Checking the checkpoints | Machsomwatch
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Checking the checkpoints

Checking the checkpoints

Morning Star
Colin Todhunter
Ronny Perlman is an Israeli woman who visits the checkpoints around Jerusalem twice a day. She goes in the morning when Palestinian adults are going to work and students are going to school and at the end of the day when they are returning home.

The occupied territories are dotted with such checkpoints. They are designed to restrict Palestinian movement and are often arbitrarily closed. If you don't have the correct papers, you are not allowed to pass.

All too often they have become scenes of death, with trigger-happy Israeli soldiers opening fire on innocent Palestinians attempting to go about their daily lives.

But in an unobtrusive way, Perlman and other Israeli women are seeking to help. Perlman is the Jerusalem co-ordinator of a unique organisation called Machsom Watch, which consists of mothers who provide a watchful presence over the Israeli Defence Forces' treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints.

The women's presence is intended to encourage humane treatment of Palestinians. Perlman and her colleagues write a report after each watch, which they believe will become a history of the occupation they oppose. This is done in the hope that eventually injustices can be addressed.

Machsom (Hebrew for checkpoint) Watch is comprised of peace activists who are against the repression of the Palestinian nation - but what makes this particular project different is that it is made up of Israeli women based in Israel itself.

Set up in 2001, the organisation is based on the belief that the occupation not only destroys Palestinian society but also inflicts grievous harm on Israeli society.

Ronnie Yaeger, one of the founding members of Machsom Watch, says that many of the group's members who stand at checkpoints are older, white-haired women.

She feels this is a good thing because most soldiers realise that "I could be their grandmother."

Yaeger believes that soldiers should be grateful towards the women for what they are doing. Their presence, just standing there, helps to save them from doing things that they would have to live with for the rest of their lives.

But Perlman says that the soldiers as a whole treat the women with contempt.

They ignore them or try to "educate" them by saying that the women are naive, that they don't really know how much terrorist activity there is in Palestine or how the army works to make the women feel safe in their homes.

Despite what some in Israel may think, the women are not a bunch of subversives. Perlman describes her two sons - one a physician, the other an ornithologist - as kind and compassionate men and as loyal soldiers. Machsom Watch members come from various backgrounds and vote for a range of political parties. 

However, as far as the Israeli public is concerned, there appears to be a collective effort not to know what is going on in the occupied territories, even though Machsom Watch reports the results of its observations to the widest audience it can.

The reaction to what the women are doing ranges from condemnation - they are women who care more for the Palestinians and don't see "our suffering" - to some kind of acceptance of the human rights aspect of the project's work.

But Machsom Watch remains undeterred despite these problems of perception. A new development which has evolved from the group is Court Watch.

Yaeger says that she once saw at a checkpoint a young Palestinian man smiling. A soldier said: "Stop smiling" and the man said: "I'm not." The soldier then apprehended the man and took him into a van.

Yaeger says: "We didn't know what happened to these detaineesinfo-icon," so the women followed the van to a military prison.

The women of Court Watch now have access to Israeli prisons to record what happens there and are able to watch the proceedings at Israeli military courts.

It's hard to say what impact Machsom Watch is having.

The Israeli public is sometimes made to feel uncomfortable on occasions when the media cares to publish a story about the group. And the army does occasionally respond to pressure, such as opening a humanitarian gate at the Bethlehem checkpoint to allow old and sick to get through more quickly, or putting water fountains at some checkpoints.

But the problem is that the Israeli public does not want to know too much.

In Yaeger's view, the United States ought to stop funding Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 border and then there ought to be "difficult intense negotiations" between Israelis and Palestinians. But whatever happens, the occupation must stop.