|Written by Tamara Symonds|
Feature: The Inspirational Women of Machsom Watch
Hanna Barag is a widow in her late seventies with two children and four grandchildren. Many people her age would be quietly enjoying their retirement. Hanna, though, spends much of her week at checkpoints up and down the West Bank, where she volunteers for NIF grantee Machsom Watch, a volunteer movement of Israeli women who oppose the occupation and the denial of freedom of movement for Palestinians. One morning NIF joined her at the Kalandia checkpoint, where, in 2001, she had her first exposure to the degradations of the occupation. She first heard about Kalandia from Judith Oppenheimer, who is currently the director of another NIF grantee Ir Amim.
"I asked to go with her," she explains. "It was the most decisive moment in my life. What you see today is nothing compared to what there was before – the noise and the violence. One of our greatest achievements is that today there's much less violence. After my first visit…the next week…I couldn't do it. I called and said that I was sick. The women told me that I didn't have to lie…they helped me."
That was in 2001. Today Hanna has become accustomed to navigating the dehumanizing bureaucracy of Kalandia, and doing what she can to help the Palestinians there. "Everyone went through a difficult process before they even got to the checkpoint," she emphasizes, before describing Machsom Watch's work trying to get Palestinians removed from the Shin Bet (the Israeli security agency) black list, which contains around 300,000 names. Machsom Watch has done important work in improving the conditions at Kalandia. For example, now there's a roof for people to wait under so they aren't exposed to the harsh heat of summer or the cold rain of the winter. The checkpoint also used to only open at six in the morning, which prevented Palestinians from finding work on at Israeli construction sites. Today, it opens at four. Every morning, around 3,000 Palestinians cross into Israel from the checkpoint.
It's still a depressing place to be, though, even if the lack of physical contact between soldiers and Palestinians has helped reduce tensions. There are five entrance lines, as well as a 'humanitarian gate' for women, children, and those with permits to enter Israel for health reasons. When the system works efficiently, it takes about 20 minutes to cross. On the morning NIF joined Hanna, though, one lane inexplicably remained closed, causing understandable frustration among the Palestinian laborers looking to find work in Israel. "If they open it we'll cross chikchak," one of them explained, in Hebrew.
"We're not here to cause problems but to ensure the Palestinians' human rights," Hanna says, after making the soldiers aware that one of the lines was closed. "If we were only political we would come with banners. But you can't just stand here. If I help just one person then I've done something."
One man approached Hanna for help because he had forgotten his permit; she told him that the best thing to do was to go back home and collect it. The Palestinians are anxious about losing their place in the line because they're in a rush to reach the employers. After the first set of turnstiles, they still have to get their finger prints and permits checked.
Machsom Watch is a grassroots organization in which the activists initiate their own projects. It has 500 volunteers of all ages. Between 50 and 90 of the volunteers monitor checkpoints. There's no doubt that their activism at Kalandia has made life easier for the Palestinians crossing. "Our truthfulness is our greatest weapon. The army trusts our reports." This is clear in Kalandia.
When asked about what will happen in the future, Hanna says she's not optimistic. "But it will end suddenly," she adds, before telling the story of a checkpoint that was mysteriously taken down overnight. Whatever the future holds, though, it's vital that there are 500 Hanna Barags, each of them doing brave and innovative work to defend human rights.