Israeli activists help Palestinians at checkpoints
Qalqilya, West Bank - “Israel is committing crimes by being here,” said Israeli activist Riva to her Arab-Israeli friend Fathiya as they crossed Israel’s border into the West Bank’s north-western village of Hableh.
Riva, Fathiya, a driver and a reporter were all conscious of their dangerous surroundings during the ride August 18th aboard a minibus, a trip to show Israeli violations against Palestinians at checkpoints.
The journey was across Palestinian villages, passing Israeli military vehicles, the occasional “apartheid” road, miles upon miles of Israeli barbed wire fences and imposing Jewish settlements perched on mountain tops.
Riva and Fathiya, as they insisted on being identified as, are volunteers with the Israel-based non-governmental organisation Machsom Watch. Machsom, which means “checkpoint”, is opposed to Israel’s continued rule of the West Bank.
“The crime I was referring to is Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank,” Riva said, referring to Palestinian lands Israel seized in 1967. Israel’s negotiations with Palestinians for a peaceful settlement stalled a few years ago.
More than 547,000 Israeli settlers live in 125 settlements and 100 outposts built on confiscated Palestinian land in violation of international law and UN resolutions. The settlements occupy 63% of Area C, a part of the West Bank under Israeli control.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Palestinian territories said since Palestinian violence escalated in October 2015 over Israeli provocations in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound, there has been a 20% increase in barriers placed on West Bank roads.
Those are 543 fixed obstacles, including checkpoints, roadblocks and earth mounds, in addition to hundreds of temporary checkpoints and 61km of Israeli-only roads, known among Palestinian activists as “apartheid roads”.
The checkpoints significantly hinder the freedom of movement of Palestinians, separate them from families and land, other villages, hospitals and places of employment.
Palestinians complain that the checkpoints serve as places to humiliate and abuse them verbally and physically. Usually, there are long delays in scorching summer heat or gusty wind and freezing temperatures in the winter.
It is known that some Israelis staffing the checkpoints push and shove Palestinians, verbally abuse them with racial and other insults. Often, Palestinians, including pregnant women or kidney patients on dialysis trying to get to hospitals, are turned back after waiting several hours.
The humiliation Palestinians endure at checkpoints is the reason why Riva, 72, and Fathiya, 66, have been volunteering for 15 years with Machsom Watch. They try to assist women and comfort students and the ailing delayed at checkpoints for no valid reason.
Each day, some of Machsom’s 300 volunteers set out to monitor the behaviour of Israeli soldiers, mainly at checkpoints. Often, the activists try to clear up differences between soldiers and Palestinians in tense situations. Volunteers monitor Israeli courts and offer activities in Palestinian villages, such as music, yoga and language lessons.
Riva and Fathiya are Israeli citizens but differences lie in their origin. Fathiya is a native of what was British-mandate Palestine before Israel seized it in 1948. Riva is an Israeli Jew. Both are housewives, mothers and grandmothers and share the same political goal: To see Israel’s occupation of the West Bank end.
Fathiya’s activism was fuelled by her family’s expulsion from the village of Miska in 1948 upon Israel’s creation. “Many of them now live in refugee camps in the West Bank and are not permitted to return,” she said.
“I was asked to join Machsom Watch when one of its members heard me speaking passionately at a checkpoint, urging Palestinians not to leave their land,” she said. She is the only Arab volunteer.
Riva said she believed Israel’s biggest mistake was allowing Jewish settlers into the West Bank. “Instead of becoming winners in the 1967 war, we became occupiers,” she said, as the minibus headed towards checkpoints on the scheduled route.
Soldiers in a watch tower offer protection to the settlements of Itamar, Bracha and Yizhar. Two approached, questioning the volunteers’ presence there. Feeling no threat, one left, but the other stayed.
“I don’t agree with Israelis being here,” Riva told the soldier. He did not respond. “He is from a settlement. It’s where he grew up and what he knows.”
The checkpoints were quiet that afternoon but lines started to form when Palestinian workers returned home from Israel. Every bus stop was manned by two soldiers, Fathiya pointed out.
She recalled meeting an ill elderly woman brought from the West Bank Palestinian city of Jenin to the Huwwara checkpoint in a wheelchair by her son. They were there to meet a doctor who came there from Jerusalem once a month. The soldier turned them back.
Riva complained that the Israel “I used to be proud of has lost its pride, wisdom and kindness”.
“There should be no more settlements and we should seriously talk about peace,” she said. “The settlers should be resettled in Israel. There is a lot of room for them there.
“If I were a Palestinian, I would not believe there’d be peace as long as settlements are there.”