They’re all women, all Israeli and every day they go to West Bank checkpoints to try to stop soldiers harassing Palestinians. Linda Grant went with them.
Linda Grant, The Guardian, 1 February 2004
When I came to Tel Aviv last July to find an apartment to rent for a few months, an estate agent introduced me to Yael Boss whom I have come to think of as the DNA of Zionism – one of the tough, fearless women Israel produced in multitudes in the 1950s and who terrified me on my first teenage visit to the country in 1967.
Now 65, she married a French non-Jew and lived with him in Paris for 11 years but was so homesick for Israel that she would walk into El Al offices just to hear Hebrew spoken. When one of her sons was doing his military service in Lebanon, and disappeared, she delivered an order to her other son: “Go to Lebanon and find your brother, bring him home on your back if you have to.” He did – I don’t think he would have dared fail.
In our many conversations about the country, she spoke sharply of those who try to harm Israel in Europe. “I will not criticise Israel abroad,” she said. “I have enough work of this kind to do at home, without letting people abroad read what they want into what I say.”
There is little Yael can do to alter the policies of her government beyond the ballot box. In the autumn she had gone to help Palestinian farmers pick their olive harvest where army road blocks separate them from their land. So I asked her if she would come with me to meet the women of Machsom Watch.
Machsom is the Hebrew word for checkpoint; the organisation was set up in January 2001 in response to repeated reports about human rights abuses of Palestinians at the checkpoints which inhibit the movement of Palestinians not only into Israel but between Palestinian towns. The founders were three Israeli women who set out three goals: to monitor the behaviour of soldiers and police, to ensure that the human rights of the Palestinians were protected, and to record their observations and make them known to the widest possible audiences. Unlike international solidarity volunteers, the members are all women, and all Israeli, from a wide range of backgrounds and political opinions.
Yael and I met at the Jerusalem house of Hannah Barag, 68, and together with 74-year-old Ora Ardon, we set off in Hannah’s car to Abu Dis where the “separation fence” manifests itself as a massive wall, already covered with political graffiti, slicing through the town.
During my time in Israel, my over-riding impression of the current government is of incompetence and corruption which manifests itself in almost every aspect of civil and military life. Hannah and Ora showed us a place where the wall was easily crossed if you were reasonably agile, though difficult if you were old, blind, disabled or carrying a baby. What, Ora asked, was the point of a wall that held up the least likely suspects for suicide bombing and created no difficulty for the fit and determined?
We drove on to Qalandia, where the checkpoint divides the town in half. It was a bright, very cold day. A long queue of Palestinians waited with their documents to be checked by a few teenage soldiers. They were of every type: well-dressed businessmen, fashionable young women, hard young men, teenagers, a lot of women carrying babies in their arms. The roads are so rutted round the checkpoints that it is hard to wheel a child in a pushchair. “It’s very quiet today,” Hannah said, though there was a cacophony of noise. She pointed at a fence a few metres away. “Palestinian children throw stones at the soldiers and the soldiers fire back, a number of children have been killed here. It seems quiet now but when it gets dark it is more violent.”
“But this is now a different place from what I remember,” Pierre, the photographer said. “Since the women volunteers have been coming it’s much quieter.”
Two volunteers, Phyllis and Tamar, were already at the checkpoint. I watched Tamar approach a woman carrying a baby and heavy shopping and escort her to the front of the queue. A female soldier checked her documents and waved her through. They tried to help another young woman who had borrowed her 16-year-old cousin’s identity card and had been caught. Despite the intervention on her behalf she was put into a police van and driven off.
The attitude of both the soldiers and the Palestinians to the women varies. “The first time I went to Qalandia a soldier at the checkpoint called me a Palestinian whore,” Hannah said. “I said, ‘Listen, with my looks and my age do you think I still have a future in this profession?’ Then I said, ‘Do you talk to your grandmother like that?’ The next time I saw him he apologised.”
But other soldiers are susceptible to the fact that the women have themselves served in the Israeli army and have sons and daughters or grandchildren who are currently serving. “One soldier shouted at me, ‘Is your son in the army?'” said Tamar. “I said to him, ‘Yes he’s a pilot.’ He said, ‘A pilot! What does he think of you?’ I told him, ‘He’s very proud.’ Sometimes the soldiers say to me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I say, ‘Because I am Jewish and my grandparents were in the Holocaust.'”
On the Palestinian side, the women of Machsom Watch are often the only Israelis they ever see who are not in uniform, the only Israelis who exhibit human kindness, and sometimes that is enough even though the women often fail to succeed in persuading the soldiers to open a gate in the fence to let children through to school. Other Palestinians vent their anger against them because they are the only unarmed Israelis available. “I tell them, you are at the wrong address,” Hannah said. “But some tell us that we are no different, we are part of the same game.” When Ora told a group of Palestinians she was a peace activist, one cried out that he wanted war and not peace.
The contradictions of their position are plenty. Ten days earlier, a woman suicide bomber at the Eerez crossing at Gaza had managed to persuade a soldier that she was disabled and could not pass through the metal detector because of a metal plate in her leg. She killed four people and the Israeli radio phone-in shows were full of furious callers complaining that the Palestinians were abusing the pressure on commanders to treat women and children more humanely. “That woman did a big disservice to her people and her own gender,” Ora said. “It’s the same as when they transported military equipment in ambulances.”
I had asked her what she felt about the possibility that she would abet a suicide bomber passing through a checkpoint. “I can’t say I’ve never thought of it,” she replied, “but if you sit on a jury you have the same dilemma.” She pointed to a small hill beyond the checkpoint. “We call it Tora Bora, it is easy to pass across that way.”
There is a growing climate of opinion in Israel, including from a former Likud mayor of Tel Aviv, that the checkpoints only exist to harass the Palestinian population and are ineffective at stopping suicide bombers. Ora is not opposed to fences on principle. She wants the Israeli government to end the occupation, withdraw to the Green Line and build a border. “There will still be terror,” she said, “but we will be justified if we hit back.”
We drove back to Ora’s house in Jerusalem and I asked her why, at 74, she chooses to stand in freezing conditions at the checkpoints. “My grandparents came here from Odessa in 1905,” she said. “They were idealists, they wanted to create a new Jew who would do moral work. At 13 years old I was a radio operator in the Haganah [the Jewish militias opposing British Mandate rule in Palestine]. I was smuggling radio parts and no one stopped me because I was so small and so young. During the war of independence in 1948 I was a corporal. It was a just war. From the very beginning I was with Peace Now, I was on all the demonstrations, but Ariel Sharon pays no attention to us so one day I went over to a woman whose face I recognised and said, ‘I’m desperate, I want to do something other than demonstrate,’ and she took me to Machsom Watch.
“I am an ordinary member of the organisation, not a spokesperson, but I think I am typical. The settlers call themselves Zionists but they are not Zionists as far as the founders of the state were concerned. I am a Zionist, and this is why the checkpoints are a terrible blow to us Israelis as well as the Palestinians. My daughters are very unhappy, they think I am quite right to go to the checkpoints but they want someone else’s mother to go. But I say that only by doing this can we reclaim the humanistic revolution of Zionism. We are calling on the world to help us reclaim our humanistic values.”
On the drive home to Tel Aviv I asked Yael what she thought about what she had seen. “I already have a shift organised,” she said with steel in her eyes. “I will bring all my friends.” I thought of Yael multiplied, and wondered if the hard men of Israel could withstand the pressure if thousands of Israeli women created very different facts on the ground.