Women of Machsom Watch

By Susan Schwartz, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and NewGround sponsored a lively and informative discussion about a relatively underreported aspect of Israeli occupation: the humiliating checkpoints which Palestinians must endure. Two women from Israel, active members of Machsom (checkpoint) Watch, represented that group and told through personal experience and visual display how the checkpoints impact the daily lives of Palestinians.

Machsom Watch is an Israeli women’s organization that monitors Israeli checkpoints, of which there are more than 600 in the West Bank. Many of these checkpoints are permanent, some are temporary (flying checkpoints) and some consist of metal fences, concrete blocks, ditches or earthworks. These checkpoints are intended to prevent freedom of movement for Palestinians. In this they succeed and in succeeding severely harm the fabric of Palestinian life in all of its aspects.

Machsom Watch protests the very existence of checkpoints; documents security forces’ conduct at checkpoints, and protects the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank while assisting them if necessary, to the extent possible. Every day, two shifts go out to some 30 checkpoints on the seamline between Israel and Palestine and within the West Bank.

The event was held at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, and was one of three in the Los Angeles area. The two women then travelled to San Francisco for two more appearances.

Daphne Banai, a Jewish Israeli living in Tel Aviv and Taghrid Shbita, a Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel living in Tira, are both members of Machsom Watch, a group of 400 concerned women who monitor Israeli checkpoints to mitigate the almost unlimited power of the Israeli IDF forces who staff it, who then degrade and harass the Palestinians who wish to go through them for educational, business, personal or health reasons.

During the session, a Power Point presentation about life under occupation was shown, and it visually underlined the shocking stories these two brave women had to tell. The two women met 25 years ago and have been friends ever since, their children having grown up together.

Taghrid spoke first. She is a mother of three, a human rights attorney and former candidate for the Knesset for HADASH, and, in addition to her involvement in Machsom Watch is active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and Women in Black (WIB).

She told of how the Palestinians went from being a majority before the war to a minority after the war. Her home village was destroyed by the Israelis, but the homes, gardens and fields lived on through the memories of those who had once lived there. As a rule it is the older generation of women–in this case Taghrid’s grandmother–who preserves the memories and can take one through a destroyed village and point out what was once there. In destroying the villages, Israel hoped to destroy the dream. Israelis believe that even within the state of Israel, the concept of Right of Return for Palestinians is dangerous. Yet for themselves they practice the concept for Jews who, by affirming their Jewish identity, can come to Israel from all over the world to settle.

Israel provides benefits for those who have served in the military. The majority of Israelis, both male and female, must serve at least two years. The Palestinians within Israel may not serve and thus are deprived of these benefits, many of which have to do with employment not directly related to defense or government work.

Taghrid continued by reminding her audience that the US lectures the world on democracy and human rights. Perhaps, she said, they should lecture their close ally, Israel, on human rights for the Palestinians.

Daphne spoke next. She said that she came from a right-wing Jewish family and learned the standard stereotypes of Palestinians. It was not until her adulthood during a Parent Teacher Association meeting that she met Taghrid and was told of an organization, now defunct, called Bridge to Peace.

Her association with Taghrid and the group opened her eyes to the truth about Palestinians, not only as people, but as victims of Israeli policies. While pointing out on the screen situations that develop at checkpoints, she told of one of her own chilling experiences. While working at Machsom Watch, she had occasion to try to bring an elderly gentleman carrying a heavy pack through a checkpoint. He wanted to go to his home which was close enough to be visible beyond the checkpoint. This, she remembered, was on the last day of December, 2003.

The guards at the checkpoint arbitrarily denied him passage, and the elderly gentlemen, devastated and exhausted, had nowhere to go. Daphne and her companions found him a place to stay out of the cold night. When the women of Machsom Watch appealed to the humanity of the IDF soldiers, they were given a lecture on terrorism and were told that they “were only obeying orders,” a term chillingly and ironically reminiscent of the claims of Nazi soldiers at Nuremberg.

Occupation, she continued, affects every part of a Palestinian’s life. The visual presentation showed IDF checkpoint guards pointing guns at small children; ambulances stopped for hours at checkpoints causing the deaths of many emergency patients, and the births under non-medical conditions of many infants; turnstiles of such small dimensions that they literally trapped the person who entered; rocks and mounds of dirt placed to prevent Palestinian travel by car. The foregoing is only a partial list. And, when Palestinians can travel by car, the roads available to them–as contrasted with roads available to Israelis–are in a poor state of repair and poorly lighted.

After the presentation, a lively question-and-answer session followed. A collection was taken at the request of one of the evening’s sponsors.

MPAC is a grassroots Muslim organization which seeks to insure the civil rights of Muslims in the United States, to integrate Muslims into the pluralism that is America, and to create a positive relationship between American Muslims and their elected representatives.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance of Los Angeles seeks to educate, advocate and organize Jews living in Southern California in the arenas of peace, justice, equality and diversity.

NewGround is a joint enterprise of MPAC and PJA. It is an innovative grassroots program dedicated to building meaningful relationships and a sense of community between diverse groups of Muslims and Jews.

To obtain more information, Machsom Watch may be accessed at: ;. Donations may be made out to the New Israel Fund and sent to the Progressive Jewish Alliance at: 5879 W. Olympic Boulevard, Los Angeles, Ca. 90036. To assure that the money will reach Machsom Watch, the donor should write “Machsom Watch” in the item section of the check.