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Israeli women fight to bring checkpoint abuse to public eye

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Israeli women fight to bring checkpoint abuse to public eye

by Hazel Ward 

HUWWARA CHECKPOINT, West Bank (AFP) - Armed only with notebooks and plastic ID tags, four Israeli women in sunhats jump into a Palestinian taxi and head for an army checkpoint deep into the West Bank to monitor the daily interaction between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians.

Arriving at the sprawling Huwwara checkpoint just south of Nablus, they fan out to observe the long lines of people waiting, chatting in Hebrew to a group of Palestinians in the detention pen who have been stopped on their way either going into or coming out of the West Bank's largest city.

"How long have you been waiting here?" one of them asks a 29-year-old man from Beita village who has been waiting nearly four hours to enter Nablus to pick up his mother after an operation.

Mahmud Abed Mustafa had been confident of being able to reach the city by virtue of his Israeli-issued travel permit.

But on presenting his documents, the soldiers ordered him into the nearby concrete detention paddock.

"But I have a permit," he protests. "My mum had an operation and I have to pay for it and take her home."

Glancing at his papers, the young soldier in charge shakes his head.

"It doesn't have any kind of army stamp on it," he says.

"He doesn't live in Nablus so why should he go there?"

Watching the exchange, 58-year old Tal Haran from Tel Aviv knows that arguing with the soldier is pointless. "It will only irritate him and then he's likely to take it out on them," she says.

"There are myriad ways to harass these people's lives and to make it impossible to move and still not be accused of doing anything 'officially' wrong."

Haran is one of over 400 volunteers who belong to the Israeli women's rights group Machsom Watch, or Checkpoint Watch.

Every day, women of all ages make their way to dozens of checkpoints with the aim of protecting human rights and reporting violations.

Although they have no official power to intervene, they try and resolve disputes or facilitate the passage of a sick person through the checkpoint, often through coordination with other humanitarian groups.

The army says its 47 checkpoints in and around the West Bank are necessary to prevent suicide bombers and other militants bent on infiltrating Israel.

Huwwara checkpoint, however, lies deep within the West Bank, six kilometres (four miles) south of Nablus, and is designed to monitor every individual trying to leave Nablus or enter the city.

The myriad rules and regulations governing the checkpoint are hard to grasp -- what is compulsory in the morning may be forbidden in the afternoon.

One broadly applied regulation is that no Palestinian male between the age of 16 and 35 can pass through without presenting a permission slip obtained through the Israeli District Coordination Office.

No-one is above suspicion as the long queue slowly filters through the rows of concrete barriers, metal detectors and turnstiles which make up the checkpoint.

One woman strikes up a conversation with another detainee -- Ibrahim al-Nasser, a 27-year-old trainee doctor who has spent years studying in the Ukraine and was on the way to Ramallah to sit his final medical exam.

If he misses the exam, he will have to wait another six months before he can re-sit it.

One of the women wanders off to look for a soldier and returns with a Russian-speaker soldier, who decides to make a few phone calls. After a relatively short wait, Nasser is released.

"Without a doubt, us being here helps," says Sara Alimi, a 53-year-old painter from Jerusalem. "It forces the soldiers to lower their profile and it brings to the public eye what is going on here. That's why it's important."

Alimi says she talks to absolutely everyone she meets about the checkpoints.

"I think everyone should know about the horror which goes on daily just several kilometres away from people's homes," she says.

"I do not believe anyone should be able to say: 'I didn't know.'"


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