs.

Opinions were often expressed by Women in Black that men would never hold out on a vigil as long as we did. A regular and silent vigil is a womans form of protest. reflected Hella Yaniv. Its too passive for men, who need more action. They have to talk a lot.[5]  But it wasnt only the lack of talking and action that would have been discouraging. Maybe men would have made the cost-benefits calculation and withdrawn their investment, based on no visible results. Low profits, if any at all.

Carrying on the vigil week after week had now turned into year after year. As our fifth year on the vigil drew to a close, I wrote in the newsletter:

Its a hard winter: little progress in the peace talks, more Palestinians killed and maimed, more Israelis killed and maimed, more homes destroyed, more families shattered. One wants to shake the shoulders of the politicians, generals, and terrorists on both sides to shake them out of their madness, shake them into comprehending the tragic futility of their efforts. When will all this man-made violence cease?

In another month, we will begin the sixth year of the vigil for Women in Black. Who would have thought when we first began that this would last so long? That we would still be standing through those scorching hot summer Fridays, those cold-to-the-bone winter Fridays, shoulder to shoulder, still not breaking down to buy a warm black coat, black rainwear, black hat, still standing in our warmest black sweater, shivering, holding our little black hands with the same old message on them, still a symbol to all who pass of conscience, of morality, of humanity, of optimism, of commitment, of compassion, of power, of woman. Who would have thought.[6]

And then, for once, all the national newspapers and the national television station ran items making note of our fifth anniversary. Was it the persevering Cassandras language of the foreign press? No, it was the oblivious keeners language of the local cynics. Five Years in Black, was the headline in the largest newspaper, an allusion to five years of mourning: Groups imitate them all over the world, tourists make a pilgrimage to see them, drivers curse them and make obscene gestures, but they just keep on doing their own thing.[7]  250 Weeks on the Plaza, was the headline in another: This week, the Women in Black movement wraps up five years. After hundreds of demonstrations and thousands of curses, the movement remains primarily symbolic with no political influence.[8]  And from Davar, the most left-leaning newspaper, the article bore the graphic title Five Years of Roses and Rotten Eggs. Not a word of even grudging admiration. Whats that you say about prophets in their own land? One had to be really committed or nuts to keep plugging. But we did.

The Election of Rabin

The sixth year of the vigil (1992) opened with a new front, right in the city of Jerusalem: eviction orders served on five Palestinian families in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, arranged by religious settlers who were aided and abetted by the infamous Ariel Sharon[i][9] and the Housing Ministry, which he then headed in the Likud government. The settlers moved into some of these homes and staked out others for future acquisition. This was part of a process that had been going on for years, even under the comparatively enlightened municipal administration of Mayor Teddy Kollek, in an effort to reduce the Arab population of Jerusalem.[ii][10] But the Kollek approach was less blatant than what was now being carried out by the extreme right, and even he joined protest demonstrations in the streets. It was asign of the frustration of everyone outside the militant right that the mayor of Jerusalem himself could not prevent these disgraceful activities and had to resort to street protest like the rest of us. This began only two short months after the Madrid conference.

Women in Black stagedits own vigil at the entrance to Silwan, and then entered the neighborhood to pay solidarity calls at the homes of those on the eviction hit list or those who had already been thrown out, whom we visited in their tent.[11]  These disgraceful activities were happening within our own city, in areas which, though occupied, had been annexed by Israel and were thus subject to Israeli law, and still we could not prevent it. Although the courts initially issued arestraining order, the Palestinians eventually lost their legal case. The unbridled arrogance of the right could be curbed by no one, least of all a few women, the human rights community, or outraged international opinion. The settlers did what they wanted: The swaggering Sharon had renovated a home for himself in the middle of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, necessitating 24-hour protection by squads of soldiers; the Jewish settlement in the midst of the Palestinian city of Hebron was taking over new buildings and expanding; and the Likud government was continuing topour money into settlements, with special mortgage terms and huge tax benefits for any Jews willing to move into homes in the occupied territories.

Then came the elections, and Labor felt that the time had come to campaign on a more peaceful platform. Well, lets not overstate it. The Labor platform did not advocate the removal of settlements and it downright rejected the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own. Atmost, Labor made some vague statements about the aspiration for peace, of looking for political accommodation with the Palestinians. But Labor was also careful to run at the headof the ticket a man who was known to be a hawk on security matters, who had been chief of staff and architect of the 1967 military victory, and who was an ardent advocate of the view that conflicts are resolved by force. In short, Labor supported peace and capitalized on the image of Yitzhak Rabin as a general with war credentials.

The election took placeon June 23rd; at 10 p.m. that evening, tremors reverberated through the country: Labor had won. I heard the news inside apolling place where I was an official vote counter and I remember the terrible need to shriek with joy, but I was the only one from the peace camp in that room. Sharing would not have been a good idea at that moment.

I went home that nightand made phone calls and we all shared the relief and hopes with each other. It was wonderful. Over the next few days, Labor formed acoalition with the Meretz Party, itself an alliance of three smaller parties even further to the left, and with Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party that cared primarily about deepening the religious character of Israel and was willing to be flexible on the peace issue to advance its other goals. It really looked like a team that could make peace. When Rabin was sworn into office on July 13, 1992, it was a moment of high expectations for many of us.

Women in Black all overIsrael now convened to discuss what to do how to respond to the changing political reality as we referred to this recurrent discourse among ourselves. This conversation had taken place after the Gulf War, after the Madrid Peace Conference, and now after Rabins election. But the discussion never seemed to change: Some women felt that the time had come to end the vigil, and others felt strongly that as long as the occupation continued, we should not step down from the vigil plaza. Rabin is committed to a peace platform, the latter argued, but he needs to be reminded. Thus, another bloc of women broke off from our group and ended their vigil at 4 years. And the rest of us returned to the vigil plaza, waves of hope alternating with waves of pessimism, changing nothing in our message or our mien.

And the Election Aftermath

The first year of Rabins premiership did nothing to boost the optimists, as the violence only spiraled. More Palestinians were killed by Israelis and more Israelis by Palestinians than during the final year of the Likud regime.[12]  In one incident, 19 homes in Gaza were demolished by Israeli anti-tank shells in order to ferret out and kill one suspected terrorist, and thus 19 more families who had nothing to do with terrorism became homeless and sworn enemies of Israel.

The worst breach of trust with the Rabin government came on December 17, 1992, just six months after he took office, when Rabin responded to a series of Hamas terrorist acts (causing the death of 6 Israeli soldiers) by deporting 415 Hamas members. This was not a punishment meted out by a court of law to those duly tried and found guilty. Most of those deported, in fact, were taken from prison facilities where they were already serving time, and thus could not have been directly involved with the recent killings. The rest were taken from the 1500 that had been arrested from their homes during the previous three nights and trundled off to detention centers. The unlucky chosen were loaded onto buses and driven into Lebanon, which refused to accept them, of course, so they remained in the no-mans-land between Israeli- and Lebanese-controlled territories, with barriers on both sides. No charges, no trial, no justice. Rabin sat in judgment, the secret security services were the prosecutors, no one spoke for the defense. The expulsion order was delayed for 24 hours as various human rights organizations worked frantically to have the decision reversed, but Israels High Court of Justice, that bastion of democracy in all matters except the occupied territories, ruled that the government has the right to deport without trial. There was an international outcry, a U.N. resolution called upon Israel to return them at once, and even Israeli supporters of Labor and Meretz felt they had been betrayed, but nothing budged Rabin. Eight days later, the Israeli Cabinet voted eight to six not to allow the Red Cross to pass through Lebanese territory under Israeli control in order to deliver humanitarian aid to the deportees. So much for the freshly-installed peace government of Rabin.[13]

Thus it was business as usual for the Palestinians in the first year of occupation under Prime Minister Rabin. A few new women actually joined the vigil after the deportations. As we moved into the seventh year of the vigil (1993), the end was nowhere in sight and 4-10 vigils were still hanging in there, with several hundred women still turning out throughout the country.

*** *** ***


 

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[2] These are translated excerpts from the minutes of the meeting on August 29,1991.

[3] For the record, I note that Women in Black had no significant sources of income,other than a grant for publication of the newsletter through the generosity of the Funding Exchange in New York. Any expenses incurred (ads, mailings, materials to make signs, etc.) were paid for out of the pockets of the women. It wasonly when we held our international conference in December 1994 that we appliedfor and received support from several foundations and individuals: the By dale Foundation, the Dialogue Fund (Canadian Embassy in Israel), Fund for aCompassionate Society, Funding Exchange, Sally Gottesman, Dafna Izraeli, JulianLevinson of the Max and Anna Levinson Foundation, Samuel Rubin Foundation, andAnita Steiner.

[4] From Dorit Ben, Even the Left Never Loved Them.

[5] Hella Yaniv in NeriLivne, Seeing Black,Hadashot, September 7, 1990, p. 27[Hebrew].

[6] Gila Svirsky, Editors Corner,Women in Black National Newsletter,Winter 1992-93, No. 4.

[7] Ronit Antler, FiveYears in Black,Yediot Aharonot, January 5, 1993[Hebrew].

[8] Lily Galili, 250 Weeks on the Plaza,Haaretz, January 3, 1993[Hebrew].

[9] Sharon is infamous for his militant nationalistic views, but the worst, in myopinion, was his 1982 invasion of Lebanon and bombing of the city ofBeirut. Recent evidence reveals thatSharon, then Defense Minister, concealed his plans from Prime Minister Begin,who had approved a limited offensive, until it was a fait accompli. During the same war, Sharon had been severely censured and forced to step down as Defense Minister following the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Southern Beirut, to which Israeli troops had turned a blind eye. That didnt prevent him from being appointed Housing Minister by thesubsequent Likud government, which he faithfully executed by unprecedented construction in the occupied territories and easy mortgage terms tosettlers.

[10] Full documentationof this appears in BTselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights inthe Occupied Territories,A Policy of Discrimination: Land Expropriation,Planning and Building in East Jerusalem, Jerusalem, May1995.

[11] For a fuller discussion of these evictions, see Gila Svirsky, The Long Ride toSilwan,Tikkun, Vol. 7, No. 2, March/April 1992.

[12] In the final 12 months of Shamirs premiership, 102 Palestinians in the territories were killed by Israeli security forces and 5 Israelis were killed inside Israel by Palestinians. More of both groups were killed in the first 12 months of Rabins premiership: 178Palestinians and 9 Israelis. Data, courtesy of Btselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Jerusalem.

[13] For a full analysis of the expulsion and the human rights violations, seeBTselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Deportation of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories and the Mass Deportation of December 1992, Jerusalem, June1993.


 

 

 

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