Unlikely ally at West Bank checkpoints

Israeli women's group serves as rights watchdog

May 14, 2007|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

NABLUS, West Bank -- At the Beit Furik checkpoint east of Nablus, a long line of Palestinians presses toward a pair of metal turnstiles, waiting for Israeli soldiers to let them through. The temperature has climbed to 99 degrees. Tensions are rising, too.

A 50-year-old Palestinian woman in a black hijab wants to harvest her fields on the other side of the checkpoint, but the soldiers won't allow her to pass. Before the dispute escalates, two Israeli women rush forward, asking if they can help.

Daphne Banai and Tamar Fleishman, both 60-year-old grandmothers from Tel Aviv, couldn't look more out of place. Wearing sunglasses and holding large handbags, they appear to be ready for a day of shopping. But they are volunteers for an Israeli women's group called Machsom Watch, which monitors the behavior of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and seeks to protect the rights of thousands of Palestinians who pass through them each day.

Movement within, and in and out of, the West Bank is controlled by hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks, gates and other barriers, restricting the movement of the territory's 2.4 million Palestinians from jobs, families, hospitals and other needs. Israeli authorities insist these restrictions are necessary for the security of Israel and for Israelis living in settlements in the West Bank.

But Israel is under increasing pressure from foreign governments and international organizations to ease up on the restrictions. The World Bank last week issued a highly critical report on restrictions to Palestinian movement, contending that Palestinians were prevented access to 50 percent of the West Bank and that the obstacles stifled any chance for the battered Palestinian economy to grow.

The report also notes that the obstacles to Palestinian movement continue to increase. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Territories, the total number of impediments as of March stood at 546, or 44 percent higher than November 2005, when Israeli and Palestinian officials signed an agreement to improve the movement of goods and people in the West Bank.

But Israeli defense officials have dismissed the World Bank's report, saying it is one-sided and inaccurate.

Since its founding in 2001 by three Israeli activists, Machsom Watch is one of the few Israeli organizations to call attention to hardships at checkpoints. The group has attracted more than 400 volunteers -- some over 80 years old -- who observe hundreds of checkpoints and appeal to the consciences of Israeli forces occupying the West Bank.

"This checkpoint is not protecting the settlers. It is just harassment," Banai says, as she starts questioning the soldiers about why the woman is not allowed to cross.

A young soldier impatiently explains that farmers are not allowed through today, only on days when additional forces can monitor them.

"What? Is she a security threat? You need more forces to watch a 50-year-old woman?" asks Banai, growing increasingly agitated.

"Those are my orders," the soldier replies flatly.

Banai reaches for her cell phone and calls Israeli military headquarters to lodge a complaint.

Machsom Watch issues regular reports recording their observations. Often, their entries describe the frustration experienced by Palestinians: "At 12:30 [a Palestinian man] arrived with his children at the checkpoint. At 18:30 he was still stuck at the checkpoint, there were about 70 cars standing in front of him."

Somewhat reluctantly, Israeli authorities say the group has had an impact, by reporting abuses by soldiers and assisting Palestinians.

"We take what they say very seriously. Some of the reports we checked, and we found that there are things that we can change and make better," says Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli department overseeing the Palestinians.

But Dror is quick to add that Machsom Watch, as well as other organizations that criticize the checkpoints, fails to take into consideration the need for security.

"I don't see anything good about these checkpoints either, but on the other side, we don't have any other answer for terror attacks."

Among Palestinians, Machsom Watch receives mixed reviews.

"I appreciate their work. But they can't do anything unless they are more aggressive," says Yussef Abu Samra, a pharmacist in Beit Furik who was crossing into Nablus.

Volunteers say a large part of their mission is to show another side of the Israeli people to Palestinians, many of whom have contact only with Israeli settlers or soldiers. "They've never seen a Jew without a gun," Banai said.

During their five-hour shift monitoring checkpoints near Nablus, Banai and Fleishman did what they could to assist Palestinians who had encountered trouble.

When a truck driver delivering three gas canisters was denied entry despite having his permits in order, Banai called Israeli military authorities to complain.

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