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April 26, 2002
Crossing the Threshold
Machsom Watch keeps an eye on Israeli checkpoints.
n mid-March, as I walked toward a military post between the Israeli and Palestinian sections of the West Bank town of Hebron, the Israeli soldier on duty good-naturedly mocked my cautious approach. This isnt Colombia, he said in English. We dont just shoot people.
A few days later, an Israeli soldier shot out the rear tire on my Palestinian taxi because he didnt want me videotaping at the Kalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. I had watched as two Israeli soldiers near the same spot, the previous week, aimed their weapons toward the queue of pedestrians and vehicles at Kalandia. One shouted in Hebrew at a Japanese cameraman who was idly taking snapshots while he waited for clearance to pass. The cameramans driver told me they had been waiting an hour for the soldiers to get clearance from their superiors. Soon the cameramans small truck, with TV written with masking tape in giant letters on the side, would be waved through.
At the head of the line, with no prospects of such luck, a delivery truck still waited, loaded with dairy products. The driver told me he had been there four hours. He said a delivery from Ramallah to Gaza, which should take a few hours, had taken him two full days. A teen-age boy just back from Brooklyn didnt have any urgent errands, but he was annoyed that his U.S. green card couldnt get him through.
Long before the recent invasions, of course, at checkpoints scattered throughout the Occupied Territories and Jerusalem, Israeli military personnel have controlled entry and exit to Israeli and Palestinian areas through an elaborate system of entry permits and identification cards. Most of those crossing, legally or illegally, are workers. It is telling that Palestinians use the Hebrew word machsom for checkpoint, even when they are speaking Arabic.
Machsom Watch is an organization of Israeli women who, since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, have taken turns gathering twice a day at the Kalandia checkpoint north of Jerusalem, and at the calmer checkpoint south of the city on the way to Bethlehem (and less often at half a dozen others). On a windy and cold morning in March, I accompanied five members of Machsom Watch to the Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint. There were no gunshots that morning; the problems were more banal.
As the women arrived, one Palestinian man approached to report that soldiers had just driven another man into a nearby valley and beaten him. So one woman calmly recorded vehicle numbers on all the jeeps she could see. A few minutes later, she and her colleagues would patiently intervene with soldiers who had lost the indispensable ID cards belonging to a half dozen Palestinian men waiting for hours in the cold.
An IDF spokesman impatiently suggested that I refrain from judging soldiers at Kalandia, and he has a point. The young men with automatic weapons were obviously tense and afraid. But why were they there at all? Even before Israels recent invasion, the checkpoints were not simple border crossings. According to an April report from Machsom Watch, they have constituted part of a deliberate siege of the Palestinian population.
f course, Israel has real security issues, but the repression enacted at checkpoints does not serve them. Since September 2000, according to Machsom Watch, the control of civilian movement and livelihoods was tightened even though it is contrary to international law [and] is inhumane, immoral and ineffective in preventing terror attacks. This noose prevents sick people from getting to doctors, teachers and students from getting to schools, and families from getting together.
When Machsom Watch activists challenged soldiers about keeping Palestinian workers detained for so long after their identities had been checked, they were told, If we give them back the documents earlier, the workers will infiltrate again. In other words, the report concludes, the job of the soldiers was to ensure that the laborers would lose a days work, and they knew it.
The report (available by contacting [email protected]) covers the situation up to January, providing essential context for the more recent, extreme humiliations and violations that have occurred. One watcher records an incident in which groups of Palestinian men trying to evade the checkpoint are caught in the adjoining valley by Israeli forces. A shot is fired. The laborers fled for their lives É and we chased after the gunman. At a meeting with the soldiers, the commander and his officers insisted that Machsom Watch is a naive (if bold) group of bleeding-heart liberals who do not understand where they live.
Or understand all too well. So many Israelis cannot think logically about this situation because theres so much hatred, Nava Elishar told me at the Bethlehem crossing, her scarf whipping in the chilly wind. Elishar was born in Haifa to German and Austrian parents; she is married to the son of Iraqi Jews, a man held as a prisoner of war by Egypt in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He later tells me that some of their friends now consider them traitors because of their opinions in the midst of horrific, almost daily attacks by suicide bombers on Israeli civilians.
But Elishar, a computer systems analyst, overcomes the artificial divides by monitoring more than checkpoints. Im able to monitor my mind as if Im somebody else É as if I was the other side. That doesnt mean she has illusions about her identity. Back home in Gilo, after we share a breakfast that her husband learned to cook in the army, she finishes addressing her youngest sons bar mitzvah invitations.
Today, at what used to be the Bethlehem checkpoint, No one goes in, no one goes out, says Maya Rosenfeld, principal author of the April report and of the forthcoming book Facing the Occupation. The checkpoints have become military bases. Ramallah and Bethlehem remain under curfew. Some residents of Bethlehem, caught on the Israeli side when the new war started, have taken refuge in the nearby Tantur Ecumenical Institute, a Christian study center built on Vatican-owned land, which has extra-territorial status.
Rosenfeld is not optimistic. This invasion is a catastrophe, and it is hard to think that any kind of routine will be re-established. The divides that her group has been crossing will be more entrenched than ever. If you would have told an average Israeli three years ago that Israel will bombard the West Bank, he would have never believed you, Rosenfeld wrote in a recent e-mail. The point is that once the impossible has become a fact on the ground, most people tend to defend itthe armys actions, that isprobably because they fear that otherwise their entire world will be completely destabilized. The threshold that has to be crossed by most people is quite huge.
She still believes that groups like Machsom Watch can help build the necessary bridges. The women of Machsom Watch have continued going to these checkpoints, but are severely limited in what they can do. We just stand there for a while, says Rosenfeld, to make sure that the army is aware of our presenceor more correctly, that the army is reminded that we are still on the watch and that we shall return.
Mark Dow is a poet, freelance writer and co-editor (with David R. Dow) of Machinery of Death: The Reality of Americas Death Penalty Regime. He can be reached at [email protected]
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