When Israelis help Palestinians are they making the occupation system work?
The women of MachsomWatch have helped some 5,000 people through the process of appealing their travel ban to Israel.
By Amira Hass, Ha’aretz
There is a thorn in the side of the Israeli prohibitions industry, in the guise of several stubborn and persistent women of retirement age. In a word: nudniks. They are the MachsomWatch volunteers, who during the past seven years have been offering their persistence in order to appeal the travel ban that the Shin Bet security service imposes on Palestinians who seek work in Israel.”
The MachsomWatch organization of female volunteers, which began over a decade ago with the monitoring of physical and administrative checkpoints on the West Bank, has developed various areas of expertise: travel bans for security reasons, the military courts, police fines, permits for reasons of health, restrictions in the Jordan Valley and more.
During their shifts at the checkpoints the women have come to know the Palestinian workers and tradesmen who depend on Israel for their livelihood, and who one murky day discover that their exit permit has been revoked and a “security prevention” imposed on them. After becoming acquainted and having conversations with hundreds of people, and later with thousands, the women reject the automatic interpretation that the average Israeli attributes to the pair of words “security prevention”: “The Shin Bet knows what it’s doing. If the permit was revoked, that means that the man is dangerous.”
They began waiting for hours with the workers and tradesmen who went to appeal the “security prevention” in the offices of the Coordination and Liaison Administration, and afterwards they helped to fill out forms and submit requests to overturn the prevention. They called everyone possible in the Civil Administration to find out why someone waits for hours and never gets to the window of a clerk, why he is not given a receipt for submitting the request, why a reply to a previous request doesn’t arrive, and why there are no forms in Arabic. They wrote letters to the officer of the employment department in the Civil Administration, to the Military Advocate General in Judea and Samaria, to the head of the Shin Bet and to the head of the Civil Administration.
The pestering brings results: To date they have helped some 5,000 people through the appeals process. The “security prevention” evaporated for 35 percent of them already in the initial stage of handling the case. Some go on to judicial institutions, despite the financial outlay. Attorney Tamir Blank is a partner to the women of MachsomWatch, whose volunteer work lowers the cost to the Palestinian worker. The security denial of about 70 percent of the 283 people who turned to the courts via MachsomWatch evaporated, usually before the deliberations stage.
On November 9, 2009 an officer in the Population Registry department of the Military Advocate General in Judea and Samaria wrote to them: “Recently our office has been receiving on a weekly basis a large number of copies of requests to revoke the “security prevention” of residents whose request to enter Israel for employment purposes was denied … Our office is not the authorized administrative institution for handling such requests … [and] complaints about the conduct of the Civil Administration. I ask that the sending of these copies be stopped. [They create] a burden on the fax machine and also waste precious ecological resources.”
The MachsomWatch activists had the fax number of the advocate general because until June 2007 he was, in fact, the address for appealing security prevention. Later the rule was changed and he stopped being the address, and again the rules were changed, then again something changed and there was a wave of cancellation of permits of veteran workers. Then for some reason, from July 2009 until March 2010 there was nobody to turn to in order to appeal.
The women faxed a reply to the officer: “Employers [who under the new procedures were asked to personally request that the security prevention of a Palestinian laborer be revoked] don’t receive replies. Attorneys don’t receive replies … The Coordination and Liaison Office offers no reply regarding the reason for the confiscation of a permit … [The workers] try to meet with a Shin Bet [representative], who makes them wait for hours and sends them away saying: ‘You aren’t needed.’ When a Shin Bet representative consents to meet with the Palestinian resident, the crushing statement is: ‘Help us and we’ll help you, and if not, you’ll never receive a permit.’ And when they appeal [against] the prevention together with their employers there is no reply. There’s a sealed wall ….
“Israel’s control of the area is that of belligerent occupation, and therefore it has obligations toward [its residents], and among other things the obligation to take care of their welfare and their needs. Therefore along with the complaint about the ecological damage that we are causing, we would expect at least a minimal reference to the human damage …”
A second report by this group of experts was posted on the MachsomWatch website, which sums up its activity since June 2007 and is called “Invisible Prisoners – Don’t Know Why and There’s Nowhere to Turn.” It was written by Sylvia Piterman, a retired senior economist.
She has reason for beginning the report with a scene from Kafka’s “The Castle.” There is no shortage of Kafkaesque sagas of individual Palestinians in the mazes of the occupation in our newspapers. But the report tells a saga of thousands. That is why throughout the report one can hear the refrain: There’s a method here, there’s a purpose behind the wholesale denial of permits and of restrictions of movement.
“This is a system that is designed to continue and maintain the occupation. And for that purpose the population has to be kept afraid, in a situation of uncertainty and without social solidarity. The method is also designed to maintain a large reservoir of Palestinians … in order to enlist them [as informants to the Shin Bet], while cynically exploiting their most urgent needs,” writes Piterman.
It would have been worthwhile to add: The method is designed to reduce to a minimum the number of Palestinian workers in Israel, on the way to completing the policy of demographic separation that governments have been practicing since the early 1990s.
Another thing that the report outlines – and here, too, more details would have been welcomed – is the gradual inclusion of the Palestinian workers in Israel in the category of “foreign workers.” Israel is establishing many facts on the ground in order to create the false presentation that Areas A and B are a “state” rather than occupied territory. For example, the checkpoints are called “terminals” or “crossings.” Placing Palestinian laborers under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry (rather than the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, as used to be the case ) and treating them as though they were from Thailand and Colombia, are another such fact.
Doesn’t the assistance to individuals (even when there are thousands ) beautify the system? That is a question that comes up in the report, as in the constant conversations of the activists. This is a dilemma that faces every anti-occupation group in Israel. In the overall battle against a regime of privileges for Jews, Jewish Israelis exploit their superior rights in order to try and help people (usually of those classes which are not wrapped with money and connections ) in their daily dealings with the empire of prohibitions: to go to Israel for medical treatment, to overturn a home demolition order, to prepare a building plan, to dig a water cistern, to file a complaint with the police against settler harassment, to go to study, to visit a sick mother.
The theoretical understanding that this is a repugnant system, and its overall rejection does not weaken their caring and commitment to individuals.
Machsomwatch is a movement of Israeli women, peace activists from all sectors of Israeli society, who oppose the Israeli occupation and the denial of Palestinians’ rights to move freely in their land. Since 2001, we have conducted daily observations of IDF checkpoints in the West Bank, along the separation fence and in the seamline zone, on the main roads and on out-of-the-way dirt roads, as well as in the offices of the Civil Administration (DCOs) and in military courts. We regularly document what we see and hear. The reports of these observations are published on the Machsomwatch site, and sent to public officials and elected representatives. Through the documentation which discloses the nature of everyday reality, we are attempting to influence public opinion in the country and in the world, and thus to bring to an end the destructive occupation, which causes damage to Israeli society as well as to Palestinian society.