Milton Viorst on Israel’s Tragic Predicament
Posted on Feb 1, 2008
“I was in a ghetto,” said a gray-haired Jewish woman demonstrating with David Shulman at the wall. “I was a young woman in Poland when they fenced us in. Then I was sent to Majdanek. I survived and came here. I know what a ghetto is. That’s why I am holding this sign.”
The wall, however, is only one part of an elaborate system of control created by the army, bringing Palestinian social life, along with the local economy, to a virtual halt. Palestinians suspected of terrorism, along with “collateral” victims, are killed almost daily in a program of “targeted assassinations.” Israeli prisons, which have locked up an estimated 700,000 Palestinians since 1967, at any given moment hold some 10,000, most of them without charges. Over local and international protests, the army performs hundreds of home demolitions a year, a form of collective punishment usually inflicted on families whose children it has arrested. Meanwhile, the network of settlers’ highways, lined with barbed wire to stop pedestrian crossings, has effectively divided the West Bank into enclaves, isolating segments of the population from one another. No family can escape the system. In making clear that the Palestinian state it envisaged would consist of these separated cantons, Israel promised to link them with roads and tunnels for the use of Arabs alone. Not surprisingly, the Palestinians said they were not interested.
Under Sharon, at the start of the second intifada, the army took a major step further: It enlarged to more than 500 its web of checkpoints throughout the interior of the West Bank. Most sit within Arab towns or between Arab villages or outside Arab schools or clinics or mosques. Getting through them requires permits issued by the security services, reminiscent of those required of blacks under the old South African regime. At times, the quid pro quo for these permits is collaboration with the authorities, sowing further social divisions. Young soldiers with little supervision man the checkpoints; if they are not actually trained to intimidate and humiliate, that is how they behave. Passing a checkpoint may take hours; mothers have lost sick children en route to clinics; fathers are berated in front of their children; complainers often wind up in detention pens after their papers are confiscated. Conceivably checkpoints protect Jewish settlements, but almost all are too far from the border to have an impact on the security of Israel itself. The only real function of the checkpoints, experts agree, is to disrupt Palestinian life.
Machsom (checkpoint in Hebrew) Watch is the best known of the monitors of the security system. It is an organization of several hundred Israeli women, many of them elderly, who in 2001 responded to press narratives of growing violations of decency. “Everything we Israelis take for granted,” says a Machsom Watch report, ”— love and family, earning a living, developing a career, education, health, community life—are luxuries [for the Palestinians] ... contingent on the whims of the occupation.”
Each day, women of Machsom Watch deploy at 40 or so checkpoints, where they act as observers, and sometimes as intermediaries between Palestinians and soldiers. They try to be problem solvers, using a soft approach, the women say, and so they deny membership to men, whom they fear might be too confrontational. Sometimes, the soldiers shout “Go home, Grandma,” if not some serious vilification. The Palestinians are mystified about why these Israeli women would place themselves in jeopardy in their behalf. The women explain that their objective is not just humane treatment for a victimized people but, as Jewish women, an end to the corrosion of conscience of the young, uniformed Israelis who are being coarsened by the occupation experience.
To explain why he and fellow activists, like the women of Machsom Watch, leave their warm homes to subject themselves to vituperation and sometimes personal peril, Shulman also conveys the thought that their concern is not just the Palestinians but Israel.
These books reaffirm that, in Israel, hope remains alive, flickering, even dark though it may be. But they leave in doubt how widely the convictions of their writers about what it means to be a Jew, and even what it means to be human, are spread through Israeli society. The conflict continues, and it not clear which side will prevail.
Milton Viorst, the author of six books and many articles on the Middle East, has covered the region for 40 years. His most recent book is “Storm From the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West.”
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