The organization known as Machsom Watch has been in existence for over ten years. Since its first tentative steps as a small group of humanitarian feminists who wanted to protect the human and civil rights of Palestinians it has grown in numbers, is less radically feminist, but is still confined to women. Curious to see what they did, I joined a group of five early one morning. The women were all of a certain age and belonged to a specific (middle-class, Ashkenazi, secular) segment of the population. Since that is the category into which I fall, too, I felt quite at home in with them.
Our first stop that chilly morning was Checkpoint 300, also known as Rachel’s Checkpoint due to its proximity to the site of Rachel’s Tomb. We stood and watched as hundreds of Palestinian men filed through electronic barriers where their documents were checked. Soldiers, some of them still in their teens, checked the papers and made sure that everything went without a hitch.
Every Palestinian worker must have a green ID card, issued by the Palestinian Authority, as well as an electronic card and a work permit, issued at the behest of his employer. I did not sense any tension or antagonism in the process, and everything appeared to be going smoothly. Once through the barrier the men boarded buses provided by the employers or began walking towards Jerusalem.
If you are a Palestinian man and want a permit to work in Israel you must be married and have at least one child. If you are the close relative of someone who has been arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity, nationalist sympathies, or stone-throwing, your work permit can be taken away from you, in which case you are ‘blacklisted.’ I was told of an instance in which three brothers who had been working in Israel for several years were blacklisted after their teenage brother was arrested for throwing stones.
This is an area in which the women of Machsom Watch have become proficient, as there is a process of appeal against being blacklisted. The various procedures, including filling in forms and even appearing before a special administrative court at which the military authority is required to justify the blacklisting, are difficult if not impossible for the average Palestinian manual labourer to master. Some of the women I met can speak some Arabic and it was very touching to see the burly labourers come over to one of the women to ask for her help in solving some administrative problem or other. In many cases they know them by name, and speak to her as a friend. Some 70 percent of those blacklisted get their work permits back after Machsom Watch’s intervention.
After spending an hour at Checkpoint 300, we drove through the Etzion tunnel and the hilly countryside to the Etzion Bloc, to the office of the District Coordinator Liaison. This is the administrative centre where youngsters wishing to start working come to get their initial permit. In order to work in one of the settlements the requirements for obtaining a permit are less rigid, and this is where many youngsters find employment. This is also where special permits are issued to Palestinians who need to enter Israel in order to attend hospital.
The building where the men wait is equipped with seating and even air-conditioning. Specific days are allocated to specific villages, and while the system seems to be working it is laborious and time-consuming.
However, when I look back to my early days in Israel I recall what seemed to me at the time to be complex and mistrustful bureaucratic procedures that often left me frustrated and tearful. If you are a foreigner, it’s not easy to get a work permit in any European country or the USA. All over the world bureaucracy is rampant, but in Israel it is augmented by the need to maintain security and protect the civilian population.
But at least I didn’t have to go through the experience every day.
(This article first appeared in the AJR Journal)