It was an anxious ride, sitting in an Israeli-licensed car, driving in the West Bank, hoping that a militant Palestinian wouldn’t mistake us for settlers or undercover Israeli soldiers. Behind the wheel was 60-year-old Ruth Kedar, an Israeli who only half an hour ago had poured me coffee in her comfortable suburban home in a leafy Tel Aviv suburb.
Kedar is in charge of the Monday afternoon shift of “Machsom Watch” at the Israeli military checkpoints around the Palestinian city of Nablus.
Machsom Watch (machsom is the Hebrew word for checkpoint) was founded in 2001 with three main goals: to monitor the behavior of soldiers at checkpoints, to ensure Palestinian civil rights at these checkpoints, and to create awareness amongst the widest possible audience.
One Monday last month, Kedar’s preparations took the form of an army operation: a table-size map was spread out, with the 20 major Israel Defense Forces' checkpoints highlighted, and her cell phone rang constantly with other members of Machsom Watch asking for directions to the meeting point. Heavy winter gear was necessary because of the freezing cold weather in the West Bank.
Kedar's most important accessory was the Machsom Watch tag for her jacket and the big poster-size Machsom Watch sign in Arabic, which she placed in the back window of her car. These would identify and protect her as a peace activist. Only then was she finally ready for what she sees as a battle against the Israeli occupation.
‘Strangling and life blocking’ blockades
Kedar picked up Hagar Kotef, Ada Heiborn and Riva Bachrach, other members of Machsom Watch, at a gas station and headed straight to the Green Line separating Israel and the West Bank. The Green Line is the pre-1967 border with Jordan, upon which Israel is building the separating wall, which it hopes will prevent suicide bombers from entering into Israel.
Machsom Watch doesn’t focus on the roadblocks that dot the Green Line and screen Palestinians intending to cross and work inside Israel.
The emphasis is on the ones the army has established around the major West Banks towns and cities such as Nablus, Hebron, Ramallah and Jenin.
Most recently, Israel has pledged to ease the security clampdown in the West Bank and Gaza following efforts by the new Palestinian leadership to clamp down on attacks against Israel.
Kedar, speaking before the flurry of diplomatic activity, described these roadblocks as “strangling and life blocking."
The army insists the checkpoints are to protect against attacks. Kedar responds that they “humiliate Palestinians for no good reason, people who need to stand in hours long lines in freezing cold weather, to be checked by the army just because they want to see a relative, buy food or see a doctor at a nearby village.”
The terrain changes fast once you are in the West Bank, from red tile-roofed houses and fancy malls in Israel to biblical barren hilltops, Arab villages with mosque minarets and Israeli settlements that are always situated looking upon the Palestinian villages.
Only the IDF and settlers cars can use the roads, Palestinians can drive here only if they carry a special permit given by the army.
Kedar and the other women act as tour guides, but instead of pointing out beautiful sites, they note signs of the occupation: huge rocks that block narrow dirt roads once used by the Palestinians for traveling from one village to another, uprooted olive trees, and random checkpoints.
“No matter how many times I come here, I always get an upset stomach, the situation is the incarnation of the hardhearted Israeli Army,” said Heiborn as we drove through the West Bank.
The Israeli response to the violent Palestinian uprising (or intifada) in 2000, which included the prolonged closure and siege of villages and towns on the West Bank, motivated 400 Israeli women to spread out in two daily shifts and monitor each roadblock.
On this trip, the group arrived at the Beit Iba checkpoint on the western outskirts of Nablus, between the villages of Beit Iba and Deir Sharaf. This checkpoint is the principal western exit from Nablus, serving thousands of people daily, and is open from early morning until 5:30 p.m. and for emergency cases at night.
The moment Kedar parked her car and stepped out, she sensed something was wrong.
Old men stumbling along with their canes, women holding their children, and men with plastic nylon bags approached the Machsom Watch women and all were furious.
They gestured with their hands, talking in Arabic mixed with Hebrew and pointed to the road block that they just passed just moments ago. After calming them down, Kedar found out it was Eid El-Adah, the Muslim holiday that precedes the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Everyone was returning home with their shopping and they said soldiers were giving them a hard time, causing a long line waiting to cross the checkpoint.
The muddy dirt road leading to the checkpoint was jammed with honking trucks, donkey carts, taxi drivers shouting their destinations and vendors trying to sell chick peas, hot corn, kebab meat on skewers and black coffee from small makeshift stalls made out of cardboard boxes.
Kedar, Kotef, Heiborn, and Bachrach sprang into action. They dispersed and tried to find out as much as they could about the roadblock.
From the look of the Palestinians' eyes, it was apparent that the Machsom Watch women were like angels from the sky, their only saviors in this chaos.
What the Palestinians didn’t know is that their savior, Kedar, was, as she put it, “married to the army” for 22 years. Her husband Paul served in the IDF as a colonel. “I have empathy toward the soldiers themselves because they’re doing a difficult job in an extreme situation; the army is forcing them to operate in this impossible place.”
Kedar and her colleagues took up places near the soldiers that manned the roadblock, some standing in front of the soldiers, others stood behind them, attracting Palestinians with unsolved problems.
Kedar was approached by a middle-aged man who complained that his sick child and wife were being held in the line stretched in front of us. People were waiting to pass the revolving metal gate and be checked by the soldiers who created two separated lines, one for women and the other for men.
The reasoning for these long lines was that the soldiers wanted the Palestinians to approach them one by one, since they feared that an uncontrolled crowd would make it too difficult to check individuals for suicide bomb belts.
Kedar pulled out her weapon, a notebook containing the cell-phone numbers of all the military commanders of the area.
She dialed and started questioning one of the commanders as to why there was such long line, and was told there was a security problem and that help was on its way.
Army commander heeds call
Commander Raad from the Israel Army appeared 20 minutes later to be greeted by the four women complaining about the lack of chairs for old people and women who were so tired they just started crying.
“I have two children of my own, I know all about sick kids, I agree that we need to understand these peoples’ needs, it hurts me too," said one Israeli soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But I’m thinking about my country; we have a given situation with buses and restaurants blowing up which kill innocent Israelis. Between that and checking every single person I would rather check them all,” he said as the commander discussed the delays with the Machsom Watch representatives.
“Basically, I’m guarding your own children,” he added as he pointed at Kotef.
The arrival of the Machsom Watch women and the calm, but assertive voicing of their concerns sped up the whole procedure. “Everything will be OK, just give me a few minutes," said Raad as he put on his helmet.
Quickly he established a special line for men over 45 and sent an officer to fish out a sick boy and his mother from the endless line.
It was a matter of 30 minutes before the whole line just disappeared and the sick boy was reunited with his father. Seeing the father hug his son, Kotef turned to me and said, “You see, sometimes we have gratitude for our work.”