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Military checkpoints must be watched, insists Israeli activist

[Ronny Perlman]
[Ronny Perlman]

Day after day, Palestinians wait for long hours at chaotic Israeli military checkpoints intended to break their morale, destroy their dignity and inject fear into them. It's a heartbreaking sight. The checkpoints are scattered across the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. They are a potent symbol of the occupation, but one group of Israelis is determined to make sure that the Palestinians know that they are not alone; that what goes on at the checkpoints is being seen and recorded.

Horrified by the realities of the checkpoints, Ronny Perlman visits them to document the pattern of abuses at the hands of Israeli soldiers. She also helps Palestinians on their daily travels.

"The checkpoints are a pioneering Zionist bureaucracy necessary for the occupation's survival," she told me. "It's dehumanising and cruel. Such a system should never exist."

Perlman is part of the Israeli peace group MachsomWatch. Established in 2001, the group takes its name from the Hebrew word for checkpoint. It calls for freedom of movement for Palestinians within their own territory, and for an end to Israel's occupation.

"The problem is that the military crossings serve to limit movement," she explained. "They have a drastic impact on the lives of the Palestinians, especially when it comes to work."

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Over 50,000 Palestinians cross into Israel every day. Eighty-five per cent of them are men who work in Israel, most of them in construction jobs. They have little option due to the high unemployment rate in the Palestinian territories, a by-product of the occupation. Many leave their homes before dawn to stand in long queues at the crowded checkpoints, where they are often subjected to humiliating inspections. When a Palestinian gets a permit to work in Israel, it says that he is allowed to enter Israel at 5 am and leave by 7pm.

"But 5am is too late because the queues are too long to go through the security check and then they risk losing their job." The activists at MachsomWatch, Perlman pointed out, managed to have this changed to 4am for the Palestinians. "And we have also been able to raise more awareness of this problem to journalists and human right defenders." Many problems still remain, though.

Amnesty International has counted at least 593 Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks in the occupied West Bank. Some are fixed, while others are "flying" barriers able to be moved to different locations with no warning. Their purpose is to put a check on Palestinian movement, while aiding and abetting the illegal Jewish settlers as they seize more Palestinian land to build more settlements. All settlements are illegal under international law.

Palestinians cross Qalandiya checkpoint to perform the first Friday Prayer of Islamic holy month of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in Ramallah, West Bank on 10 May, 2019 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

Palestinians cross Qalandiya checkpoint to perform the first Friday Prayer of Islamic holy month of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in Ramallah, West Bank on 10 May, 2019 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

According to Perlman, the real cruelty towards the Palestinians is not the fact that they have to go through a checkpoint, because they are "the lucky people who got a permit to work in Israel and get paid five times more than a person working in Palestine." The real problem, she noted, is the permit bureaucracy. "There are countless different permits and it's very complicated and expensive. And we all understand it's actually got nothing to do with security."

In fact, there are more than a hundred different kinds of permits issued by the Israeli military authority allowing Palestinians to travel. They include permits to travel or study abroad, pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque, visit relatives, attend a wedding or funeral, get medical treatment and work at higher-paying jobs in Israel. There are no official criteria for obtaining permits, only conditions for consideration. Applicants go to the Civil Liaison Office and they may or may not be successful.

Perlman dismisses the system as a "bullshit way of monitoring and controlling people." The idea is to make their lives difficult. "That's very important for everyone to know because [Palestinians] are all portrayed as terrorists who pretend to be pregnant women and try to get through the checkpoint, but that only ever happened once 20 years ago."

Security, she added, has nothing to do with it. "Around 50,000 Palestinians work in Israel every day without any security checks having bypassed all the control points. There are also many damaged checkpoints where they have massive holes in the fences so the people can sneak through."

MachsomWatch activists compile daily reports on any conflicts arising between the soldiers and the Palestinians at the checkpoints. The group's advocacy has been criticised over the years by other Israelis. It is accused of being politically biased and ultimately detrimental to Israel's image and society.

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"There is fake news that we attack soldiers and prevent them from doing their work, but I simply ask everyone to consider if it is logical that we have been around for twenty years if we are so dangerous. The soldiers would have stopped us from being at the checkpoints if that was the case."

The media is full of fake news that all leftists are "provocative, Israel haters and terrorist lovers". What's even more bewildering is that most Israelis are completely ignorant when it comes to the occupation of the West Bank. That's why Perlman emphasised the importance of regular tours to the occupied Palestinian territory that she organises for Israeli students prior to their military service, as well as serving soldiers. She describes them as driven and ambitious as they all strive to become high ranking officers. Through such tours, she aims to draw attention to serious crimes and discrimination committed by soldiers and settlers.

"My job is not only to monitor the violation of human rights at the checkpoints, but also to talk to the soldiers and lecture the pre-military groups about the reality of the Palestinians," she said. "We are, most likely, the only Israelis who mention the word 'occupation' because you can grow up in Israel and never hear it said. It's taboo."

She and her colleagues at MachsomWatch want to be an example to the Palestinians of support from Israel for peace and a lasting solution in their occupied land. From a few dozen in the beginning, MachsomWatch now has around 300 members.

Perlman has strong memories of the early days with the group. She recalled one Palestinian father who would cover his daughter's eyes every day to save her from being confronted with the daunting image of menacing soldiers with rifles. "No child or parent should ever have to experience such things."

As long as there are checkpoints, she concluded, there has to be checkpoint watchers. "We are a symbol from the other side that is opposed to the occupation which is affecting the lives of the Palestinians so mercilessly."

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