Israeli women's group that supports Palestinian freedom

Last Updated 11 March 2010, 17:02 IST

Machsom Watch is quite a unique organisation. It comprises peace activists who are against the Israeli occupation of the territories and the repression of the Palestinian nation. But what makes this particular project different however is that it is made up of Israeli women based in Israel itself. Set up in 2001, the organisation calls for Palestinian freedom of movement within their own territory and for an end to the occupation.

The organisation is based on the belief that the occupation not only destroys Palestinian society, but also inflicts grievous harm on Israeli society. Machsom (Hebrew for checkpoint) Watch consists of women who provide a watchful presence over Israeli defence forces’ treatment of Palestinians at Israeli check points and document daily violations of human rights of the Palestinians.

Ronny Perlman, the Jerusalem coordinator, is one of the women who go to checkpoints twice a day, in the morning when Palestinian adults are going to work and students are going to school, and at the end of the day when they are returning home. The women’s presence is intended to encourage a different discourse from the male military style. Perlman and her colleagues write a report after each watch.

Machsom Watch aims to ensure that the human and civil rights of Palestinians attempting to enter Israel are protected and also reports the results of its observations to the widest possible audience, from decision-makers to the general public.

Ronnie Yaeger, one of the founding members of Machsom Watch, notes that many of the women who stand at the checkpoints are white haired and look like grandmothers, which she feels is a good thing because most soldiers realise that ‘I could be their grandmother’. She feels that soldiers should thank the women for what they are doing, for standing there and helping save them from doing things that they will have to live with.

There are always two to four women monitoring events at a checkpoint. Perlman says that the soldiers as a whole treat the women with contempt, ignore them or try to educate them by saying that they are naive and don’t really know how much terrorist activity there is in Palestine and how they work to make the women feel safe in their homes. The official army stand is that the ‘most moral army’ in the world is totally open to the presence of human rights organisations at the checkpoints and welcomes comments and observations.

Despite what some in Israel may think, the women are not a bunch of subversives but merely voice criticism.Perlam describes her two sons, one a physician, the other an ornithologist, as compassionate men and as loyal soldiers who truly believe that they protect their home. Members come from various backgrounds and vote for a range of political parties.

As far as the Israeli public is concerned, very few people know about Machsom Watch. There appears to be a collective effort by the public not to know what is going on in the occupied territories and with the Palestinians. The reaction to what the women are doing ranges from condemnation — women who care more for the Palestinians and don’t see our suffering — to some kind of acceptance of the human rights aspect of the project’s work.

What impact is Machsom Watch having? It’s hard to say. Its website provides very detailed information about the permits, the prohibitions, the thousand rules that make life of the Palestinians a constant hassle with a thousand rules which keep changing all the time. The Israeli public is sometimes made to feel uncomfortable if someone in the media cares to publish a story about Machsom Watch. The army occasionally responds to pressure, such as opening a humanitarian gate at the Bethlehem checkpoint to allow old and sick to get through more quickly, or putting water fountains at some checkpoints.
The fact that some checkpoints within the West Bank were removed may very marginally have had something to do with the reports put out by the organisation. But the problem is that the Israeli public does not want to know too much.

Court Watch is another development, which has come out of Machsom Watch. For example, one man from Ramallah was asked to film a part of Palestinian life for a university class and he filmed a checkpoint and was apprehended. “He was jailed for three months for doing an assignment,” said Yaeger.

Yaeger once saw at a checkpoint a young Palestinian man smiling. A soldier said “Stop smiling”, and the man said” “I’m not.” The soldier then apprehended the man and took him into a van.

Yaeger said, “We didn’t know what happened to these detainees,” so Machsom Watch followed the van to a military prison. The women now have access to Israeli prisons and record what happens there. They are now able to watch the proceedings at Israeli military courts.

In Yaeger’s view, the United States ought to stop funding Israeli settlements beyond the ’67 border, the occupation must end, and then there ought to be “difficult intense negotiations” between Israelis and Palestinians. But whatever happens, the occupation must stop.

(Published 11 March 2010, 16:51 IST)

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