Checkpoint witnesses

The Israeli women of Machsom Watch keep a close eye on soldier behavior at the roughly 600 Israeli-controlled checkpoints in the West Bank.

The midday heat beats down fiercely as a silver car swings off the main Israeli highway toward the West Bank. Pulling over just before an army-patrolled checkpoint, the three women inside pull name tags and signs from their purses. "Machsom Watch" read the logos they attach to their shirts, the windshield, and on a flag fluttering from the back window. These Israeli women are volunteers for an organization whose members venture into the West Bank twice a day, every day, to some of the roughly 600 Israeli checkpoints (machsomim in Hebrew) there.

Machsom Watch, founded in 2001 by three seasoned activists, consists of some 400 ordinary Israeli women who take turns standing at Israeli-controlled checkpoints, watching for human rights violations and harassment of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers.

Some simply observe and report; others attempt to talk with soldiers or intervene on the part of Palestinians. Each "patrol" produces a report of their shift's events, which is then put up on their website (www.machsomwatch.org). Most checkpoints the women monitor are inside the West Bank, rather than on border points between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The purpose of such interior checkpoints is solely "to prevent free passage of Palestinian residents between their villages and towns," says group spokeswoman Adi Dagan. This violates international law, she says. The checkpoints' hours of operation and procedures are "arbitrary" and often changed, she says, making access to jobs, schools, and hospitals for many Palestinians at best, time- consuming and at worst, impossible.

The Israeli Defense Force disputes this. "If the Army's sole purpose would be to prevent freedom of movement for normal Palestinians," says IDF spokesman, Capt. Jacob Demal, "it would be a waste of our time. But checkpoints are there to impair the transportation efforts of potential suicide bombers, who use the routes time and time again."

On the issue of checkpoints' hours and regulations changing "arbitrarily," he agrees. But the changes, he says, are based on "general or specific intelligence," in response to the threat level.

Machsom Watch's women are from many professional backgrounds, social classes, and regions of Israel. "Most have never been politically active before," Ms. Dagan says. "They are largely women in their 50s, 60s, or beyond, whose kids are grown up and now for the first time ever they can act on their beliefs."

The three grandmothers taking a Sunday afternoon shift that circles the Nablus region are no exception. Two, Alix Weizmann and Aliya Strauss, are teachers; the third, Susan Lourenco, a university administrator, was born and raised in England by German Jewish parents. Each is acutely aware that her actions are not widely appreciated. "Most average Israelis," says Ms. Lourenco, "don't know what's going on and don't care. But our priority is to make the Israeli public know what's happening in this region and show them that changes have to be made."

"That's not an easy task," adds chirpy Ms. Strauss, now a busy social activist and demonstrationgoer in her mid-70s. She sports an "End the Occupation" baseball cap and huge sunglasses.

"I finally decided to make a commitment and join two years ago," says Ms. Weizmann, whose four children all served in the IDF and don't approve of her "unpatriotic" activities. "I think we make a bit of a difference. You have to do the little that you can."

The car winds through the dramatic, rocky country of the Samarian Hills. "Palestinians aren't allowed on this road," notes Lourenco, though the road cuts through Palestinian farmland. The only other vehicles are military tanks and Humvees, jeeps from nongovernmental agencies, or the cars of Jewish settlers - some from illegal settlements that dot the hillsides. About 400 miles of such roads, open only to Jews, snake across the West Bank.

Finally, the women arrive at the first checkpoint on their itinerary, near the Jewish settlement of Shavei Shomron. The neat tarmac road continues up to the settlement; the road that was once the main thoroughfare between the cities of Jenin and Nablus peters out into a narrow, poorly surfaced road.

At the top of this road lies the first checkpoint, an army outpost complete with trailers, watchtower, concrete posts, and curling razor wire. Israeli citizens are not allowed to venture any further. "So we'll just hang around, and see what happens," says Weizmann with a rueful grin.

The women are not relishing their stop here.

"Last week, the soldiers shouted all kinds of vulgar insults at us, too disgusting to relate," recounts Lourenco.

The women encounter other kinds of abuse. "We've been spat at, screamed at, sworn at, our cars scratched by settlers," she continues. None of the women is frightened of a threat from the "enemy" Palestinian side. "They know we're there to help them," says Strauss. "It's our side we're scared of."

As the women stand in the baking heat, a Palestinian minibus pulls up carrying workers from the Palestinian Archaeological Authority, its roof laden with wheelbarrows and shovels. Each morning at 4 a.m., they pass through this checkpoint; every day at 2 p.m., they return home. Almost every time, soldiers on guard delay them. "No authorization to pass today," calls the young soldier from the watchtower.

"But they came through this morning," shouts up Lourenco, on the workers' behalf.

The soldier sighs and picks up his telephone. After a short conversation, the soldier steps down from the tower, examines the workers' permits, then quickly lets them proceed. "It just goes to show," notes Lourenco as they pull away, "that decisions are all down to the individual soldier. That's the biggest problem of all."

Throughout the day, the women move from checkpoint to checkpoint. Their daily "patrol" takes roughly seven hours and includes stops at about five checkpoints, more if soldiers set up temporary "rolling" checkpoints.

Next, the women stop at the Beit Iba checkpoint on the outskirts of Nablus. The area is in chaos, as a new army restriction bans taxis and buses from entering or exiting the city. Two young Palestinian men sit in concrete corrals, a third in a tiny tin-doored inspection booth. The young men explain, in shouts, that they are being held as punishment for trying to circumvent the checkpoint. One has already been held, in stifling heat without even a place to sit, for almost four hours.

"Army rules forbid soldiers to punish civilians like this," says Weizmann, as Lourenco steps forward to talk to the commanding lieutenant, no older than 22. He stands, brandishing his machine gun at queuing civilians. He is not obliged to give out his name and does not turn toward her.

To these soldiers, the treatment is legitimate. "We're punishing them for trying to avoid the checkpoint," the young lieutenant finally offers. "Otherwise, what should we do - just let them go?"

"It's not allowed," says Lourenco firmly.

"Yes, it is," he replies, uncertainty wavering in his voice.

Minutes later, without explanation or apology, the men are briskly and quietly freed. It appears that, on this occasion, the presence of Machsom Watch has hastened their release.

As the women talk with another group of Palestinians having problems at the checkpoint, some soldiers look on.

"They're really annoying," says one, frowning.

"I don't have any opinion of them," says another flatly.

A third soldier attempts a polite smile. "They're not a problem," he says. "We work following the rules. It's only if we do something wrong." He glances over at the three women, "Well, then it might be a problem."

A trickle of Palestinians is slowly making its way through the checkpoint. "It's hard physically," the soldier continues. "Too hot in summer, too cold in winter. But we're protecting Israel from bombers and terrorists. Some people just want to go to work and we can't let them past." He shrugs. "You get used to it."

"I guess the intent [of Machsom Watch] is good, that they're trying to ease the situation for Palestinians," says IDF spokesman Captain Demal, who notes that the Army often cooperates by giving the women the cellphone numbers of the checkpoints' first-in-commands. "At the same time," he says, "they don't see the whole intelligence picture. And there's a big threat to soldiers." Soldiers have been killed at checkpoints. "We've done a steady job of improving checkpoints ... improving them on a human level," he adds.

The Machsom Watch women's biggest problem may lie in the suspicion with which both soldiers and civilian Israelis greet them, and the strain of witnessing unpleasant events on a weekly basis.

On their way home, the mood in the car is heavy, Lourenco is disturbed by what she sees as an increasing stranglehold on Palestinian civilians. She seldom sleeps well the night after her shift, she says, and rises early to write her report.

"After five years, we haven't been very successful," says Dagan. "Not a single checkpoint has been removed, and we haven't been able to change policies on restriction of movement for Palestinians. It's only getting worse," she continues. "But it's a long-term project to try to challenge something so big and deeply rooted."

"Often I feel we do so little," sighs Lourenco as the car pulls back into Tel Aviv's rush-hour traffic. "But I cannot live in Israel and remain silent. We show a peace-loving face to Palestinians who see no other Israelis but soldiers and settlers." And although she says she finds her task increasingly difficult, she knows that her presence at checkpoints makes a difference. "You should see the Palestinian women's eyes light up when we catch their eyes. I couldn't stop now."

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