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Hebrew University
[Sociology, Hebrew University] Nura Resh pretends ĹMachsomWatchĺ Women Fight for Human Rights in Occupied Territories

Dr. Resh Nura, The NCJW Research Institute for Innovation in Education, Hebrew University. Tel: 02-5882072. Email: msnura@mscc.huji.ac.il
http://ncjw-res.mscc.huji.ac.il/staff-in.asp?staffID=41

 

http://www.meretzusa.org/files/Israel%20Horizons_Winter09_final.pdf

ISRAEL HORIZONS Winter 2009

10

‘MachsomWatch’

Women Fight for Human Rights in Occupied Territories

Nura Resh

T he Second Intifada that broke out at the end of 2000

was characterized by mass demonstrations and later,

by an intensification of violent suicide bombings. In

response, the Israeli army tried to control Palestinians

movement by erecting roadblocks, barriers and checkpoints—first

around Jerusalem and soon spreading mostly inside the West Bank.

The checkpoints—about 60 of which are manned by soldiers who

control the movement of people and vehicles between Palestinian

communities—have become an institutionalized phenomenon

of the occupation scenery, disrupting every aspect of daily life in

the Palestinian community. Economic activity, education, health,

and social contacts are overshadowed by the harsh, and sometimes

arbitrary limitations of the checkpoints. Repeated reports about

humiliations, violence, arbitrariness and human rights abuses at

the checkpoints provided the stimulus for the protest action of

MachsomWatch.

MachsomWatch (hereafter, “CheckpointWatch”) is an Israeli

women’s protest organization, established in the wake of the Intifada

(January, 2001), by a small group of Jerusalem activists, who began

to take shifts at the checkpoints around Jerusalem, witnessing and

reporting what they saw. It has grown to about 400 participants,

organized regionally in four groups: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheva,

and Haifa. It is the largest civilian protest group consistently present

at these Palestinian-army encounters in the West Bank. It is also

the largest organization in the Coalition of Women for Peace, an

umbrella group of nine feminist organizations, founded at about

the same time in 2001. Its main activity is organized

around watching checkpoints along the Green Line and

(mostly) inside the West Bank in groups of two to four

women, usually in two shifts per day.

The “founding mothers” have framed the

organization’s goals, which are basically accepted by

all and declare that in the context of protesting the

occupation and the very existence of the checkpoints,

women will:

a) Monitor the behavior of soldiers and police at

checkpoints;

b) Ensure that the human and civil rights of

Palestinians attempting to enter Israel are

protected;

c) Record and report the results of our

observations to the widest possible audience,

within and without Israel.

Embedded in these goals, is an immanent tension between the

protest functio'n (eye witnessing and reporting) and the humanitarian

action ensuing from the second aim.

Social Composition

The decision to be an exclusively women’s organization was

taken at the outset by the “founding mothers,” emulating other

women’s protest organizations, like Women in Black and Bat

Shalom. This decision was based on a combined ideological-practical

argumentation: “Our quiet but assertive presence at checkpoints

is a direct challenge to the dominant militaristic discourse that

prevails in Israeli society….” This decision rested also on experience

in other bi-gender protest movements, which became “naturally”

male-dominated, pushing women to marginal roles. Though many

of the interviewed women declared that in principle they do not

prefer a one-gender activity, this decision was never challenged

and most of the members agree with its practicality, i.e., that the

presence of women and their style of discourse vis-à-vis the soldiers,

is more effective, and that it emphasizes a civilian presence.

By its social make-up, the group seems relatively homogeneous,

coming from the center of Israeli hegemony: Ashkenazi, educated,

middle-class, mostly Israeli-born or Israeli-educated. They are

mostly non-religious, and there are a high proportion of middleaged

women. Many described their upbringing as being carried out

in the typical, very consensual, Zionist, Israeli spirit. Obviously,

they all are “left” (in the Israeli jargon) and anti-occupation.

However, this relative homogeneity covers a considerable variety

of ideological views and motivational forces, which permeates the

group discourses (in certain cases, heated discussions), unravels

Beit Furik checkpoint. www.machsomwatch.org Qalandiya checkpoint. www.machsomwatch.org

Nura Resh is a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

and an active member of MachsomWatch (see www.machsomwatch.

org). This article is adapted, with the permission of the author and

the editors, from a chapter in “Peace, Justice, and Jews: Reclaiming

Our Tradition” (edited by Murray Polner and Stefan Merken, and

published by Bunim & Bannigan, Ltd., 2007).

www.meretzusa.org

ISRAEL HORIZONS Winter 2009

11

immanent tensions, and affects the decision-making process

within the organization. At the risk of over-simplifying, and

over-generalizing, and though the ideological spectrum could

be described as a continuum, I classify members as “hard-liners,”

“radicals,” a “critical” group, and the more “consensual” and

humanitarian-oriented women, who care about human suffering

and welfare. Though not mutually exclusive, and usually mentioned

by women interchangeably, the “hard-liners,” those with an activist

background, stress the protesting funct'ion and the importance

of reporting and testifying against the “injustice and evils of

the occupation.” The “humanitarians” emphasize modifying

the soldiers’ behavior and helping the Palestinians in specific

circumstances as their major mission.

Motivations

In describing their decision to join MachsomWatch, many of the

women speak of a painful process of their “awakening of awareness”

and “disillusionment” after the euphoria of the Six Days War, and

more generally from their uncritical patriotic Zionism, once they

realized the evils of the occupation, and the resulting “destructive

processes” in Israeli society. Investigating further what motivated

their decision to act, three types of emphases appear:

• A wish to protest and testify about the oppression and

human rights violations;

• Concern about the destructive marks the occupation leaves

on soldiers, and its negative effects on Israeli civil society as

a whole:

“Democracy and human rights are indivisible and can’t be

stopped at a line, it [the violations] spreads to the Green Line; the

soldiers are ‘infected’ and will carry it back home.”( N.P.) “I am

not the ‘committee for the Palestinians’; I worry about the horrible

corrupting process that is going on in Israeli society.”(H.B.)

• Concern about mistreatment and human suffering at the

checkpoints and a wish to help the Palestinians.

Organizational Dilemmas

Embedded in the definition of the organization’s charter and

reflected also in the motives of the members is an immanent tension

between the political protest functi'on, and the humanitarian care

intervention, which constantly consumes the Watchers.

Introducing a civilian eye into a situation, otherwise controlled

solely by soldiers, we try to have our reports disseminated as

widely as possible, in effect declaring: “You can’t say that you

didn’t know.”

At the same time, humanitarian concerns drive us to intervene

in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians. It is simply

impossible to just stand at a checkpoint and write a detailed report

about what is happening. Intervention may be specific: trying

to modify soldiers’ behavior or to solve a personal problem. It

may be more general: trying to improve the appalling physical

conditions at the checkpoints, or to reverse illogical (and illegal)

decisions, either at a local level, or by talking and meeting senior

army officers. At the request of Palestinians who approach us

with their grievances, we intervene in cases not directly related

to the checkpoints.

Successes and Failures

What has CheckpointWatch achieved in its years of activity?

First, it has made a major contribution in conveying the reality

of the checkpoints to the Israeli public, in attracting attention and

awareness to the “checkpoint regime,” and its implications on every

aspect of daily life of the civilian population. Even the mere fact

that most checkpoints are located inside the West Bank, separating

Palestinian communities from each other, was a surprise to many

Israelis—as was the use of checkpoints and barriers as collective

punishment and of their routine violation of many human rights.

In a world of fast moving communications, our reports also reach

a wider international audience. And, in the long run, they will also

serve as authentic testimonies to future investigators.

Second, though very limited and very problematic, the limited

humanitarian help that the women manage to provide by their

intervention alleviate somewhat the hardships and humiliations

at the checkpoints and in some cases may be critical, making the

difference between getting to the hospital or to a university, or being

sent back, or worse, being detained for hours. We strongly believe,

though we can’t prove, that our mere presence at the checkpoints

has a modifying effect on soldiers’ behavior.

Lastly, at the checkpoints, where only the army and military

police officially represent Israel, we present to the Palestinians a

different face of Israel. The many thanks and welcoming greetings that

we get from Palestinians, beyond the little we can do, strengthen the

belief that this is another important facet of our contribution.

However meaningful, the effect that CheckpointWatch has on

Israeli society should not be exaggerated. We are still a small group,

mocked by many Israelis and often derided as “unpatriotic,” “Arab

lovers,” or “traitors.” Most Israelis believe that the checkpoints are

essential as a major contribution to security and we have not been

able to change Israeli policy in regard to the Checkpoint regime,

let alone the occupation.

Summary

CheckpointWatch can best be defined as a women’s civil

movement; it mobilizes women to protest or support a social-political

issue, rather than to define issues related to gender relations as its

major goal. However, our form of action—women standing opposite

... women standing opposite

soldiers at the checkpoints—

challenges the existing definition

of gender roles and gender

relations in Israeli society.

www.MeretzUSA.blogspot.com

ISRAEL HORIZONS Winter 2009

12

soldiers at the checkpoints—challenges the existing definition of

gender roles and gender relations in Israeli society. Hence, indirectly,

it is also a feminist movement. It is also a political movement, calling

for an end to the Israeli occupation and the system of checkpoints

that helps maintain it.

Continuous activity in CheckpointWatch is a very difficult, tiring,

and at times frustrating routine. Vigils at the checkpoints are carried

out in small groups far from most Israeli eyes. We witness a sea of

troubles and are unable to change the situation or help in individual

cases. Many of the women are faced with indifference or even rejection

in an Israeli environment that does not want to know, does not care,

or contends that “they [the Palestinians] deserve what they get.”

Words like, “shame, “rage,” “desperation,” and “frustration”

are repeated in activists’ descriptions of their feelings about the

checkpoints and about the typical responses of soldiers and Israeli

citizens to their efforts.

Despite this and some unresolved internal ideological and

procedural conflicts, the work of watching and reporting continues.

Moreover, having a closer look at the multiple hardships and

limitations faced by the Palestinians, accentuated by the construction

of the separation wall, women have begun varying their activities.

They now monitor and fight for the regular opening of gates in

the separation wall to allow children crossing to their schools and

farmers to their land. They follow and report detention procedures

for Palestinians at military courts. And they try to help process

Palestinian requests for work permits in Israel, and the like. Worth

noting is the evolution of a separate NGO, Yesh Din (“there is

law”), which collects evidence of settlers’ violence against their

Palestinian neighbors, helps victims to file complaints with the

police and follows official inquiries (or rather, the avoidance of

proper inquiries) into these cases.

Regardless of differences in political persuasion, all

CheckpointWatchers are women who decided that as Israeli

citizens they “should break the silence” and are willing to protest

injustice in the hope that in a long run justice (and peace) will

be restored.

 
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