Machsom Watch was founded in January 2001 by three Jewish Jerusalemite women who saw military checkpoints around Jerusalem and in the West Bank and decided to do something about it. Now 88, Barag pursues human rights as energetically as ever.
Over the past five to ten years, she has noticed big changes at checkpoints: there are no more long lines of people. In fact, thousands of people come, they cross quickly, and the whole process is computerized.
"The Palestinians use a magnetic card to cross the checkpoint, and the gate opens,” describes Barag. “If the line is too long, many Palestinians choose to go back home.”
The digitized checkpoints have become a sadly efficient tool for making the human rights violations less visible.
“The system is computerized, dehumanizing, and rigid, and it makes life much more complicated,” explains Barag. “Something else is needed, a new reality where the Palestinians are free.”
Reflecting an age where artificial intelligence is being used to invade people’s lives, the computer systems used at checkpoints seems to know everything about any given Palestinian who is trying to cross—in itself a form of digital injustice and oppression.
“The Israeli military will tell you: look what we have done to make life easier for Palestinians, but in reality, the system is much more difficult and complicated, but you cannot see it,” says Barag. “There are over 100 types of permits.”
People who want a work permit must be of a certain age—and married. The permit may be denied if someone has a relative with a security history. And there are many other conditions on the list.
“The rules apply differently if you apply for a health permit,” says Barag. “You cannot use your work permit to accompany a family member to hospital, and if you apply for a medical permit, you must give up the work permit.”
Also, there are no printouts of permits, she added, so Palestinians must show permits on their smartphone or via magnetic cards. “Many people feel lost, and they do not know how to use the system,” says Barag, and the checkpoints close for West Bank Palestinians between 11 pm and 4 am.
“The soldiers have no right to make changes, and if we try to call the responsible persons, usually they do not answer,” says Barag.
She recalls seeing a little boy at Checkpoint 300, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. “He had lost an eye and wanted to go to Jerusalem for medical reasons,” says Barag. “He and his relative were denied entry due to a problem with their papers.”
As they looked confused, Barag helped them on the spot and they were able to enter Jerusalem. But what if she hadn’t been there that day?
Don’t make the occupation easier
“As human rights people, we must do something about this inhumane system of control,” she says. “We do not want to make the situation easier.”
She realizes this seems like a contradiction—but what she is saying, is that the occupation should not become easier to administer because humans are increasingly less visible in the process. “Let us not open the space for soldiers to operate a machine—one that is bureaucratic—and where the gates open and close remotely,” she says. “We do not want to make the occupation more palatable; we want to see an end to the occupation.”
Barag and her colleagues at Machsom Watch don’t want some kind of “middle ground.” They want to see a new reality altogether. “Sure, we help lots of Palestinians,” she says. “We work upon request, and we send the papers to the Israeli authorities.”
Approximately 70% of the cases Machsom Watch helps with end up with the “security rejection” removed and the people can get permits. “Our women know what papers are needed, but now I see the process becoming more strict due to the arrival of the new government in Israel,” she says. “We are trying to end Palestinian dependency on Israel.”
For example, there is no need for Palestinians to go to Israeli hospitals. “Yet, Israel does it because it is a form of control,” Barag says. “Palestinians have excellent doctors, but they are not allowed to run their own system independent from Israel.”
The current permit system is designed as a powerful, oppressive tool to keep people under control. “We do not want to improve the permit system,” Barag says.
Founded on values
As she looks at the history of Machsom Watch—and its current work—she sees a group of women who do not want to be part of a militaristic culture. “Most of us have served in the army, and some of the women were officers,” she says. “We want to approach the conflict from a feminist perspective, that is, to do something about it because we are women.”
Barag and the others are committed to our values, and if someone wants to donate to building settlements, they cannot join. “There is no money involved; we do it for our value system,” she says. “We do it, because we are Israeli women who want to make life more livable for Palestinians and Israelis alike.”
Barag has helped train Ecumenical Accompaniers who participate in the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. “When I speak to Ecumenical Accompaniers, I explain the system and what they are about to see,” she says. “I believe that our mission is to exert diplomatic pressure.”
She sees the Ecumenical Accompaniers go out with children who want to reach their schools safely. “Outside pressure by the Ecumenical Accompaniers is so important,” she says. “Sure, we are operating in an illogical system.”
Barag believes we must all raise awareness about the tools used by Israel to control people’s lives. “We are dealing with a sad reality, when the army knows everything about you,” she says. “Even if you get a permit, you may be turned back at the checkpoint for unknown reasons.”
The regulations are in Hebrew—and it’s complicated, she added. “It is an entire system of control, and even me, after all those years, sometimes I feel surprised,” she says. “The Ecumenical Accompaniers come for three months and with good intentions—they want to do something about the situation here.”
She is grateful to the Ecumenical Accompaniers for leaving their good lives behind, and for being away from their families and friends so that they can become witness to a difficult situation. "I admire the Ecumenical Accompaniers,” she says. “When they go with the shepherds who do not speak Hebrew, and they encounter a settler, their presence helps protect the shepherds.”
Most of all, Barag wants to tell the world: end to the occupation and restrict Israel’s actions against the Palestinians.
“I want the world to know more about the living conditions of the Palestinians and the control system they are subjected to,” she says. “There are many young Israelis, in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, between the age of 30 and 50 years old, who are against the occupation, but they are busy raising their children and paying mortgages. At Machsom Watch, the average age is 70 years old, so we have the time to do it.”