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Grandmothers on Guard

At checkpoints in the West Bank, Israeli women are monitoring how the soldiers treat Palestinians.

He Huwwara checkpoint just south of Nablus simmers with routine misery on a sweltering August afternoon. A long line of Palestinians wait to enter the West Bank's largest city as Israeli troops regard them, stone-faced, from behind a barrier of concrete blocks and sandbags. The troops let the women and children through, but send those Palestinians who've not been granted travel permits -- almost all young men -- to a fenced-off detention area topped by a corrugated iron roof. The jora, or pit, is a West Bank purgatory: a pen where Palestinians often languish for hours until they have been cleared by Israel's internal security arm, the Shin Bet.

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Amid the jora's sea of men, an elderly woman hobbles around. Frail and sweating, her head draped in a gray hijab, the woman appeals to the soldiers. Proffering a tattered medical receipt, she explains that her son Mohammed, 25, managed to sneak out of Nablus without a travel permit to accompany her to the doctor in Ramallah. On their way home, he was detained, and she won't leave without him, even though her doctor ordered her to stay out of the heat.

Suddenly, two middle-aged Israeli women walk past the barricade, attracting a mix of curious and hostile glances from the soldiers. Wearing floppy sun hats, khakis, and tennis shoes, Menucha Moravitz, 54, and Roni Klein, 55, look more suited to brunch at a beachfront café in fashionable north Tel Aviv than to this dust-choked bottleneck deep inside the West Bank. Moravitz, a sociology teacher at Open University in Tel Aviv, listens to the woman's complaint. "This is absurd," Moravitz says. "The soldiers have a list of wanted men, but they don't even bother to check it. It's easier to put young men in the holding pen for hours and deal with them when they get around to it." She walks toward a swarthy Israeli soldier at the barricade. "I know this soldier," she mutters. "I met him two weeks ago. He's not nice at all." Moravitz begs the soldier to speed up Mohammed's clearance, but he remains unmoved. "If we're lenient and allow him through, tomorrow all of them will come with their mothers," he says with a shrug.

For nearly two years, Moravitz has periodically commuted from her comfortable Israeli suburb of Ramat Gan across the Green Line to military checkpoints within the West Bank. Visiting these junctions of Israeli suspicion and Palestinian resentment is an activity that most Israelis would find incomprehensible. But as conditions in the occupied territories have deteriorated, more and more women like Moravitz -- middle-aged, with a liberal or leftist background and time on their hands -- are joining the ranks of Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch. Founded in 2001 by three veteran women peace activists, the group's volunteer monitors now number more than 400, and their meticulously detailed reports of checkpoint abuses -- published daily on its website -- have become required reading for both the media and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

According to B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights watchdog group, there are more than 40 manned checkpoints inside the West Bank -- forbidding barricades designed to regulate the movement of Palestinians between their towns and villages. Israel maintains that such internal barriers are vital to its security, crippling the ability of Palestinian militant networks to communicate, and preventing the smuggling of suicide bombs into Israel. (The completion of Israel's 425-mile-long security wall, due by the end of 2004, should eliminate the need for many checkpoints, military spokespeople say.) But human rights groups charge the checkpoints are a gratuitous form of humiliation, and that Israel's severe restrictions on movement -- such as the routine denial of permits to young Palestinian men -- amount to collective punishment that goes far beyond security concerns. "If they would just check people to make sure they're not carrying bombs, we wouldn't object," says Adi Dagan, a Machsom Watch spokeswoman. "The problem is that the barriers serve as limitations on movement, and have a drastic effect on lives of Palestinians. Palestinians don't get to university, to work, to hospitals -- the checkpoints totally disrupt civil life."

Machsom Watch has exposed a pattern of abuses at the checkpoints that the group says feeds the rage that leads to the terrorism they're supposed to prevent. In late July, for example, a 26-year-old university student named Muhammad Cana'an was kicked, beaten, and shot in the arm by an Israeli soldier, apparently without provocation, at a checkpoint near Nablus. After Machsom Watch witnesses reported the incident to the media and the IDF, the soldier was taken into custody -- one of the few times since the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada, in September 2000, that the army has taken action against one of its own. Two days later, several Machsom Watch women near Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah reported that troops had stoned and smashed the windows of a Palestinian taxi. The army, under pressure from the group, imprisoned two of the soldiers -- one for 56 days, the other for 42. "I think they're doing a terrific service," said one Israeli reservist officer who asked not to be identified. "We're a bunch of fascist bastards. The only thing that stops us from looking totally criminal is that the other side is even worse than we are."

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