In your last post, Haim, you mention the soldier who is outraged by Machsom Watch volunteers at checkpoints in the West Bank. Much as I understand him, I think he’s got it backwards.
…he feels that the observers simply don’t understand the pressures the soldiers face and are too quick to accuse them of mistreating Palestinians. This kid is gentle and empathetic, not a macho guy out to vent his frustrations on Arabs. I admire Machsom Watch’s work and think it’s essential for keeping our soldiers to moral standards. But even these well-meaning people often fail to comprehend soldiers’ dilemmas.
For readers unfamiliar with the group, Machsom Watch is an organization of Israeli women who volunteer to report on what is happening at the multiple checkpoints (Hebrew: mahsom) that the army has put up in the West Bank. Most of the checkpoints date from the second intifada. Some divide Israel from the West Bank, so they restrict Palestinian travel into Israel. Others are along the security fence/wall route as it winds through the West Bank, and others are simply along West Bank roads, restricting Palestinian travel from one area to another.
If the checkpoints were only on the Green Line, their purpose would clearly be guaranteeing the security of the Israeli population. When they are elsewhere – when you have to pass through the Hawara checkpoint to get from Nablus to Ramallah – the picture is murkier. Checkpoints can make it harder for members of terror groups to move around, communicate, or reach a point where they could more easily get into Israel (where the fence hasn’t been built yet). But a major purpose is to protect Israeli settlements and Israelis traveling on West Bank roads – most of whom are settlers. That is, to protect Israeli civilians who live in occupied territory, the movement of Palestinian civilians is drastically restricted.
As a journalist, I’ve been out several times with Machsom Watch teams north of Jerusalem. Mostly, they observe and report. The hope is that the very fact that someone is watching and known to be watching will push the army to treat those passing through the checkpoints better. Sometimes I’ve seen women speak to commanders, or phone them, to argue about treatment of the people passing through – or not getting through. Some of the volunteers are grandmothers.
I can understand that a soldier feels that these women just don’t get the pressures they are under. But the problem is that a large portion of the soldiers, especially the young ones doing their regular army service, don’t understand the pressures that civilians are under. It’s not only that they don’t grasp how important it can be for someone to get to work on time, or to get to the hospital where her husband is being treated, or to get to the hospital herself in order to give birth, or that they don’t quite realize what it means to a child to see his father humuliated.
The deeper problem is that the soldier has been sent to carry out a military task – but the assignment defines the daily life of Palestinian civilians – working, shopping, visiting family, giving birth – as a military problem.
Since Palestinian civilians are a military problem, any objections they have to their treatment is also a military problem. But the Machsom Watch women are Israeli civilians. They have to be treated as civilians. They violate the terms of the drama, which calls for two kinds of actors: soldiers and Palestinians. They don’t “belong” there, they don’t fit the script. The soldiers don’t understand them, or the pressures on the Palestinian civilians, because the soldiers have been sent to act in a military drama.
I stress: My careful reading of history is that the occupation was not originally an Israeli choice. Israel’s strategic purpose in going to war in 1967 was to defend itself. Certainly, Jordan could have stayed out of the war. Once Israel took the West Bank, it had the right to hold the land pending a diplomatic solution. In the interim, the Israeli military became the ruling power, forced and obligated to balance civilian needs with Israeli security concerns.
But the decision to establish settlements fundamentally changed the dynamic. In itself, settling Israeli citizens in the West Bank violated the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory – as the Israeli officials who initiated settlement knew. They’d been told, in September 1967, by the government’s top authority on international law:
“…civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
Moreover, protecting the settlers significantly increased the burden on the IDF – and the burden that the IDF imposed on Palestinian civilians. And it made it much harder for Israel to reach a peace agreement that would end the condition of occupation. The settlements were there to make it more difficult.
Did Israel’s leaders in 1967 lack information when they made that decision? Actually, my reading of the documentary record is that they were well aware of the potential consequences of permanent occupation. Secret reports prepared by the highest level of security and diplomatic officials in the summer of 1967 contained the warnings.
An individual soldier at a checkpoint is being called to carry out two tasks – to defend Israel, and to defend the consequences of settlement, a crime under international law. Rarely can the soldier distinguish between the two tasks. As you’ve argued, he does lack information. Arguably, the defense of his country would collapse if every soldier started drawing his own lines. So the most he can is to try to do the job as humanely as possible. Yet perhaps he will do it more humanely if an Israeli grandmother arrives and reminds him that these are normal people he’s dealing with. He should point his outrage at the politicians who have mixed his legitimate and necessary role of defending his country with the role of defending illegitimate, illegal settlements.
Perhaps the Machsom Watch women haven’t gotten this message across. But it’s hardly their responsibility alone. Everyone of us who can write or protest or simply vote should be trying to convey that message. Clearly, we haven’t yet succeeded.