Who Watches the Soldiers?
It is hot this afternoon in the office of the Palestinian Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, north of Jerusalem. Norah O., Dina H., and Roni H.—three Israeli women from the human-rights group MachsomWatch—have come here to check on the case of a Palestinian girl who was allegedly sexually harassed for two hours this morning by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in Beit Hanina. The 16-year-old was on her way to her job as housekeeper in Jerusalem. On her way back, she stopped at the Women’s Center. Now the problem is to get the names of the soldiers, so that a complaint can be processed.
The three women from Israel look on helplessly. Suad Abu Deli, a Palestinian social worker, has just asked them a simple question: “Don’t these border police agents have a service roster? Since we know when the men were at the checkpoint, it should be easy to identify them.”
Dina shrugs her shoulders. Asking the army and the police that kind of question has never gotten them anywhere. Either there are no rosters, or they are kept secret. The girl would have been better off noting the number on their jeep, or remembering what they looked like, or catching their first names. Without any clues like that, no one will ever be charged in the case.
For social worker Suad, this is a basic fact. “Does it help anybody, what you are doing here?” she asks the three women from Israel. “Do you understand that for us to get from one of our villages to another means getting a pass from the Israelis? That I am allowed to stay in the office only until 7 p.m., and that if I stay later, I can’t go home? Am I some kind of criminal that I have to live here like a prisoner? And why can’t I, even when it is really hot, ever go to the beach in Tel Aviv, which is only an hour away from here by car?”
Suad remains friendly during her outburst. She realizes that she is talking to the wrong people when she makes these complaints. When Roni reminds her that the women from MachsomWatch have already, by their sheer presence at the checkpoints, prevented much brutality, Suad immediately agrees. “There ought to be more women like you. And they ought to be standing at every checkpoint, hundreds of them, all day long!”
Machsom is Hebrew for checkpoint. The first Israeli MachsomWatch groups were formed in January 2001, in response to press reports of abuse of Palestinians at checkpoints. The women who organized the groups wanted to accomplish three things: control the behavior of Israeli soldiers and border police officers, work to make sure that there were no additional cases of abuse, and set down their observations in reports. No one should ever be able to say that they didn’t know that terrible things were going on.
Israeli women took the initiative. There are now more than 70 women involved in the program in Jerusalem alone. They have created teams of three or four observers, and serve in two- to three-hour shifts at the checkpoints during rush hours: early in the morning, for example, when hundreds of Palestinian schoolchildren and workers have to pass through, and late in the afternoon, when they return home. The women wear small badges, which read “mm” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Their quiet presence is meant to counter the ruling militaristic discourse in Israel today, as well as calming the mostly very young soldiers.
Now, the three Israelis want to check on the new Beit Hanina checkpoint. Suad leads them down the ripped-up street. Cars can’t pass through here anymore, and now it will also be blocked to pedestrians. That is why three border policemen have parked their jeep across the street, creating an improvised checkpoint. Two of them, with helmets on and heavily laden with rifles and bulletproof vests, saunter over to us, wanting to know why a group of women has gathered here. No one gets harassed or abused here, they say.
Suad remains silent. Anger is written on her face. Beginning today, the women of MachsomWatch will come by here regularly, too. The checkpoints cripple life, the Palestinian government, and the economy in the Palestinian terri-tory, and breed rage, poverty, and frustration—but to the majority of Israelis, they seem to be an adequate security measure.
I want to visit one of the most important checkpoints, Kalandia, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, in the late afternoon. Today it is quieter there than usual, my three escorts from MachsomWatch assure me, disregarding the din of honking horns, the engine noises coming from a long line of cars and trucks, and the shouts of the drivers. Everyone traveling in a taxi, bus, or collective taxi has to get out here and proceed on foot. Until a few days ago, Palestinian drivers who parked their cars near the checkpoint had their keys and registration papers confiscated by Israeli soldiers. Now the women from MachsomWatch are watching over the parking areas. The situation has gotten less tense. We get in the back of the line of pedestrians. About 40 Palestinians—men, women, and children—many of them carrying baggage, are waiting in two lines, divided by gender. They wait, the lines separated by concrete blocks, in the heat, dust, garbage, noise, and clouds of exhaust. One by one, they are allowed to walk 20 steps forward to one of the roofless cubicles, built of cinderblocks and sandbags, with the helmeted head of an Israeli soldier peeking over the top of the wall. A young female soldier is in our cubicle; to her left, a manned exit passage. Farther left, there is a shed sheltering the soldiers who are checking the cars passing through, one by one.
Everyone who passes the identity check comes out to a fenced-in street, leading 150 meters to the northern side of the checkpoint. There, in similar chaos, the people wanting to go south are waiting. On the fenced-off path, the two columns, from north and south, meet. Fathers carry small children, while other men carry suitcases and plastic bags. A young woman wearing a suit looks as if she has just left her office: She holds an attaché case, and no one opens it for inspection.
The whole system obviously has no purpose other than harassing everyone who passes through. In the line of cars waiting at the northern end, a Palestinian ambulance waits. The women from MachsomWatch alert Ofer, an officer they know from a previous visit, about the ambulance.
Ofer gets moving and so does the line of cars. The ambulance can pull out and pass through. Back at the southern end, a few drivers whose keys were confiscated also find the MachsomWatch team. Once again, Ofer is called to help. But this time he tells the women that the drivers are being made to wait in order “to teach them a lesson.” This is how law and order is maintained.In order to demonstrate the absurdity of the checkpoints, my MachsomWatch escort Yehudit E. picks me up early one morning, just after 6. On foot, we approach the Bethlehem checkpoint. It is completely quiet. Is it closed? But then a dozen men hurry past us. They came out of the olive grove next to the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, at the top of the hill. Within 20 minutes, about 50 Palestinians cross the border here, without any controls. We walk through the olive trees in the other direction. Men and women hustle past us going the other way to their jobs in Jerusalem. When two-thirds of the population lives under the poverty line and unemployment hovers over 50 percent, a job is a valuable commodity. Even when it means risking one’s life, as happened to 36-year-old Mussa Dragma: On the way to his Jewish boss, for whom he had worked for 16 years, Dragma was shot here on May 22; he was shot by the border police, at a range of 4 meters.
Later we drive on Tunnel Street, a street for settlers that separates them from the Palestinians of Husan and El Hader. On the Palestinian street, which is blocked by piles of earth, people are waiting, and many of them are carrying bags.
The settlers’ traffic on Tunnel Street, in contrast, zooms by unhindered. Concrete panels line the street to protect the settlers from Palestinian snipers. One of the panels is sprayed with graffiti in Hebrew: “No Arabs, No Terror,” Yehudit translates. [At the end of July, Israel’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the originators of the phrase, among them members of the outlawed Kach movement. But citing freedom of expression statutes, the Supreme Court dismissed the suit. Then, a lawsuit against a Kach member who had worn a T-shirt bearing the same phrase at a soldier’s funeral on July 28 was thrown out by the district court in Jerusalem on the same grounds. —WPR]
This is the same logic that is behind the call to “transfer” Palestinians out of Israel. And that is why it is necessary for a few women to try to make a difference.