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Checkpoint Women

Each day, thousands of Palestinians must pass a gauntlet of Israeli checkpoints to get to work, receive medical care, or visit family. And every day, the Israeli women of CheckpointWatch show up to witness what is being done in their names.

maschomwatch
www.machsomwatch.org

Qalandia, December 18, 2005

Observers: Ivonne M., Daniela Y., Aya K., Netania G. reporting.

   

It was very, very cold. We encounter five freezing [Palestinian] men, who have been detained for four hours ... Their IDs were taken, it isn't clear why, perhaps at random. They weren't crossing the checkpoint, and as far as they know they were just walking.

With them were standing two freezing taxi drivers ... whose IDs were taken too, keys confiscated, just for parking in the wrong spot. The soldiers wouldn't talk to us, wouldn't let us approach.

 

But after seeing us make conspicuous telephone calls [to senior officers and human rights NGOs], about an hour later they released the five pedestrians. (Ivonne has a unique quality to seem ‘a big guy', to seem to be holding power. Soldiers always become nervous when they watch her make her phone calls.)

 

There seems to have been an alert [about an alleged terror attack]. Many additional border police in jeeps, in combat expressions and demeanor, play Rambo with cars and people. Pointing their guns, they shout from afar at people to stand, open their bags, coats, lift their shirts. Startled people freeze at their sight. Ivonne, pretending to be calm, told them that it might be dangerous to point their guns at people, and they did in fact stop pointing after that ... The scene was disturbing, terrifying.

 

This is an example of the reports that CheckpointWatch has been issuing from the West Bank for the last four years. In 2001, in response to press reports about human rights abuses at Israeli military checkpoints, three women—Ronnee Jaeger, a Canadian activist living in Israel; Adi Kuntsman, a feminist scholar; and I, a long-time activist—decided we wanted to serve as witnesses of what the Israeli government was doing there in our names. These checkpoints are not border crossings but war zones. They prevent Palestinian access and freedom of movement not only into Israel, but within their own territory, the Occupied West Bank.

 

Today, CheckpointWatch numbers more than 500 Jewish-Israeli women, our ages ranging from 21 to over 70. All members are volunteers. Working in groups of four or five, we conduct four shifts a day, 365 days a year, in all weather. The work is emotionally and physically challenging and often dangerous, as when soldiers open fire, or throw tear gas grenades at Palestinian civilians attempting to cross the checkpoints. It requires long journeys on poor roads, long hours of exposure to the elements. It demands tremendous energy in engaging with the military and recording the tribulations of the Palestinian men, women, and children wishing to go about their daily lives. For the latter may not move, for any purpose whatsoever, without a permit. They cannot access shops, medical care, schools, or family celebrations without passing through a checkpoint at gunpoint. The checkpoints, and the permit system that supports them, have nothing to do with security, everything to do with control, with humiliation, and with oppression.

 

Watchers, the women of CheckpointWatch, have taken it upon ourselves to monitor as many checkpoints as possible. After four years of activism we have acquired expertise and knowledge on this difficult subject. We report by e-mail after each shift to a list of subscribers and post these reports at www.machsomwatch.org They provide a fascinating, if harrowing, picture of Palestinian life under occupation and the experiences of Israeli women who oppose that occupation. A thousand stories, tragic, funny, grotesque are reflected in these reports.

 

CheckpointWatch has always generated considerable media attention in Israel and abroad. While emphasizing the courage and spirit of Watchers, almost every report picks out the fact that many, perhaps the majority, of our women are middle-aged or older. Supposedly there is something piquant in the “elderly” taking on the daunting task of calling the Israeli military to account—for essentially that is what our work is about. That is our innovation and the challenge we present in requiring the army to be accountable to the civilian estate. We are not a curiosity but one of the largest and most active Israeli protest groups. The aging of our members is irrelevant.

 

If not us, who?

And yet if not older women, who else will take on this task? I myself am 62 years old. Thirty years ago, and until my retirement five years ago, I was struggling with a career and a host of other responsibilities. My activism was limited to tasks I could do from home or in my spare time, such as it was. Adi Kunstman was 27 when we began the project and at the time was the driving force behind it. Today at 32 she is in the process of writing her PhD with no time or energy to spare for activism. How many women between the ages of, say, 25 and 45 can take time off work, pay babysitters, leave the dinner on the stove for the family, and take off for several hours, never knowing when they will return? Not many.

 

Nor is the stereotype of the mellowed, mature woman, with a fund of patience, assertive yet non-confrontational, universally true. Some of our younger members set a better example in that regard. True, we 60-somethings benefit by our “invisibility”: we are not sexual targets for young soldiers, we can appear as non-threatening at a variety of levels. This is not to say that our members are not sexually aware or attractive, simply that at a certain stage in one's life sexuality is differently expressed or perceived and is less apparent to the 19- and 20-year-old soldiers encountered at the checkpoints. Also, in a very real sense we are not “combatants,” eligible as young women are for military service. We represent a reminder of the home front, mothers and grandmothers left behind. We encounter hostility or indifference on the part of soldiers, but we also meet those who respond to our presence as a reminder of their civilian lives. Some Watchers find their relations with the soldiers a source of emotional conflict. As parents or grandparents of soldiers, they know the difficulties these young men and women face and have indeed, to the protest of their colleagues, succumbed to the temptation to provide them with treats. That is not what CheckpointWatch is about. We require members to leave their maternal instincts at home.

 

Age is less a component of our membership profile than are class and status. The average Watcher is white, Ashkenazi (of European heritage), middle class, and with a professional or academic background. We have flexible time and usually own cars, which give us mobility. We are women with the resources to commit to a demanding task. Regardless of age, we are women in our prime, although the more mature members do have one significant advantage over our younger colleagues: We have status and connections that enable us to approach even the senior echelons of the military or members of Israel's parliament. This is not because younger women are less competent, simply that they are more likely to encounter prejudice or be regarded as lacking seriousness. This is the reverse of the agism to which we older women are subject.

Watchers are not killing time. Nor are we trying to hold old age at bay, for we do not define ourselves by our stage of life. Observing is not a cozy time-filler for the newly or long-retired. CheckpointWatchers are unique activists in a unique situation. Many Watchers, particularly the founding members, the first 30 to 50 women to join, come from a history of political activism. The form of activism may have been different when they were raising children or building careers, but the will, the interest, and the energy were always there. All Watchers, regardless of age, are driven by the dictates of conscience, a concern for the moral well-being of Israeli society that we believe is compromised by the ongoing occupation and its evils, such as the checkpoints, which are part of the deliberate policy of disrupting Palestinian daily life. Despite the political changes and declarations regarding the “easing of conditions,” the situation remains substantially unchanged in 2005, as this excerpt from a recent report indicates.

 

June 13, 2005

Observers: Alix W., Aliya S., Susan L. reporting.

At the Tulkarm entry/exit a long line of vehicles, and they're checked efficiently, if slowly. It's slow, as the dusty dirt path is too narrow for more than single file, one by one.

Only two of the three new concrete “positions” are manned, one of the two soldiers checking only pedestrians and aiming his gun all the time as he calls people to stand back, to come one by one. The line of vehicles around the bend on the dirt path numbers, so we're told, over 50. It's very slow, hot, and dusty.

 

The women who undertake the difficult task of monitoring human rights abuses at checkpoints and opposing the occupation are both politically aware and fortunate in having the time and resources to commit themselves to taking active steps to protest, and even resist, Israeli government policy. They are indeed a positive model for women of all ages, wherever they may be, to “…take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them” (Hamlet).

 

Judith Kirstein-Keshet's book, CheckpointWatch: Testimonies from Occupied Palestine, will be published by Zed Books, London, in December 2005. CheckpointWatch's annual report can be downloaded at www.machsomwatch.org/en Email Signup
Respecting Elders, Becoming Elders
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