The Checkpoint Women of Israel

Machsom Watch advocates for fair treatement of Palestinians, drawing both resentment and respect from their countrymen

Robert Hirschfield June 8, 2007

Raheli Bar-Or of Machsom Watch keeps an eye on an Israeli solider as Palestinians pass through the army's Jubara checkpoint near the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

Daphne Banai, 57, car­ries many dark tales, like the one she tells of plead­ing futile­ly with an Israeli sol­dier on behalf of a 78-year-old Pales­tin­ian man not allowed through to his vil­lage, though his papers were in order, because of closure.

What you see,” says Banai, a leader of Mach­som (Check­point) Watch, who mon­i­tors the treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans at the more than 600 West Bank check­points, you can­not unsee.”

What many of the sol­diers see when Mach­som women appear at the check­points are Israelis of dubi­ous loyalty.

Most of the sol­diers are very angry at us,” says Banai. They don’t like hav­ing those bitch­es,’ as they call us, look­ing over their shoul­ders. It’s much eas­i­er to do what you want [if we weren’t there], like being able to slip up and give an old Pales­tin­ian a slap.”

Mach­som, found­ed in 2001 by three female human rights activists, does not allow men as check­point-watch­ers. They can be trans­la­tors, or dri­vers, or check­point-vis­i­tors, but check­point-watch­ing is the work of women.

There are a cou­ple of rea­sons for that,” says Banai. First, almost all Jew­ish men do com­pul­so­ry army ser­vice, then active reserve duty. As they are always between one peri­od of being sol­diers and anoth­er, this would com­pli­cate things for them, both with the sol­diers at the check­points and the Pales­tini­ans. We, on the oth­er hand, rep­re­sent the civ­il soci­ety to which the sol­diers and the Bor­der Police are account­able. We rep­re­sent their moth­ers, their grand­moth­ers [many of the Mach­som women are grand­moth­ers], their girl­friends, their wives.” 

Eighty-five per­cent of Israel’s check­points, designed to choke off ter­ror­ism at its point of ori­gin, are inside the West Bank. Pales­tini­ans trav­el­ing from towns and vil­lages, whether to find work or give birth or hon­or the dead, expe­ri­ence aimed guns, hard ques­tions and long waits. 

Banai trav­els to the West Bank in a van from Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv. Every day, rough­ly 50 to 100 of Machsom’s 400 women go out in 24 shifts to keep tabs on the remote out­posts. Accord­ing to Banai, Israel’s check­points range from fixed sta­tions, like the ones at Hawara and Beit Iba, near Nablus, to the rolling check­points” that can spring up any­where on the West Bank at any time.

Our instruc­tions to the women,” says Banai, are no cook­ies, no Nazis.’ Don’t befriend the sol­diers and don’t offend them.”

The women’s main task is to observe and to write reports on what they observe, in order to make pri­vate acts of mal­ice pub­lic. The reports are then pub­lished week­ly on the organization’s web­site (www​.mach​somwatch​.org) for all to read. Among the most loy­al read­ers are offi­cers and sol­diers of the Israeli Army, who often, indig­nant­ly or plain­tive­ly, give their feedback.

Banai was not always so bold. Her first attempt at check­point activism, four years ago, brought her face-to-face with her own para­noia. An equal­ly ner­vous col­league accom­pa­nied her. We were scared out of our minds,” she says. In every Pales­tin­ian, I saw a Hamas per­son. They all seemed to have beards. Even the women. Every time some­one made a move, I thought he was going to take out a knife and stab me.”

The right attacks Mach­som as sub­vert­ers of Israel’s right to decide where and how it draws the line of defense against ter­ror­ism. Banai agrees the gov­ern­ment has a duty to defend its peo­ple against ter­ror­ism. Her own daugh­ter was injured in a ter­ror­ist attack in Kfar Saba four years ago. But she cau­tions: I see the looks of the young man at the check­points when his father is being humil­i­at­ed, or he him­self, or any woman. His eyes say, Give me a bomb and I will blow us all up.’ “

The women forced the mil­i­tary to install water taps and shad­ed areas at some check­points. Their inter­ven­tion some­times makes it eas­i­er for Pales­tini­ans to get where they want to go. I have seen mem­bers of Mach­som Watch mak­ing a dif­fer­ence,” says Lucy Nus­seibeh, direc­tor of MEND, an NGO ded­i­cat­ed to non­vi­o­lent resis­tance to the occu­pa­tion. They make a dif­fer­ence in terms of the treat­ment that Pales­tini­ans receive, and they are a reminder of a com­mon human­i­ty. Their brav­ery and com­mit­ment to jus­tice, reach­ing across nation­al bound­aries, help too against stereotyping.”

Yet Banai says she some­times wor­ries if we are not actu­al­ly col­lab­o­rat­ing with the army, mak­ing it all appear more human. No improve­ments can change the nature of the check­points. Israeli check­points on the West Bank are a vio­la­tion of human rights. When you pro­hib­it a Pales­tin­ian from see­ing his dying grand­moth­er, it doesn’t much mat­ter if you say it with a smile, or if you shout at him. 

I don’t want the check­points changed,” she says. I want them gone.” 

Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer who cov­ers Israeli and Pales­tin­ian peace activists. He has writ­ten for The Pro­gres­sive, The Nation­al Catholic Reporter and Sojourn­ers.
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