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?