Sunday, June 8, 2008

Checkpoint Soldiers Given Grudges, Guns

I spent the day with two women from Machsom Watch, an organization that observes Israeli soldiers at checkpoints inside the West Bank and reports their findings to prevent human rights abuses. Machsom Watch was founded by, and is primarily run by, women as it is assumed that the feminine presence deescalates aggression on both sides.

As we arrived, Fatchiah, an Arab Israeli and member of Machsom Watch, talked to the men hanging around the Hawara checkpoint, outside of Nablus. They were taxi drivers and vendors of food and drink. They told her that the commander of the checkpoint had forbidden them to sell near the exit, which they are usually allowed to do.

The rules of each checkpoint are subject to each day’s commander, a man or woman who most likely graduated high school two or three years ago. This is characteristic of the Israeli military. Men and women, during their mandatory military service, are put in positions of authority and leadership very early in their careers by necessity. Career officers are few and far between. This is one reason why human rights abuses still do occur. These soldiers are young, angry, and mostly unmonitored. They have grown up hearing stories of their grandparents’ suffering in the Holocaust, as well as the suffering caused by terrorist attacks that still occur. They watch their friends die. And then they are given guns and thrust into service with too little guidance.

After discussing the day’s events with the vendors, Fatchiah asked to speak with the commander. When he appeared, I was incredulous. This boy couldn’t be more than 19 or 20. But he was affecting the posture and tone of a seasoned veteran. When she questioned him about why he revoked the men’s privileges, he said that they were making a mess and he needed to teach them a lesson. Losing a day’s wages would do the trick. This is also common at the checkpoints. Miriam, a member of Machsom Watch for five years, cites the common practice of “educating the Palestinians” as if they were children. Later, this same commander confiscated the identification papers of four taxi drivers. He returned three but kept the fourth man’s papers without giving him a reason. When Fatchiah questioned him about this, he responded, “It is none of your concern.”

It seemed to me that he was not a figure to be despised, but rather, a little boy wearing his father’s shoes. He has so little experience in his field, but with no one to defer to, he was forced to make tough decisions anyway. I felt the same amount of empathy for him and for the taxi driver. They are both victims of a system they did not design.