“It’s clear that there is no life without freedom of movement. And when there’s no life, there is nothing to be lost. Despair and lack of hope can lead more and more Palestinians into terror — thus there will be no security for us either.”
So said Hannah Barag, one of the leaders of Machsom Watch, a group of remarkable Israeli women who have taken it upon themselves to witness precisely what happens at checkpoints and other obstacles to Palestinian movement within the West Bank. She spoke to a rapt audience at an event sponsored by Meretz USA in New York City on Tuesday evening.
The most compelling and disturbing aspect of her presentation was that it did not focus on overt brutality. It was about the relentless accumulation of one petty humiliation after another in the memories of Palestinians. These women only document what they themselves witness, not what other people tell them. And what they witness is often Kafkaesque. There is usually a bureaucratic banality to the suffering and indignities experienced by people who are just trying to move from village to village, or from the West Bank into East Jerusalem for medical care or family events or work.
“The harassment and arbitrariness at the checkpoints,” she said, “are characterized by an irrationality that is intentional and also typical of the whole system of procedures employed in the Occupied Territories….The system applies a never-ending creativity to tire out and aggravate those going through the checkpoints, crushing their patience and their honor to the bone.”
Machsom Watch focuses only on the elaborate restrictions of movement from one part of the West Bank to the other. The vast majority of these internal controls have no purpose other than to protect Jewish settlers, including the extremists who don’t recognize the authority of the Israeli govenment.
There is nothing new in any of the written accounts by Machsom Watch volunteers. One can find many other descriptions on the Web of what happens at the checkpoints. What makes them compelling is their matter-of-fact, laconic prose style, which reflects their determination to do nothing more than hold up a mirror and let Israelis see the high moral price of occupation.
Consider the following, lightly edited excerpts from the regular alerts posted on the Machsom Watch website. They are both accounts from the Beit Furik checkpoint, east of Nablus. It is at the junction of two roads, one of which leads to the Jewish settlements of Itamar and Elon Moreh. Both of those settlements are home to some of the most fiery religious settlers, including those who constantly set up illegal outposts. Beit Furik is one of the three permanent checkpoints that serve to close off Nablus. Their ONLY function is to serve the residents of those Jewish settlements:
There was a young woman escorted by five girls that were of 12 years old or less and a small baby. They were all dressed nicely as they were making their way to a wedding. The woman was from Beit Dajan and…two of the little girls were hers and the other four belonged to her husband’s other wife. They were all from Beit Dajan. The other woman [the “husband’s other wife”] had already passed through Nablus and the husband was to come from Tulkarm. The roadblock commander wouldn’t let the woman pass since [the names of] four of the girls weren’t written under her ID and she didn’t have their birth certificates (at the Nablus district, children can’t pass without their escorting parents and they must have their birth certificates).
G’ from the army’s humanitarian center was able to give us, after making some inquiries, the names of all of the four girls that belonged to the other woman and confirmed that they were in fact from Beit Dajan. He asked that we wait for an answer.
After recurring calls to the humanitarian center on this case, we received an answer that “they got an order to let the woman pass”. We waited for the order to reach the commander, the wedding was to begin at 17:00 and the girls were already sleepy. The woman was completely desperate and at 18:00 the commander got a phone call and told us that the woman and the girls couldn’t pass. (Beit Furik, May 31, 2007)
What do the events just described have to do with security?
(Dan F, here): Next, the story of the cheese man. It is like some kind of unbearable parable, or the first draft of a black comedy by a college satirist that, at a certain point, gets out of control and becomes a bit too absurd. You may need a bit of patience to follow the twists and turns that this poor shepherd had to take in order to make his meager living [Note: “knafe” is a pastry]:
“What can I do with all this cheese in the sun? Come on soldier, let me pass [through with] the cheese. Look, it’s getting ruined.”
“You can’t take your car into Nablus,” said the soldier. “You don’t have a permit for the car.”
“I don’t have a permit for the car? But, you can see for yourself, I have a permit from the office of seeding, how do you call it, the ministry of agriculture, I am allowed to pass [through with] my cheese, I have sheep, I make cheese from them and sell it in Ramallah where they use it for knafe. Every week I transfer the cheese in my car to Nablus, from Nablus I go to Huwwara checkpoint and then I head to Ramallah. And now you, a bunch of new soldiers, tell me that I need a permit to enter with my car into Nablus. If you would let me I would bypass it, I don’t even want to enter Nablus, I just want to get to Ramallah. How do you want me to pass [through] with all this cheese? On my back?” asked the cheese man, and pointed at the buckets that were full of hard salty cheese.
“I don’t care how you pass [through] with it, get into your car and drive away, I don’t want to see you here again without a permit for your car.”
The cheese man sighed in desperation and turned around to look for a car that had a permit to enter Nablus.
After half an hour, the cheese man found a car with a permit to enter Nablus. It took another thirty minutes to transfer the buckets from one car to the other, and another thirty minutes waiting in line. The soldier inspected the car for five minutes and sent [the man] back to Beit Furik.
“What’s the matter?” we asked the soldier, “This car has a permit to enter Nablus.”
“Yes it does,” the solider said, “but the permit allows the car to enter empty; it hasn’t got a permit to transfer merchandise.”
After twenty minutes, he found a car with a permit to enter Nablus and to transfer merchandise. It took twenty minutes to move the buckets from one car to the other…and thank God the car passed the checkpoint and entered Nablus.
After an hour, we left to [go to] the Huwwara checkpoint [another one at the edge of Nablus]. We parked at the faraway parking lot and walked to the checkpoint. From afar, we saw buckets of cheese being moved from one car to the other.
“What is it with them and cheese today?” Inbal, my partner at the checkpoint, asked. Was everyone transferring cheese from one car to the other on that day?
We came closer. It was the same man that was at Beit Furik. He had passed the checkpoint into Nablus, but the car he was in didn’t have a permit to exit Nablus through Huwwara and head to Ramallah.
So, at the exit from Nablus, he started moving the cheese to another car that had a permit to transfer merchandise from Nablus through Huwwara. He got out of Nablus, and then had to move the cheese again from one car to the other.
“What’s the matter?” we asked, “doesn’t this car have a permit to transfer merchandise?”
“Yes it has,” said the cheese man, “it has a permit to transfer merchandise.”
“So why are you moving the cheese from one car to the other all over again?” we asked.
“It doesn’t have a permit to pass through Za’atara [another checkpoint]. I’m swapping it for a car that has a permit to pass through Za’atara, in the direction of Ramallah.”
(Dan F, here): If Rabbi Hillel were still with us, he would say, “Do something about this. All the rest is commentary.”