Political Tourist part 5: Checkpoint Duty

Jane Harries

Today Hanna and I get up at 5a.m. to go to Hableh Checkpoint, where she will do her regular Machsom Watch shift.  Machsom Watch is a group of Israeli women who visit checkpoints controlled by the Israeli Defence Force to monitor and document the treatment of Palestinians by the military and to report any abuses.  Hanna has recently completed her PhD thesis which is an ethnography of the women’s experiences as they travel from one society to the other, and the effect this has on them mentally, emotionally and socially as they seek to identify with ‘the other’ and bring the injustices of Occupation to the attention of their own society.

How near yet how far away from one another these societies are!  Geographically close, of course – but in terms of awareness and lived reality, light years apart.  We drive along a modern motorway that could belong to any Western society and suddenly turn off onto a potholed dusty side-road.  We were so deep in conversation that Hanna almost misses the turning.  Small wonder, for there are no signs, just as there are no signs to the Palestinian villages which border the road. This is part of the invisible map of Occupation – one civilisation grafted onto another which is practically airbrushed out.

We reach the checkpoint gate by 6a.m. (the designated opening time) – but there is no movement.  By 6.05 the soldiers have arrived and leisurely prepare to open up.  Between that time and 7.30a.m. there is a steady stream of people crossing – mostly workers with permits to access their land or places of work in the Seam zone.  They are allowed through in groups of 5. Some work in garden centres, others in construction.  A variety of vehicles pass through – horses or donkeys and carts, cars, trucks and two school buses. (The primary school is in the Seam zone, whilst the secondary school is in the village itself, necessitating a movement of teachers and pupils.)  We are greeted by ‘Good Mornings’ in Arabic, Hebrew and English – and with smiles.

On the surface all is calm.  This is what Hanna calls ‘the routine of Occupation’.  It is clear, however, who is in control.  From the uniforms and guns, of course, but also from the manner of the soldiers. At one point someone doesn’t quite obey the rules, or maybe doesn’t have the correct permit: ‘Get back, get out of here!’ one of the soldiers shouts.  It can hardly be imagined what it must feel like to be subjected to this humiliation day by day just to get to one’s own land or to one’s place of work or education.  What must go through people’s minds?  And yet those who pass through appear calm and gracious, as if resigned.

Two incidents emerge during the shift – two reasons why it was good we were there.  One man stops and tells Hanna that he has applied for and been given permission to have feed for his sheep delivered to where they are in the Seam zone – but nothing has happened.  The second incident happens right at the end of the shift – at around 7.27a.m.  A man drives up from the Israeli side asking to go through to the village.  But the soldier has already closed the gate on the Hableh side, and refuses to allow him to do so, in spite of the fact that a group of 5 men is still coming through.  We later learn that this is the mayor of Hableh.  What does the soldier care?  He is told that he can go to the next checkpoint and cross there.  People’s status in their own society is as nothing compared to military authority.

And so Hanna returns home and writes up her report.  She too is part of the routine, but an important part –  a presence which stands for humanity and which aims to hold people to account for their behaviour.  The logo of Machsom Watch is an ever-open eye.  The watchful, critical gaze of witnesses is necessary in the invisible zone where most people pass by.

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