Unlikely ally at West Bank checkpoints

The Baltimore Sun

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.

About five minutes later, a soldier returned to the truck and sheepishly said his commander had telephoned and granted him permission to cross.

But the volunteers say that just as often, their efforts are met with indifference by the soldiers.

The Palestinian woman, who was not allowed to cross to harvest her crops, waited half an hour for Machsom Watch's complaint to produce results. It didn't, so she sought her own solution. Walking home from the checkpoint, she made a sharp turn into a field and disappeared in the tall grass. Fifteen minutes later, she reappeared on the other side of the checkpoint, undetected by the soldiers.

For Banai, the incident underscored her belief that the checkpoints are an absurdity, breeding discontent and a false sense of security.

"I've never seen a terrorist caught at a checkpoint, but I've seen a lot of people become terrorists here," she says. "I can see it in their faces. This is where terrorists are being born. There is so much anger created here."

Banai, a businesswoman, is an unlikely member of the group. Raised in a hard-line right-wing family, she says she grew disillusioned with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, believing it had compromised the values of the Jewish state. Two years ago, her daughter was injured in a Palestinian attack outside Tel Aviv. The incident only reaffirmed that what she was doing was right, she says.

Fleishman, a retired teacher, said living in Thailand and Singapore opened her mind and made her more critical of Israeli policies. She joined Machsom Watch after reading about it in a newspaper. Her grandmother was killed in the Holocaust, a fact that plays on her mind when soldiers tell her that they are only obeying orders.

"As a Jew, I can't stand that. That's what the Germans said after the Holocaust," she says.

Such criticism doesn't make her popular among many Israelis, even members of her own family. But she continues to volunteer.

"I don't want to see my people behave like this," she says. Even after a day sometimes arguing with Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints, Fleishman maintains a grandmother's touch. As she headed home, she paused at the sight of two young soldiers walking back to their base. One was drinking a cola while another pushed handfuls of potato chips into his mouth.

"What are you eating? That's not healthy," she chided the soldiers, getting a smile in return from both of them.

john.murphy@baltsun.com

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