Machsom Watch and the Prison City


Written by Heydon Prowse
01 Monday 01st June 2009

Fortunately there is Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli women dedicated to challenging checkpoints and land seizures. We spent a day travelling the area with them to see how these restrictions affect the population.

We’re at Ras-A-Tira checkpoint, a couple of miles south of town. Dalya, 80, and Tom, a professional cellist, are my guides. Dalya has spent the past seven years monitoring checkpoints and knows the ones around Qalqilya particularly well. “We have heard a man has been handcuffed since 6.30am by the head of the checkpoint. The soldier says he attacked them but very many witnesses say it’s because he yelled at them after they pushed his old father and daughter.”

It’s now 2pm and schools have closed for the day. A young boy waits while Israeli soldiers finish a lunch of hummus and olives. Eventually one of the men gets up long enough to wave him through, before returning to his lounge chair in the shade. Four Palestinian men sit on the street beside them, one is handcuffed and the others, his friends, are waiting for him to be released. It’s not the same man arrested before, who was released after Dalya called the soldier’s superiors to complain. This prisoner has been detained for attempting to reach his family in a neighbouring village. The wall separates two villages sitting beside each other and this man’s case is typical. Many families are divided and can only pass through if they are given a special permit, which the IDF rarely issue. The wall cuts both villages from their local school, so that in the morning children often wait several hours before they are checked.

“The wall’s location is decided by the army”, Dalya explains, “so it has been put so close to their (Palestinians’) village that all their land has gone to the Israeli settlement. All the olive trees now belong to the settlement.”


Tom believes that small isolated, checkpoints are the most traumatic for Palestinians. “The soldiers go crazy from being bored so it’s horrible. We’ve been hearing about their violence at Ras-A-Tira for weeks. Often they’re reservists, who are immature and brainwashed with fear and hate.”

The vigilance of Machsom Watch helps to discourage soldiers from their worst excesses. “Very seldomly we are able to have someone charged but it’s difficult. Even if we report them no-one will find the specific soldier, they cover up for each other so it’s almost impossible to make it happen. The people in charge always want to believe the soldiers. If they do nothing we sometimes call the press, but because these crimes happen every five minutes they rarely listen. Editors are far more interested in two actors getting married or divorced.”

Roadblock to prevent access to Izbat village

Both women are from Tel Aviv, supposedly the hub of Israeli liberalism. But neither believes that opposition to the occupation amounts to much there. “They think I’m a traitor or I’m crazy,” Dalya explains, “people are ignorant and they don’t want to know”. “They really don’t care”, echoes Tom, “Tel Aviv is known to be a young, left wing city but I didn’t feel any of that during the Gaza slaughter. I felt like the only sane one there.”

En route to Anabta checkpoint we stop at an olive oil plant, where farmers explain to us how the wall has damaged their livelihoods. “We have trees behind the walls but we cannot reach them. Some days the Israelis allow us to get to them but we cannot finish in the time given to us. We cannot sell the produce because in the time we wait at checkpoints the oil is ruined. Sometimes we wait for days.” Such a blatant restriction of trade smacks of the deliberate policies employed in Gaza, where the IDF targeted food resources in order to demoralise the population. “We want to make their lives miserable”, Dalya believes.

At Anabta checkpoint we see different motives at work. Anabta was built to replace Bet Eiba, a smaller crossing notorious for long, miserable lines and severe restrictions. Millions were spent flattening tons of olive trees to build Anabta. Then, just months later the checkpoint was abandoned, all the soldiers were re-located and today it stands totally deserted, a testament to its complete uselessness in the first place. Tom believes that unnecessary construction provides a lucrative industry for private contractors. “We need to make jobs for people that build and wreck. The fact that they close it so readily shows that it has no importance. They will build another one next time some kid throws a stone at a soldier”. Dalya wrote a letter to the foreign minister of the Knesset about the shocking waste and predictably received no response. “But we continued to make a big noise and tomorrow we have a meeting with him where will shout some more”.


Tom has little faith in the power of international pressure on Israel, who she feels accept no obligations. “Every time we want to show the world we are reasonable we close a few checkpoints and enforce a few more. Then we open the other ones, it’s a game we play.” She believes the majority of checkpoints in the region carry negligible strategic importance. “People say you need checkpoints to prevent terror attacks but that’s not true because as you can see many of them are between villages. They are made to detain Palestinians from infringing on settlements. Where there are no settlers there are no checkpoints.”

A few miles up the road we reach the neighbouring villages of Jubara and Ar-Ras. They are separately surrounded by fences where the permanent wall will be built. One solitary house, previously part of Jubara, has been fenced off from the rest of the village so that one family are completely trapped, at the mercy of soldiers for any of their needs. It serves as a glaring example of the thoughtless positioning of the wall, which gives no consideration to the needs of people forced to live in it. Machsom Watch have special dispensation to enter the cage. “The soldiers know we are allowed, but often they lose the key when we ask”, smiles Tom. In this case the key is found and despite the warnings of soldiers that the road is “very dangerous” we are on our way to the village.

Stop and search at Ar-Ras

We pass another abandoned checkpoint which Machsom watch campaigned to have removed. “We asked them why it was there, just dividing two Arabic villagers and the soldier said it was so that we could sleep safely in Tel Aviv.” Tom recalls, “I suppose that’s why I can’t sleep now.” I ask Dalya if it feels very rewarding to see some of these restrictions lifted. “It is a marvellous feeling to travel this road when one year ago it was impossible. But I am as frustrated as I am satisfied when they open a checkpoint, because if it’s so easy why wait six years to do it? Why do people have to suffer for six years for nothing? It’s so easy to close them and they don’t even care enough to keep them there. I am so angry and frustrated, because the aim is not security but to make people miserable, which is inhumane. They speak in the name of security but that is a lie.”

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