Witness for the Defenseless
by: Anna Baltzer
August - September 2007
The Link - Volume 40, Issue 3
Every time I think I have understood the Israel/Palestine conflict, something will remind me how much more I have to learn. My first breakthrough came during a trip to southern Lebanon, where for the first time I heard a narrative about the state of Israel altogether different from the one I had learned growing up as a Jewish American. My grandmother, who had fled Europe and lost most of her family in the Nazi Holocaust, had always spoken of Israel as a tiny victimized country that simply wanted to live in peace but couldn’t because of its aggressive, Jew-hating Arab neighbors. Then, while traveling through the Middle East, I was taken in by a family of Palestinian refugees who told me their story of being violently expelled from their homeland, never allowed to return. They told me stories of past and present military attacks, colonization, house demolitions, imprisonment without trial, torture, and government-sponsored assassination.
At first, I didn’t believe them.
So I did my own research, and soon I realized that the stories of my friends in Lebanon were true. I realized that it was largely Israel’s aggressive actions and policies—and U.S. unconditional financial support for those actions and policies—that were precluding a just peace in the region. I felt responsible for the role my tax dollars and government were playing in the violations of international law and human rights, and I felt doubly responsible as a Jewish American, since Israel’s abuses were being carried out in the name of Jews everywhere.
Determined to see the situation for myself, I traveled to Palestine in late 2003 as a volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS), a grassroots solidarity organization dedicated to documenting and nonviolently intervening in human rights abuses in the West Bank, and to supporting Palestinian-led nonviolent resistance to the Occupation.
In spite of my research, nothing could have prepared me for witnessing firsthand the injustices that characterize Israeli rule in the West Bank, including the expansion of Jewish-only colonies on Palestinian land, the virtually unchecked brutality of soldiers and settlers against Palestinian civilians, and Israel’s Apartheid Wall, separating hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their land, jobs, hospitals, schools, and each other.
I met one family whose house was completely surrounded by the Wall—a one-family bantustan. I met Palestinians who had spent their lives in prison never having been told what crime they were accused of, nor given access to a lawyer. I helped villagers pick barley seeds boiled in rat poison out from shrubs where settlers had planted them to deter shepherds from grazing their sheep on their land. I watched soldiers uproot olive trees in the middle of the night as collective punishment on entire villages. I took reports about extrajudicial assassinations and torture. I met the family of a six-year-old boy who inhaled poisonous gas that had been shot by soldiers into his home when he was less than a year old, and he hasn’t been able to walk, talk, or eat on his own since. I saw soldiers shoot at unarmed nonviolent protesters, including internationals and Israelis. I documented a week-long invasion into Nablus, including the systematic obstruction of medical services, and the extensive use of human shields, including an eleven-year-old girl.
Those “Benign” Checkpoints
Perhaps the biggest surprise about the Occupation for me was the nature of Israel’s military checkpoints. Of all the institutions of the Occupation, checkpoints had always seemed to me the most benign. Wasn’t it natural that people be stopped to show their IDs when crossing between Israel and the West Bank, just as travelers between the U.S. and Canada have to stop on their way from one to the other? I quickly realized that the hundreds of checkpoints and other road obstructions in the West Bank were not on its border with Israel, but concentrated on Palestinian roads between Palestinian towns and villages. Also, unlike normal border crossings, not everyone had to stop at these checkpoints. Jewish settlers, their cars distinguishable by their yellow (Israeli) license plates, would breeze by hundreds of Palestinians waiting at checkpoints in their vehicles with white and green (West Bank Palestinian) plates.
During my eight months in the West Bank, I documented countless abuses at these checkpoints. I interviewed Hessa, a woman who was stopped by soldiers at the checkpoint between her village of Deir Ballut and the nearest hospital in Ramallah when she went into labor with twins. Unable to reach the hospital in time, she lost both of her babies.
Soldiers stopped my friend Dawud and his wife at Atara checkpoint as they were rushing their six-month-old son, who was having trouble breathing, to the hospital in Ramallah. Despite the parents’ screams as they watched their son begin to choke, shake, and eventually pass away, the soldiers refused to let the family pass.
I met Jaber, who was stopped at Huwwara checkpoint on his way home from the hospital in Nablus. Sick with meningitis, Jaber had strict doctor’s orders to rest in bed but was held by soldiers for ten hours in the sun without food or water.
Not all of the violations were health-related. I watched soldiers manning checkpoints beat and humiliate Palestinians. I documented additional checkpoints set up during Jewish holidays and following threats of violence from Jewish settlers. I saw the way checkpoints prevent the efficient transport of Palestinian goods. I witnessed first-hand the way checkpoints block Palestinians from reaching their homes and holy sites, in addition to their land, hospitals, and schools.