Israeli women keep eyes on army

Three hundred Israeli women volunteer to monitor Israeli army actions at West Bank checkpoints.

Even before Israel's controversial separation barrier came under heightened international scrutiny this week, Adi Dagan was on the lookout at one of its gates in the West Bank, scribbling incessantly.

Armed with her notebook, mobile phone, and compassion, Ms. Dagan is among 300 Israeli women volunteers whose self-appointed task is to monitor the Israeli army, which operates about 65 manned and hundreds of unmanned checkpoints in the West Bank.

The group, Machsom Watch, or Women for Human Rights, scrutinizes soldiers' behavior at the checkpoints that constitute the main interface between the army and the roughly two million Palestinians who live there.

"I try to make sure the soldiers see I am writing," says Dagan,who holds a masters degree in history from the Hebrew University. "It is kind of a pressure on them to behave." She and others head to the checkpoints, or to gates in the barrier, at least once a week.

Israel says the barrier is essential to thwart the suicide bombers who have repeatedly attacked its towns. It says the gates are designed so that Palestinians can reach farmland and schools on the other side. But in Jubara, Dagan says "the gate is not opened regularly. Usually soldiers come to open it around 12:30 and are gone by 1:00, but sometimes they don't show up at all."

UNICEF has put up awnings on either side of the gate for children who have to wait in the rain.

On Jewish holidays, which are regular schooldays for the Palestinians, the gate is locked, say schoolchildren.

"It's a new system and we are trying to get it to work and to do as much as possible to allow people to move back and forth," says an army spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dallal.

The International Court of Justice is holding four days of hearings in The Hague this week on the barrier.

When Machsom Watch volunteers find schoolchildren waiting, they call a local army officer and he dispatches soldiers to open the gate, says Dagan. But officers responsible for other checkpoints are often unhelpful, she says

"You put an 18-year-old soldier at a checkpoint and he decides whether people get to work, to hospital, or to see their relatives," Dagan adds." It's a lot of power and many times bad use is made of this power to humiliate people, harass people, or act violently."

Machsom Watch advocates the end of checkpoints and, in the meantime, easing the plight of Palestinians. The group has come a long way since it started with three Jerusalem women at a checkpoint to Bethlehem in January 2001. Its daily field reports are posted on the Internet. A group of Knesset legislators recently took up the cause, paying their own visits to checkpoints.

Fending off criticism, the army has often said that all checkpoints are in place to thwart attacks on Israeli targets, not wear down Palestinians.

Most of the checkpoints separate one Palestinian area from another, with only a few controlling access to sovereign Israeli territory.

An army spokesman says that checkpoints between Palestinian areas are needed to disrupt the logistics of suicide bombings.

He says that in any given operation, an explosive vest could come from one area of the West Bank, the bomber from another, and the operation could be staged from yet a third location.

However, in October, the army chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon raised eyebrows by saying that the tight checkpoint regime was harming innocent civilians and generating resentment that backfires against Israel.

Machsom Watch's appeal, its volunteers say, stems from the feeling of actually doing something, rather than merely holding up protest signs. "You can definitely say that as an Israeli I have pangs of guilt about what is being done in my name," says television producer Daphna Weiss. "At the checkpoints I have a chance to do something practical."

Others experience a sense of empowerment. "When you think about it, we women are able to monitor the checkpoints because we are psychologically less threatening to the soldiers than males would be," says Michal Bar-Or, a young volunteer. "But in fact we turn our perceived weakness into strength. We have the power to observe the soldiers, to criticize them, and to be the voice of conscience."

Dagan recalls as the most harrowing moment of her work witnessing soldiers at Qalandiya Checkpoint near Jerusalem opening fire at Palestinian children who were throwing stones at the fence of an airport that has been closed during the intifada.

"During previous times, I had seen them shooting in the air, but that day they were shooting towards the children," she says. Dagan and a colleague called a local army commander, who, she said, responded that the troops were only firing in the air. A 14-year-old Palestinian boy, Omar Matar, died of gunshot wounds to the head and neck.

"It was terrible, totally traumatic," Dagan said. "I couldn't believe my eyes, I couldn't believe soldiers were shooting at small children. After that, it was very difficult for me to return to Qalandiya Checkpoint. Every time I saw the soldiers, I was scared it would happen again. The whole place became so terrifying for me, but I kept on going there."

Results of an investigation into the shooting "are being reviewed in order to decide what legal steps will be taken," an army spokesman said.

When she heads back to Tel Aviv, Dagan feels "sad, depressed, usually frustrated and angry. Mostly, I feel sad."

"The pictures still run in my mind," Dagan says. "It's like I'm still at the checkpoint even afterwards."

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