The Middle East:

Commentary and Analysis

Israeli Women Keep an Eye on the IDF

Women at barricades keep an eye on their defenders
Jonathan Steele in Jerusalem
Wednesday August 14, 2002
The Guardian

With her steely blue-grey eyes drilling him from under the brim of her sun hat, Yehudit Elkana approaches the armed Israeli border policeman at the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Almost all the Israelis who pass here are in vehicles. The walkway beside the coils of razor wire is mainly used by Palestinians.

"Shalom," she greets the suspicious policeman.

"Who are you?" he asks, as he studies the nameplate she wears with its Hebrew and Arabic writing. "Ah, you are human rights."

"Yes, and so are you," she replies.

At least once a week Ms Elkana joins Checkpoint Watch, which was set up by the Israeli organisation Women for Human Rights. In groups of three or four its members fan out around Jerusalem to monitor the treatment of Palestinians by soldiers and border police.

"They almost always behave better when we are around," she says.

As Israeli citizens and non-settlers, the monitors are not allowed into the West Bank, but they can observe what is going on at the 15 various entrances to the city. Some of the barriers are concrete and steel. Others are barricades of stones and rubble put up by armoured bulldozers to force Palestinians to cross only on foot.

People who are ill and some pregnant women have to be carried over to taxis and ambulances which wait on either side of the ugly barriers.

The policeman at the Bethlehem checkpoint turns Yehudit and her companions away from the walkway but lets her go out to the road and stand there. She immediately spots graffiti chalked on the side of the booth where police ask drivers to show their papers.

Apparently written by a Russian immigrant doing military service for Israel, one message reads: "A good Arab is a dead Arab."

"If that is not gone the next time I come here, I will be making an official complaint," she tells the young policeman.

A hundred yards away we find more armed police guarding a dozen Palestinians sitting on the pavement. They had been caught as they tried to sneak past the checkpoint through olive groves.

The women are not allowed to talk to the Palestinians, but by making notes and letting the police know they can turn up without warning they believe they exercise a restraining function. Half an hour later we see the men being escorted back through the checkpoint. They have not been locked up or charged.

Ms Elkana was a child in the 1948 war ("Israel's worst: 6,000 Jews died") and has worked in human rights for many years.

"But it is only in the last year and a half that we have been monitoring what goes on for Palestinians with all these restrictions at the border. Increasingly, we are also trying to conduct joint protests with Palestinians," she says.

Her group is one of several in Israel which want to give the lie to the prime minister Ariel Sharon's slogan "There is no one to talk to."

It sets up dialogues and organises cooperative medical and educational projects with Israelis and Palestinians. Because of the ban on Israelis, other than settlers and the army, going into the West Bank, most projects take place in Jerusalem or outside Israel.

Last Saturday, on this same stretch of road outside Jerusalem, Ms Elkana joined 400 Israelis, including 100 Israeli Arabs from the organisation Taayush (Coexistence), who tried to walk to Bethlehem. The aim was to link up with 700 Palestinians and hold a meeting outside the Church of the Nativity.

The Palestinian side of the march had delegates from groups including Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Israeli soldiers and mounted police blocked the marchers, firing teargas to get them to disperse. Some yards back from the checkpoint the marchers approaching from the Israeli side were allowed to hold a rally, using a mobile phone to contact the Palestinians in Bethlehem and relay messages of solidarity to the crowd.

"I was not surprised the army stopped us. They don't let any such activity go on. It's not in Sharon's interest to have a peace agreement because that would mean removing the settlements," Ms Elkana explains.

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