He Huwwara checkpoint just south of Nablus simmers with routine misery on a sweltering August afternoon. A long line of Palestinians wait to enter the West Bank’s largest city as Israeli troops regard them, stone-faced, from behind a barrier of concrete blocks and sandbags. The troops let the women and children through, but send those Palestinians who’ve not been granted travel permits — almost all young men — to a fenced-off detention area topped by a corrugated iron roof. The jora, or pit, is a West Bank purgatory: a pen where Palestinians often languish for hours until they have been cleared by Israel’s internal security arm, the Shin Bet.
Amid the jora’s sea of men, an elderly woman hobbles around. Frail and sweating, her head draped in a gray hijab, the woman appeals to the soldiers. Proffering a tattered medical receipt, she explains that her son Mohammed, 25, managed to sneak out of Nablus without a travel permit to accompany her to the doctor in Ramallah. On their way home, he was detained, and she won’t leave without him, even though her doctor ordered her to stay out of the heat.
Suddenly, two middle-aged Israeli women walk past the barricade, attracting a mix of curious and hostile glances from the soldiers. Wearing floppy sun hats, khakis, and tennis shoes, Menucha Moravitz, 54, and Roni Klein, 55, look more suited to brunch at a beachfront café in fashionable north Tel Aviv than to this dust-choked bottleneck deep inside the West Bank. Moravitz, a sociology teacher at Open University in Tel Aviv, listens to the woman’s complaint. “This is absurd,” Moravitz says. “The soldiers have a list of wanted men, but they don’t even bother to check it. It’s easier to put young men in the holding pen for hours and deal with them when they get around to it.” She walks toward a swarthy Israeli soldier at the barricade. “I know this soldier,” she mutters. “I met him two weeks ago. He’s not nice at all.” Moravitz begs the soldier to speed up Mohammed’s clearance, but he remains unmoved. “If we’re lenient and allow him through, tomorrow all of them will come with their mothers,” he says with a shrug.
For nearly two years, Moravitz has periodically commuted from her comfortable Israeli suburb of Ramat Gan across the Green Line to military checkpoints within the West Bank. Visiting these junctions of Israeli suspicion and Palestinian resentment is an activity that most Israelis would find incomprehensible. But as conditions in the occupied territories have deteriorated, more and more women like Moravitz — middle-aged, with a liberal or leftist background and time on their hands — are joining the ranks of Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch. Founded in 2001 by three veteran women peace activists, the group’s volunteer monitors now number more than 400, and their meticulously detailed reports of checkpoint abuses — published daily on its website — have become required reading for both the media and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
According to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights watchdog group, there are more than 40 manned checkpoints inside the West Bank — forbidding barricades designed to regulate the movement of Palestinians between their towns and villages. Israel maintains that such internal barriers are vital to its security, crippling the ability of Palestinian militant networks to communicate, and preventing the smuggling of suicide bombs into Israel. (The completion of Israel’s 425-mile-long security wall, due by the end of 2004, should eliminate the need for many checkpoints, military spokespeople say.) But human rights groups charge the checkpoints are a gratuitous form of humiliation, and that Israel’s severe restrictions on movement — such as the routine denial of permits to young Palestinian men — amount to collective punishment that goes far beyond security concerns. “If they would just check people to make sure they’re not carrying bombs, we wouldn’t object,” says Adi Dagan, a Machsom Watch spokeswoman. “The problem is that the barriers serve as limitations on movement, and have a drastic effect on lives of Palestinians. Palestinians don’t get to university, to work, to hospitals — the checkpoints totally disrupt civil life.”
Machsom Watch has exposed a pattern of abuses at the checkpoints that the group says feeds the rage that leads to the terrorism they’re supposed to prevent. In late July, for example, a 26-year-old university student named Muhammad Cana’an was kicked, beaten, and shot in the arm by an Israeli soldier, apparently without provocation, at a checkpoint near Nablus. After Machsom Watch witnesses reported the incident to the media and the IDF, the soldier was taken into custody — one of the few times since the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada, in September 2000, that the army has taken action against one of its own. Two days later, several Machsom Watch women near Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah reported that troops had stoned and smashed the windows of a Palestinian taxi. The army, under pressure from the group, imprisoned two of the soldiers — one for 56 days, the other for 42. “I think they’re doing a terrific service,” said one Israeli reservist officer who asked not to be identified. “We’re a bunch of fascist bastards. The only thing that stops us from looking totally criminal is that the other side is even worse than we are.”
Even the IDF brass has come to regard Machsom Watch with grudging acceptance. Soldiers are under orders not to interfere with their activities — the IDF recognizes that there’s little to be gained from confronting Israeli grandmothers — the group’s leaders meet with top military officers, and, partly because of Machsom Watch pressure, the IDF recently established a hotline so people can report humanitarian emergencies at checkpoints. “We appreciate what they’re doing. They’re trying to help,” insists Captain Jacob Dallal, an IDF spokesman. “At the same time, they’re not completely aware of the constraints, alerts, and procedures that the soldiers have to work under.”
Not everyone in Israel speaks of Machsom Watch so evenhandedly. Nadia Metar, cochair of the Women in Green, an extreme right-wing group, says that Machsom Watch is a group of “fifth columnists who collaborate with the Arab enemy.” Female Jewish settlers are mounting a campaign of harassment of Machsom Watch volunteers at the checkpoints. Monitors have been slapped, punched, and threatened in recent months. In each case, they say, Israeli police and soldiers have stood by and done nothing. In May 2004, two male settlers beat up the Arab-Israeli driver of the van that shuttles the women to the checkpoints and knocked out his false teeth. Daniella Weiss, the mayor of Kedumim, part of a cluster of ideologically hardline settlements near Nablus, admits organizing attacks and says she will carry out more. “I make a lot of effort to stop their activities,” Weiss said. “By their protest, they endanger the lives of people in Israel. There’s no doubt that the soldiers, under the pressure of being watched, sometimes let cars go unchecked, they let people go unchecked.” Weiss, who says the group’s tactics imply the presence of soldiers and settlers in the West Bank “is an occupation, not liberation,” says she’s determined to put them out of business. Asked if she was advocating more violence against Machsom Watch, Weiss replied, “Yes, indeed.”
Nursing her cappuccino in a somewhat seedy Tel Aviv café, Yehudit Keshet, a cofounder of Machsom Watch, vows to stand up to Weiss’ threats. “She is trying to frighten us and stop us from doing our work, but she won’t succeed,” says the 61-year-old, who has the pleasantly tousled look of an NYU professor between classes. “Of course I have a desire to punch them in the mouth, but it’s not productive,” she says. “It’s better just to ignore them, to say, ‘You’re meaningless. You are nothing to us.'”
Keshet knows something about the religious underpinnings of Weiss’ crusade against the checkpoint monitors. She was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in South Wales, made aliya — a migration to Israel — as a teenager in 1958, and settled there permanently in 1974. She was an observant Jew and a Zionist, but became increasingly radicalized in the wake of the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing religious zealot. She joined Bat Shalom, a women’s group that advocates withdrawal from the territories and that, along with a Palestinian counterpart, runs Jerusalem Link, a cultural series through which both peoples can “share Jerusalem.”
Then came the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada. As attitudes hardened on both sides, Keshet recoiled from the militant belief increasingly espoused by many observant Jews that the West Bank — the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria — belonged forever to Israel. “Up to three years ago, I defined myself as an Orthodox Jew,” she says. “But now I can’t abide them. The Jewish sense of chosenness has overridden the notion of how we live in the land. We’ve got the land. Now what will we do with it? Drown it in fences, blood? Carve it up to make bypass roads?”
While many of her colleagues on the left despaired and disengaged, Keshet searched for ways to confront what she saw as the brutalization of the Palestinians and the glorification of Israel’s military culture. The moment came when her friend Ronnee Jaeger, a Canadian-Israeli activist, attended a moving lecture on military checkpoints. Jaeger, Keshet, and Russian émigré Adi Kuntsman soon gathered 10 more women to go monitor the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. “We were frightened. At that point, for Israelis to challenge the IDF was a big deal,” Keshet says. “This soldier said, ‘What are you doing here?’ Ronnee whispered, ‘Don’t say anything.’ Then I saw the sun rising over Har Homa [settlement], and I said, ‘We’re here to watch the sunrise.’ He said, ‘Sunrise? Okay, stand here, but don’t move, it’s dangerous.'” Keshet and her fellow activists discovered that they could walk freely across the checkpoint, chatting up both soldiers and Palestinians. It was, she says, “an empowering moment.”
Following a wave of suicide bombings, the IDF reoccupied the West Bank in 2002. As the checkpoints multiplied and the limitations on Palestinian movement became more severe, Machsom Watch’s activities attracted media attention, and volunteers flocked to the group, including a few men. But Keshet quickly found that Israeli males didn’t make reliable monitors. “They went to see the soldiers and after a few minutes they started talking about the 1948 war. Their relationship was totally different,” she says. “They were horrified by what was going on, but at the same time they bonded with the troops.” Men have since been banned from joining Machsom Watch in the field.
Asked if she thinks that Machsom Watch is making a difference, Keshet nods emphatically. “There’s a lot of power in little old ladies,” she says with a laugh. The discomfort the group causes the soldiers — one recently told her, “I hope the next terrorist attack gets you” — and the assaults by settlers are evidence, she says, that the status quo is under threat. But she doesn’t underestimate the resolve of the settler fringe, “about 10 percent of the settlers in the West Bank — the radicals, the ones who are capable of violence,” she says. “They have huge stores of weaponry. If the disengagement of Gaza takes place next year, we could see a greater radicalization. So far there hasn’t been any live fire [against us], but it could happen.”
Back at the Huwwara checkpoint, Moravitz and Klein are nearing the end of their grueling shift. It’s been a dispiriting day for Moravitz, who usually walks away with at least one small victory — an ailing Palestinian rushed through the barrier, a university student allowed to go take his final exams. “Today, nothing,” she says with disgust. At four o’clock, the jora has filled to capacity with 50 Palestinian detainees — including a nattily dressed man from Nablus who’s trying to go to his own wedding in the village of Huwwara. The ceremony is set to begin in an hour, but the Israeli troops — a heavyset Yemeni and an ultraorthodox settler whose yarmulke and side curls are in odd juxtaposition to his shiny M-16 — have told the groom to wait in the jora like everyone else until he is cleared by the Shin Bet. The detainees kick the dirt, smoke, and pace in boredom and growing anger; some have been stuck here since early morning. “It’s frustrating,” Moravitz says. “They expect I can help them, but there’s nothing I can do.” She pulls out a Marlboro Light and fires it up. “I’m smoking 30 of them a day now, because I don’t know where to put the tension.”
At that moment, a gray Peugeot 307 descends from the hills above Huwwara and drops off two Israeli women and a small boy. One woman is small and frail, her pinched face framed by a blue head scarf. The other is swarthy and mannish, with jeans and a pageboy haircut. Both cast baleful glances at the Machsom Watch women as they saunter over to the Israeli troops and hand them orange juice and cookies. “Settlers,” Moravitz whispers. “They’re here to make trouble.”
Minutes later, the settler women approach Moravitz and Klein. As Klein tensely pours Nescafé from a thermos, the husky settler stands beside her scribbling notes, while the other snaps Klein’s photo with a digital camera. Settlers and activists glare at each other, the two poles of Israeli society facing off across a great ideological and cultural divide. “These ones are quiet,” observes Klein. “But some are aggressive.” When Moravitz and Klein finish their coffee and return to the jora, the settlers follow, standing on either side of them and eavesdropping while they chat with detainees. Finally, Moravitz can take the spying no longer. She turns on the husky settler, who is practically rubbing shoulders with her.
“Where are you from?” Moravitz asks in Hebrew. She has to ask twice.
“We are from many places,” the husky settler finally replies. “Where are you from?”
“Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba — we are also from many places.”
“Good for you,” the settler says.
On the other side of the checkpoint, a second team of settlers is harassing two more Machsom Watch volunteers. “Arab lovers,” they taunt. “You are helping the suicide bombers.” A freckle-faced teenager with a red ponytail and a long denim skirt approaches Nura Resh, a teacher from the seaside community of Herzliya, and thrusts a note at her. Resh unfolds the note and begins to read it aloud. “Thank you for selling our blood to the Arabs,” she reads. “You told them that we are not okay. You are backing their terrorist activity –” The teenage girl lunges forward, snatches the note from Resh’s hands, and, with a gaping grin, tears it furiously into about 10 pieces. Then the girl tosses the fragments onto the ground and stands gloating. Resh shakes her head sadly. “They see us as trying to help the Palestinians,” she says. “For them, all of them are suicide bombers.”
Settlers and volunteers glower at each other; the soldiers watch from the barricades. Finally, Machsom Watch’s Volkswagen van pulls up. “They’re nuts,” Moravitz says wearily, as she climbs into the vehicle.
Resh corrects her. “They’re not nuts,” she says. “They’re dangerous.”
Then the van pulls away and heads back toward the relative peace of Tel Aviv. The women of Machsom Watch sit back and try to unwind — taking a breather from a battle over Israel’s future that, they know, shows every sign of growing uglier.