Middle East

Machsom Watch: Gatekeepers of Israel

Sylvia Pitterman (Photo: Sima Borkovski)

Sylvia Pitterman and Chana Arnon have the appearance of two harmless grandmothers, but you should see them in action during their weekly shift at the Beit Lehem checkpoint, to realize the kind of energy they posses in them. Pitterman and Arnon are both residents of Jerusalem and are members of Machsom Watch, an Israeli women's organization that monitors the checkpoint Palestinians have to cross in order to enter Israel. Joining them on their shift made me realize the kind of help they provide for those people who have no one to turn to. 

When we arrive at the checkpoint early morning on Sunday, the women are warmly greeted by the Palestinians who are already on the other side of the checkpoint (on the Israeli side). It is obvious that their efforts are truly appreciated and they are perceived as some kind of "miracle makers."

"In the past two weeks the situation in the checkpoints is relatively better, maybe as a result of Obama's requests from Israel to ease the pressure on the Palestinians. It seems that people are getting through more easily," says Piterman. "But not so long ago we used to witness some very long and crowded lines, and people were shoving and quarreling with each other because of the density. It's been quite awful."

The Beit Lehem checkpoint resembles a big modern terminal. Arnon refers to it as "the monster." However, this modern appearance is somewhat misleading, as while other terminals are designed to let people through, this terminal's purpose is to keep under control the amount of people who are let into Israel. In fact many of the people who want to go through are refused for various reasons, mostly for being blacklisted by the Israeli General Security Services. Though there are 12 standpoints at the terminal, only two of them are active, and this results in long lines of Palestinians who have to wait from 4:00 in the morning so they can get to work in Israel by 7:00.

Blacklisted for no reason

In order to come through, Palestinians need to show the soldier a tasrich ("permit" in Arabic), a document issued by the Israeli authorities stating the reason for their entrance—whether for medical or humanitarian reasons or in order to work. It also states how long they can remain within Israel. In addition they go through a biometric test, placing their hands on a special machine that screens their fingerprints. If for some reason the machine cannot read their hand they are denied entry.

"We had a case of a man whose only crime was having six fingers, so the machine could not read his fingerprints. His entrance was denied, and it took us six months to get him a permit," says Piterman.

Standing at the checkpoint with Pitterman and Arnon, I notice that, from time to time, the soldier girl asks (or more accurately shouts) at the person to go back, saying only, "Go back, you cannot enter today." She doesn't even have to give him any excuse for not letting him in. When that happens, Pitterman leaps immediately to the checkpoint and, after a quick conversation in which she figures out the reason for his denial, starts making phone calls to higher officials or to the Civil Administration. Afterwards she advises the denied person on his next steps.

In 2005, Machsom Watch women started assisting residents appealing against security blacklisting with the help of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. "It's so depressing sometimes because it seems that even if I succeed in helping one person, another one will immediately join the list in his place. No matter what we do, the amount of blacklisted people remains the same. I feel that maybe we are causing damage to other innocent Palestinians who are blacklisted without doing anything to justify it," she says in frustration.

"I see the blacklisting system as means for the GSS (General Security Services) to recruit people to work for them," she continues. "Palestinians who go to meet with representatives of the GSS are often offered to be their agents, which most refuse because they are bound to be executed immediately if they are discovered. Most of the people who are now blacklisted used to have magnetic cards [without which they cannot make any move or even try to get through the checkpoints] and permits, up until the second intifada, which broke in late 2000. But there are many people I know who used to work in Israel for 20 or 30 years and suddenly lost their permits and became blacklisted for no apparent reason.

"For example, there was a man in his sixties who used to work in Israel for more than 20 years doing all sorts of maintenance jobs. For the past several years he worked in a synagogue in Jerusalem, and everybody loved him there and appreciated his work. One day, for no reason, his permit was taken and he became blacklisted. When I tried to interfere for him the Israeli authorities stated that his position will remain irreversible. This is why we are trying to be more careful in our actions, so we won't worsen the situation of the people we are trying to help. Some of the people who do get their permits back are sometimes kept for hours in the checkpoints so that eventually they will lose their jobs in Israel."

So much despair in one little room

After the checkpoint our next stop is the local DCO (District Coordination Offices) where Palestinians attend for various reasons—to renew their card, to meet with GSS representatives or to get some other kind of permit.

But on our way we stop on the side of the road where Pitterman meets with Ahmed, a Palestinian in his 30s who became blacklisted. Pitterman tried to help him by submitting an appeal to the Israeli court demanding them to state the reason for this infliction. Such procedure costs NIS 1,750 ($518) because they need to hire the services of a lawyer.

Machsom Watch made an agreement with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel that allows them to use the services of its lawyers. "For every 10 people we can get one appeal free of charge, and for every five people we get a 50 percent discount," Pitterman explains. "It's very helpful since most of our clients are too poor to afford themselves these law suits. However, when a case is hopeless we are notified by the judge to withdraw our appeal so our client won't lose his money. Of course the reason for which the case is hopeless is not revealed to us. This was the case with Ahmed."

"A few years ago I had a quarrel with one of my neighbors," Ahmed says, "after which he complained on me to the GSS, and ever since I lost my permit and became blacklisted. I tried to meet their representative and explain that I have never done anything wrong, but without success. I was asked to become a cooperator and work for them, but I told him it will never happen."

When we part, Pitterman advises him to wait for six more months before they try to appeal again, so as not to upset the GSS. "If they approach you once again just tell them you are afraid to become an agent and don't quarrel with them."

When we arrive at the DCO located a 10-minute drive from the checkpoint, even before we step out of the car Pitterman is approached by three Palestinians who ask for her help and advice. One of them has a police report and a trial he needs to attend in Jerusalem, but he cannot get a permit to allow him to get to Israel and be trialed. The police officer who had to be there and answer him has not arrived yet, but Pitterman is able to get hold of him over the phone. "He will get here by 11," she tells the desperate man.

Inside the waiting room there are quite a lot of Palestinians, waiting to be served by the soldiers who sit in a different room. There is no contact between the Palestinians and the soldiers; there is a staircase and an electric gate that is controlled by the soldier in the other room. From time to time the soldier calls names of people and they stand before the gate until they are let in. When Pitterman notices that the line is not moving, she makes some calls to higher authorities and also files a complaint to the Association for Civil Rights.

Pitterman and Arnon approach two women with children, and they continue to advise, make calls, make sure they don't have to wait too long. Later they call to follow up on some of these cases. Time and again I am amazed by the relentless efforts of these women to help these Palestinians, who they refer to as "invisible prisoners." When asked why she feels obliged to go through all this trouble, Pitterman answers, "Our nation has gone through so much misery, and it breaks my heart that we are inflicting misery on other people whose lands we occupied. It is my job to make sure that we remain human despite the occupation."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Sima Borkovski.