The Women Who Watch

February 20, 2010

“It will be good for her” Anat Tueg says to Neta Efroni as they inspect a suitable looking pomegranate and hand it to me “It will give her iron”
Neta nods her head
“Have you eaten one before?”
I haven’t
“You should only eat it naked. In the bath” Anat says, and hands me a bag with two loves of bread.
We are travelling close to the border between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. Suddenly we swerve to a halt so that Neta can buy me a tub of cheese for good measure. As Neta negotiates, the local Palestinian shopkeeper looks up at a small television. Oprah Winfrey bounces out onto the set and opens her show. The three of us, a mixture of multi cultural misunderstandings, watch for a moment as in another world the queen of day time communication works her magic.
“Don’t forget to call, even if you just want to talk” Neta says as I get out of her car half and hour later back in Jerusalem.

Neta and Anat are two of the women from Machsom Watch, the now 500 strong group of Israeli women who work in shifts, visiting Israeli checkpoints to monitor how their own soldiers are treating the thousands of Palestinians that cross each day. They are fierce Jewish mothers, and in the short time we have known each other they have worried openly about everything from my safety to my eating habits, to whether I will be lonely on my trip. Both have served in the Israeli army and neither are unaware of the precarious position Israel still holds in the world “I was in the army In the 1960s. We had enemies all around” Neta remembers with unexpected fondness “Those were good times”

In Hebrew Machsom means ‘fence’ Neta and Anat were drawn to Machsom Watch by a deep pride in the achievements of their country, combined with a hatred of the increasing number of checkpoints that have sprung up since the latest Palestinian intefada four years ago, and – of course – the wall. The wall dominates our morning. Taller than its counterpoint in Berlin once was, but every bit as grey and stark, the wall has become a visible symbol of the latest lurch towards peace, or annihilation, between Israelis and Palestinians. Apartheid, say some. Security, say others. But most moderate Israelis, and all Palestinians, agree that while the wall may have reduced the number of suicide bombings, its path through the heart of Palestinian towns has sown the seeds of much future bitterness “We should be secure” Rodi Bineth, a Tel Aviv art dealer who has been on a Machsom Watch shift, tells me “But build the wall on our borders, on the Green line” As it stands at the moment the wall encircles individual towns, fencing Palestinians into tiny enclaves, separating neighbour from neighbour. Roads are destroyed, ancient trees and homes bulldozed, but the relentless building of the wall goes on.

Of course the women of Machsom Watch are only too aware that a wall works both ways. The wall encircles Israelis just as surely as it keep Palestinians out, and for these women their concern is that the wall and the checkpoints are not only a physical manifestation, but have rapidly become a state of mind. The group began when an Israeli woman was passing a checkpoint and heard a solider calling an elderly Palestinian woman a whore. “Is that how you speak to your grandmother?” she remonstrated with him. With a few friends she went back day after day and the group grew. Unlike other peace groups, all the members of Machsom Watch are women and Israelis. Their mission is to do away with checkpoints, not humanise them, but in the meantime their influence of humanising the soldiers who man the border has been profound “It works because those women are their mothers” Rodi Bineth says " and you tend to behave differently when you think your mother is watching you"

On the day that I visit the Qalandia checkpoint with Neta and Anat, other Machsom Watch women take a photo of a Palestinian man playing his violin before armed Israeli guards. The following day the photo, with it horrible associations of Jewish musicians playing for Nazis in the concentrations camps, makes it on to the front page of the country’s two biggest newspapers. Within a week its features in the world press, complete with a denial by the Israeli Defence Force that the soldiers had forced the man to play. But the women of Machsom Watch know that such humiliations are common.

“Its in their faces” Anat says, as we watch a group of young girls dipping their eyes as they pass a series of soldiers. If she sees a solider badly treating a Palestinian or needlessly holding up the line Anat will try and intervene. But she can do nothing about the daily wearing down of understanding that such encounters cause “The soldiers stand here day after day, they don’t see the Palestinians as humans any more”

Esti Tsal is an artist and photographer from Jaffa. She shows me images the she has taken of life on these makeshift borders. On the instructions of a soldier, an old woman empties her belongings out onto the road. A young couple look into a checkpoint. Facing them in return is the barrel of a gun. Two hands touch, but they are only exchanging the identity pass that is present in every transaction of life here
“It was like going into analysis and suddenly realising you’ve been in denial for your whole life” Esti says of her first visit to a checkpoint “People in Israel are walking around with their eyes closed” Esti has two sons. Daniel, a sweet 18 yr old, has just been released from prison for refusing to serve in the Israeli army. In Jaffa he became an underground hero, with graffiti springing up demanding his freedom. His older brother has just finished serving for three years in the intelligence unit of the Israeli army and he rolls his eyes at his family’s activities. His mother teases him about how he hides her Machsom Watch literature when army friends visit. In the family such differences are viewed affectionately, but less so in the country at large. For all but a tiny minority defending Israel is still sacred, and Daniel’s protest has made even fellow Machsom Watch members uncomfortable. In his letter to the Minister of Defence Daniel explains how visiting checkpoints and the West Bank made him see Palestinians as human beings for the first time. He goes on to identify a wider concern of Machsom Watch; the bureaucracy of occupation

“I had a harder time watching a ‘well functioning’ checkpoint than being present at a ‘problematic’ spot. When I witnessed a boy who had only just finished high school calling the next in line, and with a condescending expression telling him to open his bag, I perceived the silent truth of the occupation: Nineteen year old boys who dominate an entire population of men women and children”

The checkpoints themselves are surprisingly makeshift, often consisting of no more than a tin watch tower with a bedraggled Israeli flag fluttering from the top. It is the attitudes and the system that are entrenched. While Israelis bristle at comparisons to apartheid South Africa, the similarity of two countries surviving due to a combination of sheer military force and mind-numbing paper pushing is startling. Like South Africa, Israel lives by the pass book system. Palestinians residing in Israel have blue passes which guarantee them freerer movement than their counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza. For them an elaborate colour coding defines precisely which towns they may visit, which checkpoints they may pass. The truth is that many thousands of Palestinians are unable to travel at all.

Tsilli Goldenburg is a Machsom Watch member who has recently completed a report on the pass book system. We meet in a Jerusalem cafe with an armed guard standing at the door to prevent suicide bombing. Every cafe in the street is similarly protected. Over coffee she points out how a town like Nablus, with eight Israeli checkpoints, is often entirely sealed off. Checkpoints are sometimes closed down, allowing no passage, not even for ambulances “There is no bread, no medicine, sometimes not even any water – because not all villages have their own water systems” Few Palestinians are able to cross checkpoints for work and the economy has fallen by 70% since the intefada began four years ago. Only 4,000 Palestinian cars have permits to travel, and most main roads are forbidden anyway. The Israeli government has just proposed the building of new separate roads to connect towns on the West bank isolated by the checkpoint regime. When the security wall is finished it will cut off Arab East Jerusalem from the main West Bank hospital. At the moment people are often seen scrambling over unfinished sections of the wall to get to their appointments.

In return, the government shrugs merely its shoulders at the protests of women like Tsilli. Palestinians can travel and work. But they must go to a pass office and apply for accreditation in the normal manner.

Tsilli’s response to official explanations is scathing “The policy of this government is not to give permits, while saying that they do” she says. Visiting both Israeli and Palestinian permit offices over a period of years Tsilli found Palestinians caught in an endless web of paper work and misleading instructions. Always politely, reasonably, they would encounter a series of administrative obstructions that ultimately denied them access to move around.

Defenders of the current system look to the future and paint a frightening vision of the alternative. Is it not Israel, they ask, that has built the western-style cities and economy? Isn’t it the state of Israel that’s responsible for the only democracy in the region? Where will the Jews go if they have no future in Israel, they will be herded into the sea. Their fears are understandable.

Echoing again the arguments of old apartheid South Africa, Israelis often point out that its hemmed in democracy, of sorts, and capitalism is an isolated last bastion against the forces of dictatorship, chaos and corruption that would otherwise rule this much fought over scrap of land. Perhaps, but moderate Israelis are now asking, at what price comes domination?

“You see…” Anat says, watching the line of Palestinians as they shuffle forwards in their queue to the checkpoint, and across the waiting roadblocks and through the electronic gates “…this occupation is doing us the most harm… We have become de-humanised. I wish every mother could see her baby standing on a checkpoint. What are we turning our children into? Is this what we wanted for Israel?” Later I follow her instructions and eat the pomegranate she bought for me on the road to the checkpoint. She’s right. Dark red juice sprays everywhere and in seconds the shower looks like the site of a bloodbath. Just as she feared, its uncontained and uncontrollable

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