Who’s In the Way Here? On War Ethics and Mahsom Watch

Gershom Gorenberg

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.

You said:

…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.

6 thoughts on “Who’s In the Way Here? On War Ethics and Mahsom Watch”

  1. I had never heard of Machsom Watch. My education continues at this site.

    At synagogues near here, and there are dozens, it’s common to see a large sign out front that says “We Stand With Israel” on a background of Israeli and American flags. It seems to me a good idea to communicate with the rabbis about how a fellow American feels about the subject. Here is a representative letter I am sending to them…

    Dear Rabbi Rosen:

    I know that you and the members of your congregation are interested in Israel and support it as I do. As supporters and as Americans, I believe we share a concern with human rights.

    Over the past few years I have become a strong supporter and contributor to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization concerned with the dire situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank, a situation that flouts both Israeli and international law.

    The publications of B’Tselem, one of which is enclosed and representative of their excellent work, have made me aware of how the conditions under which the Palestinians of the West Bank live are intolerable, an insult to the good name of Israel and an impediment to any peace agreement.

    Israeli opinion, like that of Americans, is divided between the right and the left but, unfortunately, the United States government has either been supportive of the Israeli right or has looked the other way as the settlements, though contrary to official United States foreign policy, have grown and continue to do so. As an aside, an excellent source of information on how the settlement movement came about is contained in Gershom Gorenberg’s excellent book, The Accidental Empire. As it happened, even the government of Israel was pulled along by the actions of a few citizens who decided to take matters into their own hands. It had nothing to do with the law.

    In every way I can, I am trying to inform my fellow Americans of the humiliating and degrading practices that Palestinians must endure in their daily lives, with the hope not only for some balance in U.S. policy but for action by Americans to inform their representatives in Washington that things must change if peace is ever to come between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

    The situation in the West Bank is as shaming to Israel as Guantanamo is to America.

    I hope you will page through the enclosed publication and then read over the editorial about “The Two Israels” by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. I strongly agree with him that it is the Israel of “justice, decency, fairness and peace” that Americans should support.

    Clif Brown

  2. I may be incorrect or have my organisations mixed (with Breaking The Silence) but I was under the impression that many of the members of Machsom Watch did have a stint in the army.

  3. No disagreements between us here, Gershom. Machsom Watch does important work and, as you say, it’s ultimately the soldiers who benefit–as well as Palestinian civilians. Soldiers have some room for maneuver within their orders and by behaving as politely and humanely as they can under the circumstances they can make a horrible experience somewhat less horrible for the Palestinian civilians who must pass through the roadblock. But it’s not the soldiers who built the settlements whose presence requires so many roadblocks and so many impositions on Palestinian civilians. And when it comes down to choosing between obeying their commanders’ orders or the wishes of Machsom Watch observers, they are bound, other than in the most exceptional circumstances, to choose the former.

  4. Most commendable : I can’t think of a better way to give voice to the true democratic spirit of most Israelis.To just imagine if we Americans had a group who was willing to oversee the excesses of the military and report on them maybe we wouldn’t have the “Gitmo” embarassment to live with. Unfortunately in “Bushland” those options are not available to us. As a Christian I find it extremely intolerable that there those in Israel who have been sucked in by a group of “bottom feeding” bigots like Hagee and the Christian Zionists. These people really believe in a “police state” and even more disquieting is that Senator Joe supports them and the settlement movement to which they contribute.

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