If Israel's New Government Won't, Maybe the People Will: The Checkpoint Women

The checkpoints inside the West Bank are not stopping those Palestinians who are determined to enter Israel.
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"Three plus three makes two and if you count it you'll see that it is true. If they want us to run with no shoes..."

The tiny Israeli car packed with three Israeli women in their sixties and seventies and containers full of dried fruit, mixed nuts and eggplant sandwiches drives spastically past the green line, stubbornly refusing to "slow for speed humps." The women, Edna, Rina and Hanna generously entertain me with songs from their army days:

"If it helps IDF then ok, let's buy cannons instead of socks, tanks instead of shoes."

Rina, the 73-year old leader of the peace activist group, Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch, served in the army in the mid-1950s and still remembers all the words to the old Israeli army song encouraging young soldiers to sacrifice their shoes and socks for new cannons and tanks. The women smile at the irony of the current context in which they sing their old army song and soon become distracted by their eagerness to identify the most recent roadblocks as we enter the West Bank.

"You see, you see that man holding up his jacket and twirling around. That is what they all must do. They are showing that they have no bombs strapped to their bodies."

Before Hanna can finish explaining, Rina interrupts to deliver what I am quickly realizing to be her standard line of sarcasm about the Palestinians: "Yes because the Palestinians are idiots. If they want to blow us up the only place they will hide their bombs is around their waist -- the one place everyone knows the soldiers check for bombs at the checkpoints. But it's ok, it works because the Palestinians are stupid."

The women laugh. It is the kind of laugh where you know you probably should not be laughing, but because it is the only thing you feel you can control you laugh anyway. As our tiny car recklessly propels forward over the bumps and potholes and deeper into the Jordan Valley the mood transitions from that of a road trip, to that of a band of women with only a short time to complete their mission. Our tiny car becomes something of a peace-mobile driving through enemy territory.

At the first of many abrupt stops on our drive through the West Bank the women, in silent, drill-like fashion, get out of the car, swiftly unpack white flags with "Machsom Watch" printed on them and attach the flags to the car windows. The three women work together like a small and well-trained army. After the flags are affixed to the car -- as if to say, "we come in peace" -- the tiny, 73-year old Rina, clipboard and pen in hand, approaches a group of Palestinian men sitting atop a road block.

While Rina speaks with the men, Hanna and Edna start asking the surrounding taxi drivers what has happened. Edna later explains to me, "the soldiers have blocked the only road out of their village. It is a sort of punishment. For what? They don't know. Maybe it is just a warning."

Aware of the ideology and political viewpoint of the people I am traveling with, I voice the logical argument that many Israelis and Jews would likely suggest. I question if there is a security reason. Soldiers may have found bombs or weapons being transported from this Arab village across the border into Israel. The checkpoints are there for a reason. The checkpoints ensure the security of Israel and the safety of her citizens so perhaps we are not getting the full story from these Palestinians.

This seems like a fair and logical justification. It is in fact the justification that most Israelis will articulate when questioned about the role and necessity of the checkpoints in the West Bank. As the Machsom Watch women repeatedly explain and as recent history demonstrates, it is not quite that simple.

Last year, Brigadier General Ilan Paz, the man who developed and implemented the first checkpoint in Qalandia in the West Bank criticized what the checkpoint system has become today. Gen. Paz created the first checkpoint in response to a direct threat on the border of Ramallah and East Jerusalem. Today, the vast majority -- 625 as of September 2008 -- of the checkpoints are not even on the border of Israel and the West Bank, but are instead deep within the West Bank itself. Instead of monitoring only the movement of Palestinians between the West Bank and Israel, today Israel monitors and controls the movement of Palestinians from Arab village to Arab village, within their "own territories" in the West Bank.

In February 2008, even Gen. Paz, the man who put in place the first checkpoint system, articulated his agreement with the idea that checkpoints may actually impede rather than improve national security when he told an Israeli radio station: "You have to understand that there is damage in having the Palestinian people with its back to the wall, not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, unable to improve their economy, unable to move from place to place."

As we travel through the Jordan Valley this reality of what the checkpoint system has become is all too visible. From village to village and neighborhood to neighborhood there are checkpoints and the resultant lines of Palestinians waiting to travel from town to town scattered throughout the Jordan Valley.

Contrary to what an outsider might expect, the checkpoints are actually quite boring. There almost seems to be a shared feeling -- between the young, Israeli soldiers and the Palestinians -- of complete boredom and a hopeless surrender to a system that, secretly, everyone knows is somewhat absurd.

The checkpoints are not unlike what the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) might be like if before entering the building everyone was required to take a tranquilizer. Despite the incessant waiting with no explanation, no one gets angry. No one even appears annoyed in the slightest. When the road leading from the farm to where two young men have been working all day to the village where they live is opened around 5pm, instead of the scheduled 3pm, there is not even the slightest hint of a complaint.

Instead of visible frustration, there is instead, visible fear. When a metal detector erroneously goes off as a five-year old girl walks through the checkpoint with her Spongebob Squarepants backpack, her waiting mother does not ask questions. Rather, she jumps back, begins to open her coat so the soldiers can take a closer look and pushes her daughter through the metal detector again.

Who knows, there certainly could have been a bomb in that Spongebob Squarepants backpack. That is possible and that is something many Israelis are willing to believe. In fact, Israel as a nation functions on the premise that there is, without a doubt, a bomb in that Spongebob Squarepants backpack.

The fact that that security assumption and that fear is the justification for these checkpoints appears somewhat irrational when you consider the argument that the Checkpoint women repeatedly raise:

"If the Palestinians really wanted to blow us up, they could. No problem. There are plenty of ways to avoid the checkpoints and bring weapons into Israel -- these checkpoints are doing a lot, but no preventing that possibility, that threat."

A 2007 study corroborates this argument. The study found that in 2006, 152,829 Palestinians had illegally, without a work permit, entered Israel. These Palestinians were avoiding the checkpoints and crossing into Israel on a regular basis. For a relatively small area like the West Bank, with approximately 625 blockades, that would seem to be a large number of Palestinians that were able to get through the border.

It is relevant to then question not only how so many Palestinians were able to avoid the checkpoints, but to also ask: what were they doing? How many were suicide bombers? Not one. These 152,829 Palestinians that easily entered Israel without going through the checkpoints decided that rather than blowing themselves up they preferred to work and earn somewhat of a living wage.

This does not mean there is no threat. As long as we are still reading of protests in Turkey where thousands of people are chanting, "Death to the Jews", or leaders of Hamas are quoted saying that they will not stop until Israel no longer exists there will always be a need for Israel to defend herself.

That is not the question and, as Rina adamantly insists, that is not what the Checkpoint Watch Women are fighting against. Rina evokes Gen. Paz's comments when she explains what the Checkpoint women have seen first hand: "The checkpoints do more to threaten our safety by feeding the tension, the isolation and the hostile environment than they do to protect us from that small faction of fundamentalists who we read about in the papers."

For the last five years, as the women have traveled through the West Bank, calling soldiers to open the gates when people are waiting and talking with Palestinians when they are stuck, unable to pass through a checkpoint there has never been a feeling of fear for their lives or safety. There are no experiences they can recall when a bomb or weapon was found or a threat was reported. Instead, their experiences of monitoring the checkpoints in the West Bank are filled with the stories of those Palestinians they have sat with for hours and the Israeli soldiers who have commiserated with them as they sit bored out of their mind in the middle of the desert.

As we drive back to Tel Aviv, almost completely uninterrupted (because we are Jewish), right through the checkpoint at the border into Israel I try again to voice the popular argument to some of the day's experiences. When I turn and ask Edna how, if these checkpoints are not the answer, Israel should deal with those who do want to kill the Jews and wipe Israel off the map, there is a brief but lingering pause as though the three women are silently negotiating with each other who should be the lucky person to respond to such a question.

Finally, Rina turns her head towards the backseat, raises her eyes in the rearview mirror, shrugs spastically and says, "that is always the question we hear. What about Hamas? What about the Arabs who want to kill each and every one of us? What about them? I guess I just have to ask, what about the rest of them? The vast majority of them. What about the ones that would rather sneak into Israel to work in their uncle's shop instead of to blow themselves up?"

Before I can exploit the moment where she pauses for a breath and ask a predictable follow-up question. Edna interrupts and answers for Rina: "Perhaps, the best way we can fight, the best way we can protect ourselves is to dis-empower the Hamas groups of the world. Take away their platform, take away the mantra to their hesitant supporters. Maybe when Palestinians can no longer utilize the rallying cry of being refugees, isolated and persecuted in their country, then the fanatics like Hamas will have less of a leg to stand on."

There are plenty of follow-up arguments that can be made to the Checkpoint Watch women. The conversation could far outlast the drive back to Tel Aviv. The reality, however, is that whether you agree or disagree with their arguments, the one thing that is indisputable is that the current system is not working. The checkpoints inside the West Bank are not stopping those Palestinians who are determined to enter Israel. What they are doing, however, is fueling a deep sentiment of isolation and giving a desperate person a reason to agree with a platform of hate.---Sources:United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "Implementation of the Agreement on Movement and Access and Update on Gaza Crossings." Report No. 75. September, 2008.Al Jazeera News. "Israeli Generals Oppose Checkpoints." February 2008.Omedia. Security News, April 2008.

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