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Grandmothers on Guard

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

Even the IDF brass has come to regard Machsom Watch with grudging acceptance. Soldiers are under orders not to interfere with their activities -- the IDF recognizes that there's little to be gained from confronting Israeli grandmothers -- the group's leaders meet with top military officers, and, partly because of Machsom Watch pressure, the IDF recently established a hotline so people can report humanitarian emergencies at checkpoints. "We appreciate what they're doing. They're trying to help," insists Captain Jacob Dallal, an IDF spokesman. "At the same time, they're not completely aware of the constraints, alerts, and procedures that the soldiers have to work under."

Not everyone in Israel speaks of Machsom Watch so evenhandedly. Nadia Metar, cochair of the Women in Green, an extreme right-wing group, says that Machsom Watch is a group of "fifth columnists who collaborate with the Arab enemy." Female Jewish settlers are mounting a campaign of harassment of Machsom Watch volunteers at the checkpoints. Monitors have been slapped, punched, and threatened in recent months. In each case, they say, Israeli police and soldiers have stood by and done nothing. In May 2004, two male settlers beat up the Arab-Israeli driver of the van that shuttles the women to the checkpoints and knocked out his false teeth. Daniella Weiss, the mayor of Kedumim, part of a cluster of ideologically hardline settlements near Nablus, admits organizing attacks and says she will carry out more. "I make a lot of effort to stop their activities," Weiss said. "By their protest, they endanger the lives of people in Israel. There's no doubt that the soldiers, under the pressure of being watched, sometimes let cars go unchecked, they let people go unchecked." Weiss, who says the group's tactics imply the presence of soldiers and settlers in the West Bank "is an occupation, not liberation," says she's determined to put them out of business. Asked if she was advocating more violence against Machsom Watch, Weiss replied, "Yes, indeed."

Nursing her cappuccino in a somewhat seedy Tel Aviv café, Yehudit Keshet, a cofounder of Machsom Watch, vows to stand up to Weiss' threats. "She is trying to frighten us and stop us from doing our work, but she won't succeed," says the 61-year-old, who has the pleasantly tousled look of an NYU professor between classes. "Of course I have a desire to punch them in the mouth, but it's not productive," she says. "It's better just to ignore them, to say, 'You're meaningless. You are nothing to us.'"

Keshet knows something about the religious underpinnings of Weiss' crusade against the checkpoint monitors. She was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in South Wales, made aliya -- a migration to Israel -- as a teenager in 1958, and settled there permanently in 1974. She was an observant Jew and a Zionist, but became increasingly radicalized in the wake of the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing religious zealot. She joined Bat Shalom, a women's group that advocates withdrawal from the territories and that, along with a Palestinian counterpart, runs Jerusalem Link, a cultural series through which both peoples can "share Jerusalem."

Then came the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada. As attitudes hardened on both sides, Keshet recoiled from the militant belief increasingly espoused by many observant Jews that the West Bank -- the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria -- belonged forever to Israel. "Up to three years ago, I defined myself as an Orthodox Jew," she says. "But now I can't abide them. The Jewish sense of chosenness has overridden the notion of how we live in the land. We've got the land. Now what will we do with it? Drown it in fences, blood? Carve it up to make bypass roads?"

While many of her colleagues on the left despaired and disengaged, Keshet searched for ways to confront what she saw as the brutalization of the Palestinians and the glorification of Israel's military culture. The moment came when her friend Ronnee Jaeger, a Canadian-Israeli activist, attended a moving lecture on military checkpoints. Jaeger, Keshet, and Russian émigré Adi Kuntsman soon gathered 10 more women to go monitor the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. "We were frightened. At that point, for Israelis to challenge the IDF was a big deal," Keshet says. "This soldier said, 'What are you doing here?' Ronnee whispered, 'Don't say anything.' Then I saw the sun rising over Har Homa [settlement], and I said, 'We're here to watch the sunrise.' He said, 'Sunrise? Okay, stand here, but don't move, it's dangerous.'" Keshet and her fellow activists discovered that they could walk freely across the checkpoint, chatting up both soldiers and Palestinians. It was, she says, "an empowering moment."

Following a wave of suicide bombings, the IDF reoccupied the West Bank in 2002. As the checkpoints multiplied and the limitations on Palestinian movement became more severe, Machsom Watch's activities attracted media attention, and volunteers flocked to the group, including a few men. But Keshet quickly found that Israeli males didn't make reliable monitors. "They went to see the soldiers and after a few minutes they started talking about the 1948 war. Their relationship was totally different," she says. "They were horrified by what was going on, but at the same time they bonded with the troops." Men have since been banned from joining Machsom Watch in the field.

Asked if she thinks that Machsom Watch is making a difference, Keshet nods emphatically. "There's a lot of power in little old ladies," she says with a laugh. The discomfort the group causes the soldiers -- one recently told her, "I hope the next terrorist attack gets you" -- and the assaults by settlers are evidence, she says, that the status quo is under threat. But she doesn't underestimate the resolve of the settler fringe, "about 10 percent of the settlers in the West Bank -- the radicals, the ones who are capable of violence," she says. "They have huge stores of weaponry. If the disengagement of Gaza takes place next year, we could see a greater radicalization. So far there hasn't been any live fire [against us], but it could happen."

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