Cameras in Hand, Volunteers Monitor Palestinian Checkpoints
HUWWARA, West Bank — Israelis were shocked and outraged last month by a video still of a young Palestinian man playing his violin in front of Israeli soldiers at a security checkpoint in the West Bank. Published in Ha’aretz, the picture prompted comparisons to Holocaust-era images of Nazi guards commanding helpless Jews to perform for them, and questions about Israel’s ability to preserve justice while stopping terrorist attacks.
But one group wasn’t surprised: Machsom Watch, the monitoring organization that captured the incident on video.
For many in the 500-member group of Israeli women who monitor the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinians, the outcry over the violinist was more a passing case of narcissistic guilt than a genuine example of national introspection.
“I believe this is a storm in a teacup,” said Ruthie Kedar, a 76-year-old grandmother who has been monitoring West Bank checkpoints for Machsom Watch since 2002. According to the veteran activist, the videographer and the organization’s observer “stated clearly that they could not hear what was said, so they do not know whether the violinist was actually asked to play.”
Kedar added: “We have seen and see every day much worse things. The public reacted only because of the Holocaust connotation. This will not in any way change our [public standing]; perhaps it has placed us on the media map for a week or two.”
Every day, Kedar and other members of Machsom Watch (meaning “Checkpoint Watch”) take to their cars to monitor the network of roadblocks set up by the Israeli army outside Palestinian towns and villages throughout the West Bank. Their self-appointed task: to monitor the behavior of soldiers at the checkpoints; to protect the rights of Palestinians crossing the barriers, and to report their observations to the public.
A typical day, they say, was September 13, when Kedar led a group of five volunteers to an Israeli army checkpoint at Huwwara, about two miles south of the West Bank city of Nablus. There an Israeli soldier was yelling in Hebrew at a group of young Palestinian men to sit down. “Shev! Shev! Shev!”
The Palestinians stood in a holding pen that the soldiers have dubbed “The Jorra” (Arabic for sewage pit). Reluctantly, the men squatted on the dusty ground. Outside the pen, a knot of Palestinian women, robed from head to toe, stood weeping in the harsh sun. Their plight might go unnoticed but for the presence of Kedar and her band of volunteers.
Using her cell phone, Kedar called the army’s humanitarian office to complain about the shouting soldier. Shortly thereafter, he left. The crying women—who apparently were stopped for lack of the right identification — also departed. The checkpoint, however, was far from empty.
Six thousand Palestinians pass through the Huwwara checkpoint each day on their way in and out of Nablus, among them old men leaning on canes, women hoisting large baskets on their heads, veiled students carrying notebooks, a woman lugging a sewing machine, and small children, some howling. They struggled through the revolving metal barricades, showing their I.D. cards to the Israeli soldiers, who sat behind sandbagged concrete barriers, wearing helmets and body armor, their guns pointed straight at the people. The soldiers laughed and barked orders; the Palestinians stared back, with hatred and humiliation in their eyes.
The intense Israeli need for security is, of course, understandable, given the spate of suicide bombings and other attacks the country has suffered since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, which at last count had killed more than 900 Israelis. (Almost 3,000 Palestinians have been killed during the same period.) According to Israeli army spokesman Jacob Dallal: “Because the security fence is not complete, one of the important ways to stop a terror attack is to hamper movement inside the West Bank. And one of the ways to screen movement is through the checkpoints.”
Dallal points out that it was at the Huwwara checkpoint last March that soldiers intercepted Hussam Abdo, a mentally slow 16-year-old who had attempted to pass through it with an 18-pound explosive vest strapped to his midsection. “You saw it on TV,” Dallal said. “That’s a very good example of a checkpoint stopping a suicide bomber.”
The women from Machsom Watch, however, argue that the checkpoints do little to increase security. Kedar said that most terrorists don’t bother going through the checkpoints; instead, they cross the hills by night.
The organization’s spokeswoman, Hanna Barag, pointed out that the checkpoints are littered throughout the West Bank, not just along the Green Line, and suggested that the checkpoints don’t “prevent terrorist activity; they enhance it.”
“The everyday humiliation of hundreds of people creates more hatred and more anger than any other means of ruling,” Barag said.
The daylong September vigil at Huwwara seemed to corroborate this claim. One elderly woman, exiting Nablus with an X-ray under her arm, was detained because she carried a Jordanian passport, not the standard green I.D. issued to Palestinians living under Israeli rule. The X-ray showed that she has bronchial pneumonia.
Young men, regardless of what they were carrying, were routinely detained in the pen while the soldiers investigated their backgrounds with the Israeli internal security services. One of them, a tall, unshaven man who earlier could be seen kneeling and pleading in Arabic with the shouting soldier, was handcuffed and placed for hours in a narrow concrete cell, about 4 feet wide, with no access to water or a toilet. The soldiers claim he tried to run away, but Kedar says he was being punished for impertinence.
Kedar believes that the work of Machsom Watch does make a difference: Palestinians at the checkpoints routinely thank them for their presence, and the army does pay attention to their reports. Even Dallal, the Israeli army spokesman, evinced a certain respect for their efforts. “We appreciate their intentions, and we work in coordination with them. These women have the cell phone numbers of the commanders of the checkpoints, and they will call the commanders and say that ‘We have a problem at this checkpoint,’” he said. “But sometimes they’re not fully aware of the security alerts and the constraints that the soldiers are under. There is a serious, real threat to the soldiers serving at the checkpoints. Soldiers have been killed at them.”
Some Jewish critics are less diplomatic. Members of Machsom Watch say they face a steady stream of hostility from Jewish settlers, who sometimes stand and scream insults at them, calling the women “antisemites,” “Judenrat” and “schmattes” (rags).
The women, however, have no intention of stopping what they see as a crucial means of alerting the public to abuses. “We are the only civil eye that monitors and reports on a daily basis about the goings-on in the checkpoints,” Barag said. “No one will be able to say in days to come, ‘we did not know.’ We are telling them in a loud and clear voice.”