On this trip our group was honored to meet with many dedicated Israelis and Palestinians who are working hard to create conditions for peace between Israel and Palestine. On June 20, We met with Hannah from Machsom Watch, who told us that Machsom is often said to mean “checkpoint.” But at a checkpoint, people come and then they move on. At Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, people come and they are not permitted to go. A better translation of machsom is “barrier.”
The barrier can be a 30-foot high wall, as in many of the cities in the West Bank, like Bethlehem. In other places the barrier may be a gate, a ditch, a fence with barbed wire or an electric fence. It can be an Israeli-only road, built through the West Bank to allow Israeli settlers access to their settlements. These are all ways of preventing movement of Palestinians. The issue is freedom of movement.
Hannah is one of the 500 Israeli women who go daily, in pairs, to 40 of the checkpoints in Jerusalem and the West Bank and help people move on. Israel has a total of 563 checkpoints throughout the country. These women monitor and document what they see; they answer calls for help from Palestinians unable to pass through, even when they have papers.
There are no written rules for what is needed to pass through a checkpoint. The soldiers no longer hit or abuse Palestinians; if they do, they will be punished. So what is seen at a checkpoint looks normal. In Bethlehem there are even gardens and a welcome banner at the checkpoint. It looks like a humane way to treat people. Israel claims that they have a humane occupation. But Hannah pointed out that it violates every chapter of the Geneva Accord, an unofficial agreement drawn up by Israeli and Palestinian leaders who wanted to draft a proposal that would replace the Oslo Accords as the basis for an official peace agreement. The Geneva Accord was drafted in Geneva, Switzerland, and signed in October, 2003. (More information: http://www.mideastweb.org/geneva1.htm and http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=351461&contrassID=2&subContrassID=1&sbSubContrassID=0&listSrc=Y ). The Geneva Accord supports full implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242, 338 and 1397.
She told us that she got involved with Machsom Watch because she feels that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands corrupts Israeli society. She does it for her grandchildren, although she did not do this work when her husband was living; he and her children do not agree with the work she is now doing.
Often soldiers at the checkpoint do not accept the permits Palestinians bring. One man tried to bring his amputated leg through a checkpoint. Hannah explained that for Muslims, as for Jews, it is important to bury body parts and he was bringing it home to bury it after his surgery. The man had a permit, but the soldier denied him passage because he did not have a permit for the leg. Hannah was called to help facilitate his passage. During the ten hours this man spent at the checkpoint, a doctor was summoned to examine the leg and verify that it was a leg and not a bomb, a permit was obtained for the leg and the man was finally permitted to pass. She told us that this is not unusual; it is everyday life for Palestinians.
An Arab farmer from a small village outside of Nablus was transporting milk and cheese from his farm to be sold in Nablus (these are both Palestinian areas, according to the Oslo Accords signed by Israel and Palestine in 1993). The farmer had a permit for himself and for the truck, but the soldier said that he also needed a permit for the goods—“the milk does not have a permit.” He finally loaded his milk and cheese onto another truck at the checkpoint because that driver had a permit for goods. The milk and cheese were loaded back onto his truck and he proceeded to the next checkpoint, where the same thing happened. He delivered the milk, but by the time he got to where the cheese was to be delivered, late in the day, the cheese was warm and spoiled. He had to throw it away.
Jabar is an Arab village in the “seam zone,” the land between Israel’s security wall and the Green Line (1948 border between Israel and the West Bank). This means that children must pass through a checkpoint every day on their way to school. The gate opens for a half hour in the morning, at noon and in the afternoon. The children stand for up to two hours in the heat or the rain, until the gate opens. Soldiers holding automatic rifles check their school bags and let them pass. If a child is late for school, he cannot get through and misses a day of school.
These are only a few of the things Hannah has seen in her work as an observer with Machsom Watch, but she is convinced that her work is important, that she is helping to make Israel a more humane place, that she is making a difference, not only in the lives of Palestinians, but in the lives of Israelis, who are also dehumanized by what happens at the checkpoints. In Israel, all Jews and Druse (not Palestinians)—men (three years) and women (two years)—serve in the army when they turn 18. This means that everyone has participated in this system and they have children and grandchildren who are still standing at checkpoints holding power over who passes and who does not.