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Checkpoint Charlie's Angels

What really goes on at IDF checkpoints around Jerusalem? A group of self-appointed human rights monitors is keeping watch

By Darren Fisher, Ha'aretz Anglo File Friday, April 27, 2001

A group of four Israeli women were kept standing for over an hour at the A-Ram checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah on Sunday. It was not the soldiers who detained them, however: They were there to observe and record any abuse of power by troops dealing with Palestinian travelers.

The four are members of Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch, a group of 30 women who visit army checkpoints to document and discourage beatings, verbal and physical humiliation, confiscation of identity cards without due cause, and the obstruction of emergency medical assistance. The all-female, Israeli initiative, formed in January by two Anglos and a sabra, is based on the belief that many of the Israeli Defense Forces soldiers who man the various checkpoints in the West Bank do not see the Palestinians as equals. This leaves the door open to various forms of abuse, they say.

"We see examples of humiliation [of Palestinians] on an almost daily basis," says Adi Kuntsman, one of the co-founders. "People have their IDs taken from them for checks ... sometimes waiting an hour or two to get them back. At other times, they will be told to collect their IDs from the civil administration, or an army base," Kuntsman adds. She recalls occasions on which she has witnessed "people forced to stand with their hands up in the air and their faces to the wall, or sit in the baking sun, or the pouring rain. And when we asked the soldier, 'Why can't they stand somewhere where it is not raining?' the soldier says, 'because this is how I want it - I want them to do that.'"

"The soldiers are so young," says co-founder Yehudith Keshet, a British-born Israeli, they "don't understand that standing can be extraordinarily tiring and humiliating. They don't understand that the person facing them is a human being, because the orders that they get are that everyone who tries to get through is a potential terrorist - man, woman or child."

"I think the soldiers are just plain tired, and I think they feel that they're in a horrible position," says Canadian-born Ronnee Jaeger, the third founding member. "One of them spoke to me last week; he just lost two friends of his, just this past week; close friends. So they're frustrated and they're angry," she adds.

Sunday's trip was largely uneventful, but there was plenty for the group to do during their visit to the Hebron Road checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem the previous week. Despite the fact that there was only a moderate flow of people through that checkpoint, several incidents were reported to the women, and they witnessed several more - mainly instances of verbal abuse of Palestinians and confiscation of identity cards, accompanied by long delays in returning them. The women tried, where possible, to follow up on the incidents.

By sending teams to a checkpoint near Jerusalem almost every day, the three women behind the initiative are accumulating a wealth of evidence about the operation of the checkpoints. They are preparing this information for use by other Israeli human rights groups, including B'Tselem, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), and Hamoked - the Center for the Rights of the Individual.

In its observational-cum-educational endeavor, Machsom Watch coordinators organize members into teams to visit checkpoints in the very early morning, when many Palestinians are trying to enter Jerusalem to go to work, and in the middle of the afternoon, as they return home. Their work has taken them to posts near Bethlehem, Abu Dis, Modi'in, Kalandiya, and other locations around Jerusalem, where most of the group members live.

Standing alongside the soldiers to monitor their work, each woman is equipped with forms on which to note her own observations, and a set of forms written in Arabic for distribution among Palestinians, telling them - based on legal advice - "what to do if their ID is taken away, or if they have been beaten up, or if they have some kind of medical emergency." As the women hand out the flyers, a soldier calls over a Palestinian recipient to have him translate them. He makes no comment, and dismisses the man.

The group's organizers say that members are briefed beforehand and instructed to avoid confrontation and stay clear of any "incident" that takes place, "unless it is very flagrant." Says Keshet: "We go there to observe not only the deviations from the norm [of behavior], but also the actual routine work of the checkpoints, which we see as a very concrete representation of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians."

Some of the reported abuses are serious. One Palestinian delayed at the Hebron Road post last week related to events there the previous day, when, he says, a group of men were marched from their cars to the corrugated metal shelter at a Bethlehem post and beaten. "It doesn't happen when the women are here, or there are cameras," he remarks.

As far as the women are concerned, there is a direct link between such reported abuse and a tendency within Israeli society to regard Palestinians as less than human.

"The army is involved in the dehumanization of the Palestinians that is going on in Israel," says Kuntsman. To some, it seems that, regarding Palestinians, "their problems are not really so bad," she continues; "their illness is not so serious, their families are not suffering. ... They can stand, it's fine, they can sit in the rain, never mind that they are old, never mind that they want to go home. ... their time doesn't have value; their families don't have value." Because such sentiments toward Palestinians seem rife in Israel, she concludes, "many soldiers don't feel they're really doing something wrong."

The women get a mixed reception at the posts. While Jaeger says one soldier has expressed appreciation to her for the group's presence, some have been more hostile: "Soldiers have turned to me and said, 'You don't trust us?'" Ronni Shendar, who joined the group on Sunday's visit to A-Ram, has herself served as an officer in the army, and observes that, since the soldiers are sometimes risking their lives in the service of their country, "it's only natural that they might be offended by our presence." At the Hebron Road post last week, one soldier told Jaeger that the next bomb to explode in the country should be placed outside her house.

Machsom Watch can be contacted by e-mail at:

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