If it's Sunday night chances are Susan Laurenco is having a hard time getting to sleep. She's a volunteer for Machsom Watch who has been monitoring checkpoints in the West Bank nearly every weekend for 5 years. Members of Machsom (Hebrew for "barrier") sign up for shifts to witness and document the struggles Palestinians face every day. The work has an emotional weight that can induce insomnia.
Susan tells us that Qalqilya, a city in the area we monitored this week, was once called the "City of Peace" by its inhabitants. Since the Second Intifada its people dropped the nickname as it became completely surrounded by the wall and bottle-necked into a single checkpoint restricting movement, impeding everything from daily life to emergencies that might involve an ambulance or fire truck.
Contrary to what most people think the checkpoints that cause the most strife are not on Israeli-Palestinian borders, but within the occupied territories. Qalqilya has had to go through an economic overhaul since checkpoints were erected. These barriers separate people from work, children from school, and families from each other. Like most cities in the area, Qalqilya created an agricultural-based economy using the beautiful and fertile land. Today these places suffer because the barricades have also divided the land in ways that interfere with developing the soil for farming and animal movement for grazing.
One reason people probably believe the cross-border checkpoints are more disruptive than those within the West Bank is the visual contrast. Unlike the prominent walls designed to physically and mentally imprison Palestinians on the border, the barriers within the West Bank are wire-link fences which are comparatively invisible especially from the settler colonies in the distance that are designed to "protect". Israel is one giant military base and the occupied territories are its brigs.
In 2003, when I spent time in the brig for being the first public conscientious objector to the occupation of Iraq, I went from being imprisoned by wire fences to being held behind large concrete walls. Traveling around Israel and Palestine during the Dialogues Against Militarism (DAM) delegation, it has felt like I've transferred back and forth from military base to prison several times. In both the brig and in the West Bank the walls were more ominous but in many ways I felt more free than when I was stationed on a base or while in Israel. My liberty was restricted severely but I did have the liberty to follow my conscience; I was free not to kill or die for an immoral and unjust war. While in Israel I felt burdened with the knowledge that by spending sheckels I was somewhat contributing to an oppressive occupation.
When I talk about being imprisoned I usually say that it really wasn't that bad. In the end it was much better to serve six months in the brig than spend six months+seven months+ nine months... on multiple tours in Iraq. Some Marines have spent over 36 months total on their third or fourth tour due to extensions, and war is a hell that imprisons far longer than after a tour of duty ends.
Palestinians suffer more from the occupation, but Israelis suffer as well. To cope with the guilt of being governed by a nation that occupies their neighbors, some Israelis choose to remain ignorant about what's happening in their own backyards, others are compelled to develop religious excuses for setting up apartheid systems. All the while generations are growing up under unjust treatment breeding anger and resentment and ironically making Israel less safe. Much like in the U.S. other Israelis choose instead to take responsibility and work against the crimes being committed by their government.
Susan and other volunteers at Machsom Watch may not be able to sleep at night, but their important work along other activists we have met during the DAM delegation are vital pieces to solving the puzzle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.