To the Brink of Existential Abyss

Victoria Buch

I am a member of a women’s human rights organization named MachsomWatch. The organization monitors military checkpoints that restrict the freedom of movement of Palestinians around the West Bank. We make an effort to increase the awareness of the Israeli and international public of what is happening there. Moreover, MachsomWatch attempts to act against human rights abuses at the checkpoints.

The activity is problematic, since the very existence of the multitude of checkpoints constitutes one large-scale violation of human rights and soldiers who man the check-points act upon orders from their superiors. Still, now and then we succeed in helping by mediating between Palestinians and soldiers, or by procuring help in blatant cases, which are not covered by the orders. I would like to tell you about what we saw lately at check-points in the Nablus area, and also to share with you some thoughts concerning the real objectives of Israel’s ‘closure policy’.

Checkpoints are a daily reminder to Palestinians that their invaders regard them as ?the herd?.

Checkpoints are a daily reminder to Palestinians that their invaders regard them as ?the herd?.

A large majority of the roadblocks do not separate Israelis from Palestinians. Rather, they separate Palestinians from Palestinians. In particular, Palestinian towns such as Nablus are surrounded by a ring of check-points, which restrict motion between the town and the surrounding villages. The check-points make it difficult for the villagers to reach the town services, such as shopping-malls, hospitals, clinics, schools, work-places, etc. Currently, in the Nablus area, the check-points are manned by elite paratrooper units. Their other assignment is to provide security for neighbouring settlements.

Let me describe a “typical” roadblock. Two or three soldiers are stationed in the middle; their job is to check IDs. Palestinians wait at a distance behind a “holy” plastic barrier. Additional soldiers, serving as security cover, are stationed nearby. Frequently, their guns are pointed at the waiting queue. We tried to argue with the soldiers in the past that scaring people by pointing guns is quite unnecessary, but we were unsuccessful. And so the Palestinians wait, for one hour, for another? and sometimes for much longer. A person arrives at the top of the line, and is summoned by the soldier. The ID is shown, sometimes the coat is opened to show “no explosives”, an explanation may be requested as to where he or she is heading. And then, the 19-year-old soldier determines if the person can pass, according to the orders of that day.

I did not find much logic in these orders. One day, everybody passes, another, the check-point is closed to everybody. For a while, students (young and healthy people) are allowed to pass, while the elderly and the sick are stopped. After several weeks the orders are reversed - everybody above some age, say 45 or 35, is let through, while students are not covered by the orders. People who do not belong to the general categories permitted to pass, have to produce special permits. Procuring such a permit from the DCO is no fun, and the number of different permits required by the authorities is constantly increasing. For example, a Palestinian with the hard-to-get work certificate in Israel, still has to obtain “a Permit to Pass a Roadblock”. Last week we observed the following scene. A Palestinian shows a paper indicating an appointment at a clinic in Nablus. “Why don’t you travel in an ambulance?” asks the soldier. “Ambulances are expensive, I don’t need one. I just need to get to a clinic”. “Then you cannot pass, today only medical emergencies in ambulances are let through”.

Sometimes a soldier decides that a Palestinian “looks suspicious”. Then the Palestinian’s ID is taken, and the ID number is fed via telephone to the GSS (General Security Services) computer. This is an amazingly slow computer. The ID owner waits (often for hours) at the check-point until the security clearance arrives. Arguing with soldiers may result in an extra wait for ID return, as a punishment, or worse.

This routine does not have a good influence on the soldiers’ psyche. For us, it is painful to watch, how their young faces darken, their voices become rude, their body language - violent. The first act as grown-ups of these boys is to become agents of the occupation, and to acquire immense power over resentful and angry Palestinians. At the same time, the soldiers are afraid. The mixture is poisonous to their souls.
Checkpoints offer Israeli youths an opportunity to enact violent phantasies on people, whilst staying within the Jewish moral fold.
Today morning we encountered an especially nasty example at the Bet Furiq roadblock, in the form of an aficionado of order. This soldier devoted only a fraction of his time to checking IDs. As mentioned above, Palestinians are supposed to wait behind a “holy” plastic barrier. A Palestinian MUST NOT move beyond the barrier, even by a bit, unless summoned. The soldier may close the barrier for an indefinite time, “to teach a lesson”. A significant fraction of soldiers’ time is spent on yelling “The checkpoint is closed, move back! Move back!” But that Bet Furiq soldier had more elaborate requirements. Palestinians were supposed to wait in a single file. Tired people who sat down on the roadside were requested to join the file. In addition, his attention focused on two detained young men, displayed nearby as a lesson. They were kneeling on the stony ground, with hands bound tightly behind their backs. They were supposed to turn their backs to the waiting line, and to lower their heads. Now and then, the soldier checked if they maintained the “correct” position. It took us about an hour of phone-calls to secure their release. One of the detained told us that he has been “in position” for some five hours.

Another assignment of the soldiers is a manhunt for people attempting to pass around the check-point. These are Palestinians who cannot pass through the check-point according to the orders of the day, or the ones who are willing to endanger themselves to avoid the wait and the humiliation. This manhunt is occurring in the vicinity of all roadblocks, but in Bet Furiq it had a new twist. For this purpose the soldiers were supplied with three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles, of the kind you can rent at Nitzanim Beach for recreational purposes. We watched the soldiers returning riding on these vehicles, with the “catch” marching in front of them; they were met with congratulatory “hurrahs” from their colleagues at the check-point.

And it can be much worse. Two weeks ago, a short time after we left the Bet Furiq check-point, a 14-year old Palestinian boy was shot dead by a soldier. Soldiers claimed that he threw stones. This summary execution of a boy for stone throwing did not make any significant news in Israel.

Once I asked a soldier - “What do you care? Why won’t you let an Arab to go from one Arab place to another?” The soldier answered with full strength of his 19-year-old conviction: “Don’t you understand? I am protecting the state of Israel! I am protecting you!” The Chief-of-Staff of the IDF does not seem to have the same conviction. Recently, he managed to mumble that perhaps the policy of closure promotes anger and violence and thus endangers the State Security, rather than serving it. Four ex-GSS (General Security Service = Shin Bet) chiefs did not mumble. They stated quite loudly that the oppressive and humiliating policies towards Palestinians, together with funding and development of settlements, are not the way to prevent terror. On the contrary, they bring Israel to a brink of an abyss, into existential danger. Despite these statements by Israeli security experts, the roadblocks are still there, fully operational. Let us then ask what purpose do they serve in the policy of Sharon.

Our public was told that the purpose is apprehending terrorists. This claim does not stand the test of reality. Since Sharon came to power, the terror against Israeli citizens reached an unprecedented level. The terrorists, members of well-organized and well-funded groups manage to reach quite effectively their destinations. On the other hand, peaceful people do not manage to conduct their daily affairs, and are denied normal respectable life.

Another proposal: Sharon honestly thought that roadblocks will help against terror, but now realized his error and embarked on the way of compromise and negotiations. Didn’t we hear recently from him about the need for “painful concessions”? Aren’t there negotiations in progress? I am always amazed about the number of people in Israel who are willing to believe, again and again, in this optimistic fairy-tale. It is a deja-vu; the scenario is known in advance. Pressure for negotiations mounts in Israel and abroad; Sharon declares he is willing to negotiate and compromise; a purely symbolic removal of some settlement outposts is carried out, and the closure noose is loosened slightly; negotiations with Palestinian Authority are initiated (and I think that Sharon keeps this powerless PA in existence so that he can set this farce going again and again), while on the ground, the Occupation Machine keeps grinding diligently; then an assassination of a Hamas or Jihad leader is ordered, or a similar provocation is carried out; a chain of terror acts against Israeli civilians ensues; Sharon declares “I wanted peace, but you see, there is nobody to negotiate with”; and the Israeli public repeats obediently “We wanted peace, but there is nobody to negotiate with”.

Some among the Israeli left has raised another possibility: Sharon aims at permanent settlement in the form of Bantustans, according to the old-time South African recipe. The Separation Fence marks the borders of the projected Bantustans. Sharon hopes to negotiate a permanent Apartheid system, relying on the PA’s weakness. I do not believe in this proposal as well. If you wish to establish a stable Bantustan, you do not begin by demolishing it. During his tenure, Sharon ordered systematic destruction of political and economic infrastructure in the densely populated Areas A of the Occupied Territories, which are the projected Bantustans. Recall destruction of the PA security forces, of the government structures and equipment, of agriculture, workshops, roads, lampposts. Most of Palestinians live now under the poverty line - 2$ per person per day. If you lock 3 million people behind fences in Bantustans, without viable economic and government infrastructure, and without hope for better future, the result is escalating bloodshed. That much is clear to any reasonable person, as well as to the people who instituted the policy. Let us not kid ourselves - these are intelligent and determined people, capable of long term planning. I believe that they planned the Bantustans as a “useful” transitional phase towards their real objective.

So what is the objective? I think that the aim is quite obvious - the Greater Israel ("Eretz Israel HaShlema") from Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, in which the Palestinians will be supplanted by settlers. For Sharon and Mofaz, the Palestinians are a pest by definition, not potential partners for coexistence. When Sharon is talking about striving for State Security, that is what he means. In other words, he aims to repeat, in a big way, the “exercise” of 1948. Before 1948, there were many Palestinians around us, and then most of them disappeared. There may be people among us who would claim that in 1948 it happened in the course of Israel’s fight for existence. However now it is certainly not a war for existence, but rather a systematic policy of unrelenting and uncompromising nationalism. This policy brings our country to the brink of existential abyss, just as the four ex-GSS heads said. And we had better do something about it, urgently.

Published Sunday, December 7th, 2003 - 01:59pm GMT

The above is the text of a speech made by Victoria Buch, an Israeli peace activist, at a recent “Peace Now and Peace Coalition” weekly vigil near the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.

Article courtesy of Ariga

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Victoria Buch

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