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Checkpoints, the wall and an unexpected message

I think of Hannah often these days, now that I have begun to wade into the difficult task of conversing with the left on Israel. She is from Australia, in her late 50s, and has lived in Israel since the early ’70s. Hannah (not her real name) is one of the brave, tireless, often rather eccentric Israeli Jews (most of them women) who volunteer for Machsom Watch.

Machsom means “checkpoint.” These woman have taken it upon themselves to monitor the treatment of Palestinians at some of the most controversial checkpoints in the West Bank. Like the wall/barrier/fence (it can be any one of those things, depending on where it’s located), many of the checkpoints that were established in the last few years prevent Palestinians from traveling from one part of the West Bank to another without approval from Israeli Border Police or soidiers.

About a year ago, at the end of June 2006, I accompanied Hannah and her companion, J, to the village of Sheikh Sa’ed. On the eastern edge of Jerusalem, the village was not annexed by Israel, so it is technically part of the West Bank. But the residents there are closely linked to East Jerusalem, where they have many family ties and go for many services. The Israeli government had planned to extend the wall/barrier/fence so that it divided the village from East Jerusalem. But in March, 2006, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the planned route of the wall was improper. So the Israelis set up a permanent, staffed checkpoint at the entrance to the village.

As described in a report from B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization:

Village residents who do not hold Israeli identity cards are forbidden to exit the village and enter Jerusalem . Even those who have permits to enter Israel are not allowed to cross the checkpoint. Instead they are directed to the Olive Checkpoint. To get to that checkpoint, they have to negotiate a long descent down the cliff on which the village lies. In fact the siege Israel has imposed on the village leaves those without Jerusalem identity cards with two ways to leave the village: to go along a difficult and, for some residents, an impossible path down the cliff, or to enter Jerusalem illegally.

The siege affects every aspect of the resident’s lives. One of the most serious consequences is its effect on access to medical treatment: the village has no medical clinic, so the residents have to go to facilities in East Jerusalem, in most cases to Jabel Mukaber, which lies about 100 meters from the entrance to Sheikh Sa’ed. The villagers have difficulty obtaining essential foodstuffs and other consumer needs.

Hannah, J and I got past the checkpoint and walked into Sheikh Sa’ed, where a cab driver met us and drove us around. The women were there to bear witness, to take notes as they talked to villagers. From the top of the steep, sloping donkey path that is now the only way in and out of the village for many residents, we watched two teenage boys hauling some wood up the hill. Hannah told me that if people have physical problems, like asthma, and can’t make it up the hill, they are stuck in the village. They can’t get out.

An old man with a cane walked past us and gingerly moved down the donkey path. He appeared to be tip-toeing. The women took notes. The cab driver ticked off a number of indignities, like the tear gas that the Border Police had tossed at some teenagers who had approached the checkpoint, talking loudly and boisterously, but, he claimed, had meant no harm.

In rejecting the state’s plans to build the wall/barrier there, the Israeli court had indicated there was no evidence that these people posed a direct security threat to the State of Israel, Hannah told me. But the Court did urge the Israeli government to build the barrier on another route, east of the village. As we walked back through the checkpoint to her car, she said, loudly, so a young Border Policeman could hear, “The Germans said they didn’t know. They didn’t know what was happening. I know. I know what is happening.”

She was reluctant to talk politics, to examine the big picture. As we drove away, I kept pressing about her political beliefs, and all she would tell me was that she didn’t vote for Meretz. She was “way left” of Meretz, she said.

Later, we drove past the wall that snakes through part of Abu Dis. What was once supposed to be the capital of a Palestinian state is now cut off from Jerusalem by a high barrier. The situation there has been amply documented and I won’t describe it here. “We’re building volcanoes,” J said. “We are making people want to explode.”

But then I heard something unexpected from Hannah.

There is a section of the Abu Dis wall that is across the road from some buildings built by Irving Moskowitz, the notorious Los Angeles realtor and casino owner who has bought property in some of the most sensitive parts of Jerusalem and handed it over to mostly right wing, religious Jews. There are few American Jews who fill me with more rage than Irving Moskowitz.

But, as we moved past his property, I asked the inevitable question that must be asked by anyone who insists on seeing both sides’ points of view: “But don’t you think the wall and the checkpoints have stopped terrorists?”

She gave me the standard, post-Zionist answer, something along the lines of “It has nothing to do with security. It’s just there to control people, to humilate them.”

I kept at it. I said that, at one point a few years back, moderates in the Palestinian Authority had accepted the idea of some kind of barrier, as long as it was on the Green Line. The PA had been unable to control Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and they appeared to understand that, for the time being, the State of Israel had to do something to stop suicide bombers. They were not happy about the wall, but as long as it did not cut a swath through the West Bank, at least some PA officials appeared to be willing to live with it, for the time being. I told Hannah that I knew this to be true because I had heard them voice that sentiment.

Then Hannah said, “I could live with it, too.”

I expressed surprise. I had been assuming, without thinking much about it, that she was in the same camp as the international leftists who urge Israel to just tear down the “apartheid wall,” demolish it unilaterally, pretend there is no need for concerted negotiations, pretend there is no problem, pretend there is no blood feud that has been going on for a hundred plus years.

Instead, Hannah said, simply, “There are people who don’t want me here.”

So here she was, the kind of Israeli witness who feeds the fury of anyone with a smidgeon of concern for basic human decency and humanity. But even Hannah, who spend her days exposing the nightmarish conditions of Palestinians under occupation, wanted a wall or a barrier to protect her children, grandchildren, friends and neighbors from getting blown to bits.

I haven’t the faintest idea what Israel should do right now about the wall/fence/barrier and the system of checkpoints, other than to make sure they don’t cut through Palestinian olive groves and villages, to pledge repeatedly that the barrier need not be permanent, and somehow, do its best not to create more volcanoes. Sharing the rage of people who don’t want old men to be forced to tip-toe down old donkey paths does not mean that one should ignore the worries and fears of Israeli parents who don’t want their kids to be slaughtered in supermarkets and discos.

To call out, simply and passionately, “Tear down the apartheid wall” at demonstrations, without offering a reasonable, immediate solution to those Israeli parents, is to tell them they should not worry about their kids. One could say, “Hannah should not be there,” Hannah should go back to Australia, the whole experiment should be summarily cancelled. That’s not just offensive; it is unrelated to objective reality, yet I read comments like that all the time on the lefty blogs.

Hannah isn’t leaving, and that is a good thing. She and her comrades rage and rage against the brutality and dehumanization that is an inevitable consequence of the occupation. She refuses to stop holding a mirror up to the Israelis who bear much of the responsibility for this unremitting tragedy. But they do not bear that responsibility alone. While Hannah rages, she also needs to protect herself and the people she loves. She is faced with conflicting moral imperatives that are impossible to reconcile. As some point, I suspect, she stopped trying to reconcile them, like a lot of Israelis who have as much concern for human rights and justice as the sloganeers on the anti-Israel left.

She has decided to just take notes, bear witness and avoid talking about politics and the big picture. What else is there to do?

14 thoughts on “Checkpoints, the wall and an unexpected message

  1. It seems like the nonparliamentary left in Israel is copying a lot of the tactics used effectively used by the nonparliamentary left in South Africa. As long as they don’t try to undermine the parliamentary parties like Meretz, like the nonparliamentary left did with the Democratic Party in the 1987 election in South Africa, this is a useful complement. Israel’s “Women in Black” seems to be a copy of South Africa’s Black Sash organization. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland never really developed anything comparable. Back in the 1840s, unfortunately, egos prevented the nonpolitical and political wings of the abolitionist movement from effectively cooperating with each other and instead they quarreled to the detriment of both.

  2. Dan, well done. I respect someone who has the courage to dive into the moral morass even though he knows he will eventually drown in its contradictions.

    Tom, that was an interesting point My impression is there is a lot of squabbling on the Israeli left but different components often work towards the same end, or maybe they work against the same problems. Your analogy stops holding up, of course, as all analogies do. South African blacks had white allies and eventually international corporations and others working towards the same end. Women in Black, Machsom Watch, Shalom Achshav, B’tzelem and all the rest might have some Palestinians counterparts, but no one with the capacity to change anything.

  3. I’m sure I’m wrong, Dan, but I get the impression that you have never taken a public stand against the building of the wall/barrier/fence on someone else’s land. Can this be true?

  4. The loud, simplistic voices are not the ones you should be referencing or reacting to. They possess such a small amount of actual power.

    I’m an Israeli leftist, and the idea of a wall only bothered me because it wasn’t on the Green Line. Build it on the Green Line, and it becomes quite an acceptable boundary.

    Which explains quite well why it’s NOT on the Green Line.

    Israel is committed to follies large and small in pursuit of maintaining a hold on all, or part of the West Bank. Like the monkey reaching for nuts in a jar, it is too stupid, too committed to grabbing more than it can get away with to safely withdraw. It’s greedy fist cannot unclench. No matter how many innocent Jewish children blow up, how many soldiers die in battle, how many atrocities are committed.

    Until that moment when the fist begins to unclench, let’s continue to apply pressure.

  5. “She is faced with conflicting moral imperatives that are impossible to reconcile.”

    Precisely, so she has to make a choice. She already compares her countrymen to complacent Germans in the 30s and 40s. The only moral for her choice is to leave. Go to Brussels or the Hague and “bear witness” there. The Israelis don’t care about their Hannahs. They don’t even care about Meretz or the other Zionists who want to look at themselves in the mirror but don’t know how to do it. If the Israelis had wanted justice, they would have stopped gobbling up other people’s land. Get out, Hannah.

  6. The question of what to do is everyone’s question. I believe that we each must find our own answers. If enough people in Israel and the West Bank and the Middle East and Europe and the United States and more each commit themselves to doing something to promote understanding and peace, then, the checkpoints will be closed, house demolitions will end and the Wall will be brought down and replaced with community gardens. Peace is possible in our very lifetime if enough people stand up an express a need for it. It is up to Hannah and you and I to encourage them.

  7. Teddy,
    The major change in South Africa came with the change in the National Party leadership in 1989-90. There was more room for black-white cooperation because the ANC, unlike the PLO and the Islamists, rejected terrorism and only attacked military and government targets and in such a fashion as to keep casualties to a minimum.

    My point was that in 1987 the white parliamentary left was hurt because many students embraced the rhetoric of the ANC that the SA parliament was irrelevant and abstained from voting. The ANC learned from this, changed its tune and had whites who sympathized with them vote for the Democrats in 1989. The impressive showing of the Democrats helped to push De Klerk into adopting the Democratic Party’s positions in 1990 and negotiating with the ANC after releasing Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela and legalizing the liberation movements and the SACP.

    While I believe that in general Northern Ireland is a much better analogy for Israel than is South Africa, there are lessons regarding the cooperation between parliamentary and nonparliamentary opponents of the government.

  8. Tom, do you think the people of Northern Ireland or South Africa were ever as hopeless as the people of Israel and Palestine appear to be right now?

  9. Dan, in the face of such a basic injustice as Hanna witnesses in her observations within the occupied territories, there really can’t be a more insufficient answer than “what is there to do”? There really is too much to do. The fact is, the wall as it is simply cannot be justified by pointing to suicide bombing statistics – why are there suicide bombers to begin with? A “blood feud”? What nonsense! It’s not a blood feud — better to say it’s a history of ethnic cleansing and brutal military occupation propped up by an ideology of ethno-religious primacy. You set up a false set of choices – either build the wall or “the whole experiment [zionism] should be summarily cancelled.” Now while I subscribe to the latter option, the fact is this has nothing to do with Hanna or any other Jew’s security in Israel/Palestine. A non-zionist resolution to the conflict does not portend the slaughter of Jews. Paraphrasing the old chant; security can only come with justice, and the wall offers nothing to that end.

    To Teddy – I suspect it’s difficult to measure hope, but I am always surprised in my travels in Israel and Palestine (I was there just very recently) that sensible people I speak to on both sides somehow often seem very hopeful despite the situation. One small example: for Palestinian students of the Birzeit conservatory to put on a classical music concert in Ramallah just a couple of days after the bloodletting in Gaza and the PA coup d’etat was a simple testament to this kind of hope. These acts of hope occur every day. I often think the solution to the problem isn’t half as difficult as we make it seem to ourselves.

  10. I must say, it’s very discouraging to still see the phrase “blood feud” being used to describe what’s going on in Israel/Palestine. What’s next, “ancient enmities from time immemorial”?

  11. It’s fascinating how a choice of figurative words can set people off and prompt them to make predictable, polemical lectures. I think, at the human level, at the level of every day decisionmaking by people with weapons, the phrase “blood feud” captures the flavor of some–certainly not all– of what it is going on. Of course it’s not precise. It means a feud between families or clans. According to answers.com, originally it meant “Avenging the wrongful death of a person’s kin by killing the murderer or by receiving compensation from the murderer’s possessions.” Of course the phrase does not encompasses everything that has happened since the Balfour Declaration. But there is an element of raw, sheer vengeance in the conflict –vengeance for actions done long ago and vengeance for recent actions.

    But if it really offends people, I will never ever use it again to describe what confronts the parties today. After all, part of this blog is concerned with developing a common, politically effective language for those who want to bring an end to what afflicts the people of Sheikh Sa’ed.

    That said, Kevin, do you really think that the situation can be reduced to YOUR formulation, which holds one party responsible for everything and does not even mention the other party’s responsibility? Do you really think “a history of ethnic cleansing and brutal military occupation propped up by an ideology of ethno-religious primacy” is more accurate and precise than “blood feud?” If you do, then we need to have a much broader historical conversation that I can’t begin this AM, except to say that a mindset that absolves Palestinian leadership –including the paymasters of suicide bombers–and other Arab nations of ANY responsibility for this long conflict is precisely the same mindset that perpetuates…well, blood feuds (woops, couldn’t avoid it).

    Also, you’re the one who decided to construct a false choice between building the wall and Hannah’s return to Australia, not me. There is a lot of room for a lot of other scenarios, and some of them are positive. But you don’t answer the dilemma of real human beings like Hannah and her family. Whatever the causes of suicide bombing, they are in a situation where they must contend with it. Do you expect them to just accept the reality of violent incursions into Israel proper until there is a political settlement? Would you accept that, if you lived there?

  12. Dan, my formulation was crib-sheet in a measure equal to yours, but – I feel – much closer to the truth. Claims of blood-feuds and ancient rivalries, etc., are obfuscations of an inherently political issue.

    You make little mention of issues such as international law or human rights when discussing the wall. Clearly suicide bombings need to be stopped – my assertion is that the wall is a manifestation of a system that produced them. So it’s illogical to defend the wall while condemning the system as you seem to. Moreover, the wall is not fundamentally a security measure. It’s a land-grab, and more so, a grab for water resources.

    It’s been asserted by many more qualified observers than I that the major cause of the reduction in terrorist attacks inside the Green Line is in fact due to the decision of Hamas to seek a political role in the conflict. The Qassams that continue to be shot over to Sderot are of course terrorist in nature, but much more symbolic and have a lower psychic impact in Israel, which is what Hamas wants at this time. I’ve seen analyses in Ha’aretz and other Israeli sources that also agree that if Hamas wanted to again launch suicide attacks the wall would do little to stop them. I was just in Israel/Palestine (as you seem to have been) and I’m surprised you don’t note that any enterprising militant could smuggle a suicide belt with little problems through many of the checkpoints – even at Qalandia the security checks are very spotty and anyone going through them can see that they would have little effect in stopping a well-laid plan.

    Echoing some of the previous commentators, I’d like to point to the Irish and S.African cases in saying that violence recedes when both sides feel that injustices they have experienced are in some measure accounted for in the resolution of the conflict. The wall is an obstacle to this, and in the meantime it is destroying lives, making people miserable and hopeless. If you lived there (as a Palestinian) would you accept it?

  13. Kevin,

    First of all, if I were a Palestinian, of course I would not accept “the wall.” Of course it is a major source of rage that makes it harder to resolve the conflict.

    We have to enlarge the conversation to include all of the obstacles to free Palestinian movement –a small percentage of what exists is actually a “wall.” A string of walls, concrete blocks, fences, checkpoints, unmanned roadblocks and other obstacles have carved out 10% of the West Bank. Many of these obstacles exist to protect settlers and could be characterized as a “land grab” (your words). Especially when these obstacles take the form of a wall –like in Bethlehem and parts of Jerusalam– they are odious symbols of an occupation that, I agree has no justification.

    But 90% of these obstacles are along the Green Line. I would not characterize those as a land grab. Again, before there is a political solution or polical progress, something has to be done, right now, along the Green Line, to protect Hannah and to protect you while you visit Israel. You can’t just snap your fingers and say “tear down ALL the obstacles to movement” and expect Israelis to wait for a political solution. That is one source of the terrible moral dilemma that Hannah is wrestling with. You would prefer to deny that such a dilemma exists but she can’t and neither can I.

    The Peace Now plan that I noted in a subsequent post would remove many of these obstacles and I hope beyond hope that it makes sense. There are people whose judgement I trust who believe it is possible to withdraw from most of the current security obstacles as long as they continue to exist, in some form, on the Green Line. There are other people whose judgement I trust who disagree.

    No one knows the precise role of these barriers in clamping down on terrorist attacks. But giving credit to very recent political decisions by Hamas for the reduction in attacks, as you did, does not come close to summing up the situation. Here are some statistics:

    The first continuous segment of the current security fence/barrier was finished in the northern West Bank at the end of July, 2003. During the 34 months from the beginning of intifadeh in 2000 to July 2003, Palestinians launched 73 attacks in which 293 Israelis were killed and many more were wounded. About 75% of the attackers came from the northern West Bank (e.g., Jenin). I don’t know what percentage of these were planned incursions into Israel proper and what percentage were attacks on settlers and soldiers in the West Bank (which some people justify), but certainly a good number of these attackers headed West and murdered people in Tel Aviv, West Jerusalem, Netanya, etc.

    In the 11 months between the erection of this first segment and the end of June 2004, only three attacks were successful, and all three occurred in the first half of 2003. This relative calm had nothing to do with a recent decision by Hamas to refrain from attacks. It is hard to believe the barrier didn’t contribute to this calm.

    If you lived in Israel, I don’t think you would want to base your opinions entirely on a few articles in Ha’aretz and the claims of people who say it is easy to get around these obstacles. Anyone who completely trusts those claims is allowing politically wishful thinking to cloud their judgement. I guess you could also call those stats from the Israeli government a set of fat lies but that would also be wishful thinking.

    So, tell me Kevin, would you accept Peace Now’s ideas or do you think there should be no checkpoints and roadbloacks of any kind? What should Israel do, right now, this instant?

  14. Teddy,
    I agree with Kevin that there is no objective measure for hope, but there are subjective indicators. I remember when citizens in Northern Ireland were interviewed on “Nightline” in late 1993 and said that they were envious of the Israelis and Palestinians with the Oslo process until the Downing St. Declaration was issued in December 1993.

    In South Africa the blacks always seemed to be hopeful–most were Christian and had demographics on their side–while the whites felt hopeless. White liberals became hopeless as parliament became more irrelevant. But they teemed up with Chief Minister Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi of KwaZulu to negotiate a solution without apartheid on a regional basis in Natal. This demonstrated that negotiations were possible. This was the South African equivalent of the Geneva Initiative in Israel. The KwaZulu/Natal Indaba, as the negotiation and its solution were known, led to National Party reversals in the 1987 and 1989 elections and eventually to F.W. de Klerk’s major reforms in 1990 as a counter. Likewise, I believe that Geneva caused Sharon to announce the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Unfortunately, the Pals have taken much of the hope out of this development by using it to launch new terror attacks against Israel, and the 2nd Lebanon War has nixed Olmert’s previous plans for a second unilateral withdrawal on the West Bank.

    In NI things felt pretty hopeless for decades from 1971-76 things were very bad. Violence then deescalated to a lower “acceptable” level until 1991 when the loyalist paramilitaries ramped it up again. Then the Downing St. Declaration of Dec. 1993 brought hope again, followed by the IRA ceasefire in late Aug. 1994, and the loyalist ceasefire in Oct. 1994.

    In South Africa things were pretty bad from 1977 to 1984 from the black viewpoint and from June 1984 to the end of 1988 from the white viewpoint.

    I’m sure perspectives varied in the Mideast as well as Oslo turned into the Al-Aksa Intifada as well.

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