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Watching IDF Checkpoints

"No one will be able to say, 'I didn’t know.'"

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MAGINE a cold concrete shed, sides open to the elements, divided into stalls by low walls, with metal turnstiles at either end. The cattle gather at one end, lowing and kicking at the dust as the minutes and hours go by. They then pass through one at a time, get checked and stamped, and are finally released, shaking themselves down, into the open space beyond.

Or, if you like, picture a border crossing between two poor countries. Families, children and friends wait on one side, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the arrivals, peering into the gloom of the customs building. The arrivals emerge, rearrange their clothing, reorganize their luggage, glance around for those who await them or rush off to share a taxi.

Except these are not cattle, and the border crossing is not between countries. This is the hardest aspect to comprehend. During a quiet period, when there are no shots, fights or other newsworthy dramas, one has to remind oneself: this “border crossing” is a military checkpoint that divides a community; it is situated between village and city; between home, college, work and hospital; between grandfather and granddaughter. And there are many such “border crossings.”

The checkpoint or machsom is the epitome of Israel’s occupation in the West Bank: each is a crucial node in a system carefully adjusted to control movement and slice up time, to prevent reliable planning, impede economic activity, hinder education and divide families. At the checkpoints, terrified or arrogant soldiers enforce arbitrary and ever-changing rules, which are bound up with a complex system of permits. At night most of them are closed. Some have ceased to be checkpoints and become “go back where you came from” points. Since the summer of 2005, for example, the Jordan Valley and the northern part of the Dead Sea, which make up about a third of the West Bank, have been “off limits” to Palestinians living in the other two-thirds. (Amira Hass in Haaretz February 13, 2006.)

Machsom Watch was established in January 2001. It is a political organization consisting solely of women who go as volunteers to IDF checkpoints. Their main objectives are three: (1) to document the daily events, including infringements of human rights; (2) to file official complaints; and (3) to prevent abuse and assist Palestinians.

On Saturday, January 7, 2006, I joined two Machsom Watch volunteers, Elat Benda and Michal Pundak Sagi. We drove to the checkpoint at Hawara in the northern West Bank.

We took “Jews only” roads that cut between Palestinian villages. The inhabitants of these villages often have to make enormous detours to reach neighboring villages – just to avoid the “Jewish” roads. If their paths take them through two or three checkpoints as well, then a drive of a few hours can become a day’s journey.

We passed through the Tapuach checkpoint unhindered, thanks to our yellow Israeli license plates, then drove down into Kfar Hawara. From the village, the distinctive gabled roofs of Israeli settlements could be seen on the hilltops: Tapuach, Har Bracha, Itzhar, Itamar, and in the distance Elon Moreh. Beyond the village we joined a line of cars that were waiting to go through the Hawara checkpoint. We passed a large parking lot filled with West Bank taxis. Because it is harder to get a car through than to walk through, people usually take a taxi to one side and catch a second taxi on the other.

The Hawara checkpoint lies north of the village and just south of Nablus. It belongs to a “ring” of checkpoints controlling movement in and out of this major West Bank city (population ca. 120,000). Nablus is a commercial center and university town. This means that on Saturdays, the first day of the Muslim week, there is particular pressure on the already inadequate checking procedures at Hawara.

Hawara was once a “temporary” checkpoint, my companions explain. When Machsom Watch first arrived, it was nothing more than a few concrete blocks on the road. Soldiers would have to telephone for information about people wishing to pass – a procedure that could take hours. Today it has become more efficient: the soldiers check ID documents in a computerized database; there is a roof to shelter those waiting; there is even a mobile X-ray machine to scan large pieces of luggage. The checkpoint is here to stay.

My companions storm straight in. They question the soldiers about people who appear to be getting unfair treatment. They go from one side to the other, making contact between family members; they retrieve ID cards that have “gone missing.” For a West Banker, to lose an ID card is a disaster. Often, because of carelessness on the soldiers’ part, the cards are mislaid; their owners must wait for hours till they turn up.

Restriction of movement is a form of collective punishment, explains Adi Dagan, press officer for Machsom Watch. It is prohibited by the Geneva Convention.

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ANY Palestinians come to the volunteers for help. They can only help a little “on the ground,” but they hope to have a moderating influence on the soldiers. Most importantly, they are eyes and ears in a place where the army once had a free hand to do as it pleased. But the soldier is still king. Each decides on how to rule, and if an order contradicts the order of another soldier, it is up to the Palestinians to tread a fine line between.

One factor that creates tension, say the volunteers, is the lack of a common language. Usually, soldiers know only two or three phrases in Arabic: “Stop! Go back! Wait!” The rest is all shouts, gestures and shoves. The advantages of speaking Arabic were exemplified by a Druze officer at Hawara: orders could be couched as requests, and the decisions of the checkpoint commander, no matter how arbitrary, could at least be communicated.

Machsom Watch, helped by the fact that the army worries about its image, has managed to improve conditions, making day-to-day survival a bit easier. But it is the very existence of the checkpoints that Machsom Watch opposes.

No matter how many observers there are, the basic ingredients will remain. Soldiers point their guns directly at those they speak to. The contents of bags are strewn on the ground for checking: there are no tables, and privacy is out of the question. There are no signs saying where to stand, where to wait, where to park. Shooting in the air is not uncommon, “to regain order” my companions say. Medical crises at the checkpoints make headlines, but more basic medical problems are an everyday occurrence, especially heat exhaustion in summer. The children are smack in the center of the subjugation, watching their parents being herded like animals, being forced to lift their shirts to prove they have no explosive belts, and being shouted at in a language they barely understand. All this is routine.

And what is not routine? I ask. “What’s not routine doesn’t matter,” Michal replies. “We don’t need a dramatic incident to make the checkpoints hell. The very fact of their existence is enough.” Michal has been active in various protest movements “ever since Bibi [former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] came to power.” She started with Bat Shalom, a feminist organization of Jewish and Palestinian Israeli women working for peace, human rights and equality. She then became active with New Profile, an organization that opposes the militarization of Israeli society and rejects the use of the term “national security” as a pretext for military operations. “It’s a question of what you want to uphold, what you want to teach as a society, as a human being. My son is also a refusenik [refuses to serve in the army – Y.P.].” Michal remains active in New Profile. “You can’t just sit at home. It is so easy to forget what goes on just a few miles away, so easy to ignore. You have to see it. And that gives you energy to try and change it.”

At Hawara, a young man with two children waits for his wife, who is coming from Nablus. He is dressed in a smart suit and speaks fluent English. And where is she? “I don’t know,” he says. “I saw her in the line a couple of hours ago, but after she entered the searching ward I lost sight of her.” An hour later she emerges.

Some people are whistled back to the checkpoint, after they have passed, by a soldier who takes their ID numbers. No explanation is offered – and none is asked for, but to us it soon becomes clear that they are all young men. “It’s for a survey,” the soldier tells us, adding, “They don’t need to know why.” Michal says that the army is probably looking for potential “collaborators.”

Every now and then a soldier shouts at people to move away from a certain area. “You can’t wait here,” he bellows. There is no apparent reason why they shouldn’t wait in the particular area. There are even a few concrete blocks that can be used to sit on. Us, the Israelis, he ignores. We can wait where we like. Naturally, the restricted area soon fills once more, as people who haven’t heard the new rule join the others. The soldier returns again and again, shouting and waving frantically.

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ATER that morning we continue to a checkpoint beside the nearby village of Salem. From the road, the Balata refugee camp can be seen, huddled on the edge of Nablus. At the checkpoint, a middle-aged Palestinian man sits in a concrete enclosure, rather like a sheep’s pen. “An ‘escapee’,” the soldiers tell us. They explain that he tried to circumvent the checkpoint. “We’ll leave him there for an hour or two so he’ll understand.” None of the soldiers speak Arabic.

We talk to the commanding officer, a young man. He has never heard of Machsom Watch and suspects the volunteers of being from the UN. After they describe the organization, he lowers his guard a little, asking if his mother can join “to see how it is for us here.” Nablus is the “biggest nest of terror,” he adds. A friend of his was killed at a checkpoint, and his task is to enable his soldiers to do their job without putting their lives in danger. “Of course we shouldn’t be here,” he admits, “but the solution lies with them” – the Palestinians.

“Most soldiers are convinced that their checkpoint is the last trap for a suicide bomber before he reaches Tel Aviv,” Elat says. “Some of them don’t even realize that they aren’t in Israel.” This is not surprising, since Israel has done all it can to erase the 1967 border, which rarely appears on maps published locally.

Elat sees Machsom Watch as a “gadfly” for the army. Each volunteer has a list of telephone numbers that includes IDF officers, politicians and others whose intervention can make a difference on the ground. “In theory, we can call all sorts of people, but in practice, very little really helps. When you’ve got 40 cars waiting to go through the checkpoint, and the soldiers take 20 minutes to check each one, you can figure out how long the last will have to wait. What can you do? Or take the case of a student who’s been detained from noon till seven without explanation. None of this interests the politicians. Checkpoints don’t bring votes.”

Elat is active in other, more radical organizations such as New Profile and Taayush, an Arab-Jewish partnership that works to break down the walls of racism and segregation. Her volunteering with Machsom Watch is more “hands on” in nature – and another way to influence. However, she says, “I don’t see much real improvement, not in the average Israeli’s way of thinking, and not in the army’s.” Today, she adds, organizations like Machsom Watch are more acceptable, more fashionable, so army officers are more willing to listen. But it doesn’t help. “We can only report what’s going on. We can’t force people to pay attention.”

There are currently about 400 Machsom Watch members, mostly in their 40s and 50s. Their political affiliations range from Labor and Meretz all the way to the radical Left. United in their opposition to the Occupation, they enter the Territories armed with nothing but their telephone lists – and plenty of courage.

Why only women? Adi explains. The tension at checkpoints already runs high. Women are not considered as threatening as men, and they often have a calming effect. If men had been included, Adi adds, Machsom Watch would probably have clashed with the army, and the entire atmosphere would be more volatile. In addition, the derogatory stereotype of interfering aunties and doddering grandmothers can work in their favor, enabling them to challenge the authority of the IDF or individual soldiers.

The very fact of women at the checkpoints also poses a challenge to Israel’s militaristic culture. Some Machsom Watch members are politically active for the first time. They may feel, suggests Adi, that a rights organization consisting of women will be more open to them.

The women are divided among various “watches,” usually three or four per watch. Between them they manage to cover most of the internal West Bank checkpoints on most days. They are tolerated by the IDF. With a touch of justified pride, some women relate how the IDF now instructs its soldiers on how to cope with Machsom Watch members. On the other hand, the army can keep them away from certain checkpoints as it chooses. Just north of Jerusalem, for example, the new Kalandia checkpoint is now a building, completely enclosed; at such a place, the Watchers are not permitted inside.

The founders of Machsom Watch wanted to restore Israel’s moral robustness and uphold its Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty. The organization’s ultimate aim, however, is to help bring about an end to the Occupation. The result of the women’s perseverance is a wealth of eyewitness accounts, which are sent to the press and establishment figures, and which are posted at . We may not reach our ultimate goal, Adi notes wryly, but nobody will be able to say, “I didn’t know.”

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