Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Connecting at the Checkpoints: meeting with Machsom Watch

I came across a story from the New York Times  last month that was published a couple of years ago but was still a shot of light in the continuing struggle that is Israel.  This story of civil disobedience - Israeli and Palestinian women risking criminal charges to travel together outside of the West Bank to swim in the Mediterranean - put in my mind two women I haven't yet talked about from the trip I took in April to Palestine and Israel.  Here is a story about the first.

We met Yael, a member of Machsom Watch, at a checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jersusalem in the wall that cuts through an ancient olive grove.  Machsom Watch is a volunteer organization made up of Israeli women who are moved to oppose the occupation by being a regular presence at checkpoints around the West Bank, bearing witness to the way Palestinians who are attempting entry into Israel are treated, and making an effort to advocate for a smoother passage. 

Some of the Palestinians in line to enter were merchants, traveling from home to market to sell their wares as they have done for decades.  Now this simple journey requires hours of waiting and no guarantee of entrance. 

Others were in line because they were hoping to attend the morning service at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the old city of Jerusalem.  It was difficult to see what the hold-ups were, but I think mainly the soldiers on duty were taking their time without regard to the approaching prayer time.  When a door behind us opened and an officer who appeared to be in charge of the checkpoint emerged, Yael greeted him warmly and in a familiar but respectful way, with smiles and a gesture towards us, her American friends.  Then she asked if possibly a third turnstile might be opened so these people could get to their services?  With a glance in our direction, he smiled and opened the turnstile and personally waved through a line of people without looking at their papers, which indicated to me that so much of this inconvenience is a form of intimidation of the Palestinians who are trying to go about their day.

It was uncomfortable to be there, with the abundant soldiers and their machine guns and surveillance cameras.  It reminded me of the feeling I get when I'm driving and spot a police car; even if I've done nothing wrong, a shot of adrenaline rushes through me and for a second I am certain I must be guilty of something.  If I was feeling this, as a privileged American tourist, I imagined what an old muslim Palestinian, in his kaffiyeh, might be feeling as he waited for the whim of the soldier to pass him through. It amazes me that people submit to this experience daily in order to sell their goods, or attend services, to visit family or to seek medical care.

Yael and merchant, showing the identification papers and permit for entry
We spoke with a woman who had successfully come through the checkpoint.  She was a merchant and had a permit, good for several months, that allowed her access to Jerusalem where she would sell her goods.  Even with the permit she is not guaranteed passage.  An elderly man made a point of walking by our small group once he had passed through and gave us a heavily-accented "thank you" before going on his way.  I have no doubt our presence made a difference that morning, but I wondered about other mornings when there are no witnesses.  I have also heard the opinion that maybe these efforts offer less of a protest against the occupation than they make the checkpoints and therefore the occupation "easier".  In an article from the online journal AlMonitor, one member of Machsom Watch is quoted as saying, "I often feel that what I am doing is bettering this occupation, which in reality I came here to finish, and to demonstrate against it. And I think we are treading on a very, very thin line there, between bettering the occupation and fighting it."

The road we took to Tantur. Old stones, and barbed wire.

After a half an hour of this, and finally watching the bulk of the line file through with the opening of the third turnstile we walked over to Tantur Ecumenical Institute to continue talking with Yael.  Father Tim, the current Rector of Tantur,  joined the conversation over the ubiquitous cookies, coffee and tea.

I have so many notes from this conversation that I am not sure what to share or how to phrase it;  I regret that I left this so long, but life has a way of moving you along.   We began with a long dialogue between Yael and Fr. Tim, who clearly enjoy a friendship though they diverge in their approaches to living in Israel.  Yael, the Israeli-born grand-daughter of a woman who married an Arab, says she was born an activist.  Much of her family have reacted to the situation by leaving Israel, believing that the only way to not be a part of the occupation is to leave the country, but she clearly believes that being present makes a difference.  Fr. Tim diplomatically talks about the political situation but stays just outside of the passion emanating from Yael.  In his job as Rector, he warns visitors to Tantur that the political reality could dominate their experience if allowed.

What stuck with me most about what he said was that the extremist element - the Zionists - would not survive without a patron, which in this case is the United States.  He shook his head over the systematic demonizing of the non-Jew in Israel, saying that occupation deeply corrupts everything and everyone and questioning how our democratic country could support the continuous violation of human rights.

Israeli and American - sisters at heart

Yael talked about the history of Machsom Watch, and stressed that their mission is human rights: to be a calming influence at the checkpoints.  In a place where power is so out of control that  Israeli officers can throw up a blockade and create a checkpoint whenever they want to, these women attempt to engage the soldiers on a human level.  Power corrupts a person's sense of right, and these women attempt respectful relationships with the officers, connecting them with their humanity.  In Yael's words, "It connects them to their consciousness. No one wants to be evil, not the officers, not the soldiers, not Israel."  

It was moving to once again hear someone talk about humanity and connecting - there was no talk of enemy or hatred or getting even.  And how could we help? How can we not feel like helpless bystanders to all that we were learning?

Yael's answer was "Some are called to be radical activists.  Some are called to listen.  BE LISTENERS.  It is a gift."

for more stories from this trip, please click here.

1 comment:

merry said...

It's amazing how quickly I'm back there, in the hot sun, feeling uncomfortable as so many people stand patiently in line waiting - always waiting. Blessings to Yael and the women she works with every day.