My mother recently celebrated her 89th birthday in a most unusual place for a party — the Tayasir Checkpoint, situated in the northeastern West Bank, halfway between Nablus and Jenin.
Barren hills, not yet softened by the green grasses that grow in winters with good rainfall, crowd around an intersection of two roads. One road is open to cars with Israeli license plates, like the one my mother traveled in with her friend Yudit, as well as those of the settlers who live in nearby Jewish outposts. The other road, which heads toward Nablus or Jenin, is open only to Palestinian vehicles. On the Palestinian section of the road is what I refer to here as a “checkpoint,” but the Hebrew term, “machsom,” or barrier, describes it more accurately.
All Palestinian vehicles must stop while Israeli cars proceed quickly. All the people in Palestinian vehicles, except the driver, have to exit and walk on foot through a terminal where two IDF soldiers check for proper documents, weapons, explosives or illicit materials. The driver and car are thoroughly checked by the two or three soldiers standing, frighteningly exposed, on the road itself. Another soldier is stationed in the small tower “pillbox” position overlooking the scene, protects his comrades — his gun always at the ready. The checkpoint commander roams the site, overseeing the operation and dealing with nuisances like my mother.
At 89, my mother can, indeed, be quite a problem for a young officer — especially since she may seem so much like his own grandmother. She will often accentuate her grandmotherly appeal by offering up her homemade brownies. But it’s a ruse. She is there to monitor, to inspect, to look over the soldiers’ shoulders. She has been a member of MachsomWatch since its founding in 2001 as part of the women’s peace movement in Israel. Several hundred women, and only women, take turns standing at one of the more than 100 checkpoints that dot the West Bank. They monitor conditions and try to make sure that the soldiers treat the Palestinians according to IDF regulations and as humanely as possible, within the constraints of an occupation. My mother and her colleague visit the same three checkpoints every other week. Fairly often they will add another one, as the actual number and specific locations of some of the checkpoints can change daily. A good number are “mobile” and can be set up at a moment’s notice in any area where there is a security alert.
When I first went with my mother to “her” checkpoints a few years ago, I was treated to a typical scenario. As we approached the intersection we saw more than 20 Palestinian vehicles, a good number of them buses or mini-buses, lined up on the road leading to the checkpoint. We parked and looked around. No vehicles were actually moving; none passing through the checkpoint. On the far side of it, coming from the direction of Nablus, there was a similarly long line of cars. We waited a bit but there was no movement. My mother, pretending to be a naive “little old lady,” approached the commander of the checkpoint and asked why nothing was happening. He said that they had information about a security alert somewhere in the region, so they are not processing anyone. She asked overly politely if he could check back with “headquarters” about when things would start moving. He gave her a condescending smile but within two minutes the checkpoint came to life, and soon people and vehicles were being processed. They were mostly Palestinian laborers — many returning from work (most of them in the West Bank, a few in Israel) at the end of a day that started at 4 a.m. Since many of them needed to cross three or four checkpoints like this one on their way to work in other areas of the West Bank, such as Jericho and Ramallah, they had to allow a two- or three-hour buffer before arriving at their worksite to start their jobs at 7 a.m. It was not that different on their way home, a little faster on lucky days. Today, they said, they had been standing in the line that did not move for nearly an hour.
As they disembarked from buses, taxis and trucks, they all rolled up the bottoms of their shirts lifting them above their nipples, so the soldiers could see their torsos. Some were instructed to drop their pants, as well. Women and children were checked separately in a small building with aisles separated by metal frames. Everyone was quite and cooperative. The soldiers hurried them along with loud instructions, but we saw no abuse, no brutality. It was a good day, and a fairly typical one. But my mother had seen others… less “benign.”
Another time when we went together, my mother was in a dark mood. As we left after short stays at each of the three checkpoints she said quietly, “I didn’t come here for this.” She was referring to her idealistic Zionist youth movement days in Prague and the odyssey of escaping after the Nazi invasion. She immigrated illegally to Palestine, was caught by the British and deported to Mauritius for the remainder of the war — finally arriving in Palestine 1945. I suspect in “this” she also meant the many years of harsh conditions and hard work in the early days of the kibbutz: the 110-degree heat spells of summer when the only cooling system was throwing a bucket of water on the floor tiles, something I remember myself from kindergarten days), mud so deep in winter you had to hold onto the tops of your rubber boots when you took step or the mud would suck them into its belly, mosquitoes, malaria, you name it.
But, she said “I have to do this.” For her, the idealistic Zionism she embraced as a teenager is still inextricably woven with the humanism she was raised on. To make the trips to the checkpoint just a bit less dreary and more constructive, she has been collecting used toys and children’s clothes from members of the kibbutz to hand out to Palestinian families they pass on the road. Some are from nearbyvillages, others from small Bedouin encampments strewn here and there on the desolate hills. She finds them walking along the road with a flock of sheep or riding a scrawny donkey. The car pulls over, and she hands them a cardboard box; then it’s on to the checkpoint.
She has been going to the checkpoints throughout her eighties and now, with the last birthday in this decade of her life, she is celebrating with family, friends, and colleagues from MachsomWatch. Her invitation read: “Come celebrate my 89th birthday at the Tayasir checkpoint… with the hope that at my 90th birthday there will no longer be any.”
It’s a nice birthday wish. One makes birthday wishes with eyes closed while blowing out candles. But she is making this wish with her eyes wide open; she knows her wish is not likely to come true.
Rachel Biale grew up in Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin, in Israel, where her mother and family still live. Rachel lives in Berkeley, CA and has served in several positions in the Bay Area Jewish community.