Summary:

The Israel-based Machsom Watch monitors and disseminates reports on Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, with the ultimate aim of “ending the occupation.” Machsom Watch publications regularly omit the context of terror and employ human rights terminology, “apartheid” rhetoric and emotive and politically charged language that contribute to the demonization of Israel.  In many cases, their allegations are either inaccurate or unverifiable. Machsom Watch is funded by private donors, the New Israel Fund and the EU.

Background:

Machsom Watch (also known as “Checkpoint Watch” / “Women’s Fund for Human Rights” / “Women for Human Rights” / “Women Against the Occupation” / “Women of the Checkpoints”) was established in January 2001 “in response to repeated reports in the press about human rights abuses of Palestinians crossing army and border police checkpoints”. Its stated goals are “to monitor the behavior of soldiers and police at checkpoints; to ensure that the human and civil rights of Palestinians attempting to enter Israel are protected; to record and report the results of our observations to the widest possible audience, from the decision-making level to that of the general public.”  On the New Israel Fund website, Machsom Watch claims another main goal of "end[ing] the Occupation."

This project has the potential to promote good practice at checkpoints, and increase awareness of the complexities of balancing Palestinian rights to dignity and freedom of movement, with Israeli rights to life and security.  However, Machsom Watch's strong political agenda and its distorted approach to and portrayal of events at the checkpoints, undermine its credibility, and reveal its core anti-Israel ideology.

Machsom Watch was founded by three Israeli women: Ronnee Jaeger, a Canadian social worker formerly active in Friends of Pioneering Israel and New Jewish Agenda; Adi Kuntsman a 1990 immigrant from the former Soviet Union, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D in sociology and gender studies at Lancaster University; and UK-born Yehudit Keshet, who has been involved in a variety of groups, from the Communist Party to Bat Shalom.

Membership in Machsom Watch is open exclusively to Israeli women. The organization acknowledges its “definite bias towards mature, professional women”. Although it claims to be “politically pluralistic”, “opposition to the occupation” is a prerequisite for membership. According to its website, Machsom Watch has 400 members throughout Israel.

Description of Activities:

Machsom Watch members spend 3-4 hour shifts in small groups, at checkpoints throughout the West Bank, observing the interaction between Israeli soldiers or border police and Palestinians.  They often document their observations as photographs or videos, and occasionally intervene with an Israeli officer on behalf of Palestinians. After each shift, they compose reports in Hebrew and English that are distributed to Knesset members, military commanders, High Court judges, the State Comptroller, other human rights organizations and the public.   Machsom Watch’s website also features an exhibition of photographs taken at the checkpoints (see below for an analysis of the manipulation of these images to misrepresent events).

Funding:

Machsom Watch does not publicize its sources of funding nor its total budget, but accepts donations through the New Israel Fund, which acts as a fiscal agent, administering contributions from external sources and individual donors. The New Israel Fund also donates to Machsom Watch directly, though it refuses to reveal the sum[1]. This organization, whose stated mission is to fight for civil and human rights, promote religious tolerance and pluralism, as well as close the social and economic gaps in Israeli society, often funds politicized NGOs which fuel the conflict or which seek to end the status of Israel as a Jewish state. In 2005, Machsom Watch received €60,000 from the EU, as part of the “Partnership for Peace” program.

Highly Politicized Agenda:

Machsom Watch reports often deviate away from describing events at the checkpoints. Through omission of context, use of pseudo-legal terminology and emotive language, many reports become a platform for the author's radical political views.

Writing of the targeted killing of terrorists, on August 31 – September 6, 2003, Machsom Watch celebrates the “fortunately failed” attempts that week to assassinate Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Isma’il Haniyeh (both senior terrorists responsible for a number of suicide bombings, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs).  The report lists the number and ages of the Palestinian casualties of these operations, but omits Hamas’ ongoing terror war against Israelis, and describes IDF actions as "revenge." In another report, “Invisible Prisoners” from April 2007, Machsom Watch describes the Palestinians as

“victims of collective punishment meted out in a complex scheme of oppression which is typical of tyrannical regimes elsewhere in the world. How did it happen that the Jewish nation, itself the eternal victim of persecution for generation upon generation, dreamt up and created such a dismal reality in the back yard of its own state?”

Such statements implicitly draw a parallel between Israel and Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa, demonizing Israel with no factual basis.

Omission of Context:

Machsom Watch reports regularly omit the context of terror and claim that the presence of checkpoints is arbitrary, unrelated to the security situation and created solely to disrupt the Palestinians’ daily lives, hinder their business and humiliate them. In her report “Systematic Abuse by Administrative Means: A Matter of Policy?”, Tsilli Goldenberg claims that “this entire arrangement [of checkpoints] bears no connection whatsoever to the security of Israeli citizens.”[2] Such statements are misleading, based entirely on the Palestinian perspective and not supported by fact.  Don Morris of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East explains in his January 23, 2005 article, “Understanding Israeli Checkpoints,” that checkpoints constitute a necessary and effective measure for preventing terrorists from attacking civilians inside Israel. Prior to the outbreak of violence, there were no checkpoints and Palestinians could move around Israel and the West Bank freely.  According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the first 6 months of 2005, "389 Palestinians, among these potential suicide bombers… wanted terrorists and those suspected of terror activities," were apprehended at checkpoints.  This crucial security aspect is ignored by Machsom Watch.

In its December 2006 report, Machsom Watch accuses Israel of implementing “draconian regulations,” including the law prohibiting the transportation of West Bank Palestinians in Israeli cars. The report omits the fact that this rule was issued following several instances of Palestinian terrorists using Israeli drivers to cross checkpoints, enter Israel and carry out terror attacks, according to the Shin Bet Security Services and the IDF. Although this explanation appears as the rationale in the text of the law which Machsom Watch cited in its report, the NGO's analysis completely ignores the terror threat and criticizes Israel for this new measure.[3]

Pseudo-Legal Terminology:

Machsom Watch members routinely employ the rhetoric of human rights law in order to condemn Israel. In her article “Checkpoint witnesses” that appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Amelia Thomas quotes Adi Dagan, Machsom Watch’s spokesperson, who claims that the system of checkpoints “violates international law.”[4] Furthermore, in her article “On Founding Machsom Watch,” Yehudit Kirstein-Keshet refers to “abuse” and “human rights violations at checkpoints”, and accuses Israel of “collective punishment, pure racism, violation of freedom of worship, and cruelty”.[5] These terms are not defined, nor applied universally to the situation. They are merely employed to provide a veneer of legality to Machsom Watch's political position against Israel.

Similarly, Machsom Watch’s December 2006 report begins with the subtitle “Apartheid?” but no evidence is provided for the existence of such a state in Israel. Phrases such “the apartheid roads and checkpoints” merely serve as slogans, to draw a parallel between Israel and Apartheid South Africa and to promote the “Durban Strategy”.

Emotive Language:

Machsom Watch reports frequently employ emotionally charged language in order to demonize all Israeli actions at checkpoints. In her February 24, 2006 article, “Where Do you Draw the Line?” Esti Tsal’s states: “Now I see sharp and clear. The sight is anything but simple. It's cruel. … you're in another world. Neglected, tense, unstable. Lawless. With a different body language of dominator and dominated." In a 2003 report, “Systematic Abuse by Administrative Means: A Matter of Policy?" one mention is made of the "suicide bomb attack" which prompted additional security at the checkpoint, but such factors are overwhelmingly ignored in the nearly 4000 word piece, which includes the description that, "all of the stories speak of humiliation and simple harassment, of the indescribable suffering of an entire population that wants to live its life with dignity and is unable to do so."[6]  Furthermore in the summary of their observations for July 2007, Machsom Watch members cynically describe the Bethlehem checkpoint as a site enfolded by “Orwellian language,” with its negative evocation of an invisible controller.  This interpretation ignores the fact that decreased interaction with the Israeli soldiers has been identified as an improvement toward a more dignified and efficient way of running checkpoints.  

Affiliation with Other NGOs:

Machsom Watch is a member of the “Coalition of Women for Peace”, which conducts highly politicized campaigns to further its stated goal of "support[ing] … human rights and a just peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”   The first of its nine principles is “an end to the occupation,” but an end to terror does not appear as one of its goals.  Machsom Watch members regularly participate in events sponsored by the “Coalition of Women for Peace”, including a 2006 “Call for International actions against the siege on Gaza,” which demanded that “Israel and the international community … respect the political choice of the Palestinian people” and declared that “the siege is sowing anarchy and death in Gaza.” This campaign urged dialogue with Hamas and ignored Palestinian infighting, blaming the internal situation in Gaza entirely on Israel.

Machsom Watch has signed several petitions with the aim of changing Israeli policy. For instance, along with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Public Committee against Torture in Israel, HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, Gisha, Physicians for Human Rights and Bimkom Planners for Planning Rights, Machsom Watch signed the petition initiated by Yesh Din on January 7, 2007 against the ban on transporting Palestinians in Israeli vehicles in the West Bank, which was submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court. These NGOs claimed that “the Directive implements an ideology of 'segregation'" and "creates an apartheid regime, as well as a regime of persecution of a national group, both of which constitute international crimes.” However, the context of terror that necessitated this law was overlooked and even denied, as demonstrated by the statement that “the chief purpose of the Directive is to create segregation and discrimination, and not to preserve security.”  The negative connotations associated with the term “apartheid” due to its South African origins distort the reality of the situation in Israel, while the use of pseudo-legal terminology to support its case and demonize Israel demonstrates Machsom Watch’s pursuit of the “Durban Strategy.”

In its reports, Machsom Watch takes advantage of the “Halo Effect” (the high regard in which NGOs are held in public opinion), often citing statements made by other politicized NGOs, such as the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). In turn, other NGOs rely on Machsom Watch’s reports and use its photographs taken at the checkpoints as evidence of Israeli aggression.

Machsom Watch lists several organizations on its “Links” page, including B’Tselem, Adalah, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Gisha. It has also collaborated with lawyers from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) on its latest project dealing with blacklisted Palestinians. NGO Monitor has issued reports on these organizations, detailing their unbalanced, politicized approach to the conflict.

Videos and Photographic Exhibition:

Machsom Watch has a record of deliberately propagating inaccurate information based on visual materials gathered at the checkpoints

On November 9, 2004, a Palestinian man was filmed playing his violin at a checkpoint. Machsom Watch publicized the video in the media, accusing the Israeli soldiers of forcing him to perform in order to humiliate him. It later emerged that he had only been asked to open his violin case (to ensure that it did not contain explosives) and that the Watchers were not close enough to hear the conversation between the soldier and the man.[7] This unscientific interpretation of visual information based on speculations and false assumptions raises questions about the credibility of Machsom Watch’s reports.

Machsom Watch's website features an exhibition (from 2006) of over a hundred and thirty photographs entitled Endless Checkpoints: Photographs Taken by Machsom Watch Women. The photo descriptions encapsulate Machsom Watch’s ideology, using the same techniques apparent throughout its reports and website.  These include omission of context ("the regime practiced at the checkpoints is arbitrary and random"), legal human rights terminology ("collective punishment") and emotive language (“the scars will remain with us for the generations to come”).

The exhibition has been presented in public galleries in many Israeli cities. Be’er Sheva mayor Ya’akov Turner banned Machsom Watch from exhibiting the photographs in the local Teachers’ Center, claiming that the contents of the exhibition were “harmful to the sensitivities of the public.” This decision was upheld by the Be’er Sheva District Court, after the city’s attorney, Elisha Peleg, stated that the exhibit constitutes “political propaganda whose aim is ‘to undermine the moral right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state in the land of Israel’.” The Israeli High Court refused to interfere with the mayor’s decision, despite an appeal submitted by Machsom Watch in April 2006, complaining that the ban infringed upon the organization’s freedom of expression.

Below are two representative examples of the distortions deliberately created by the exhibition.  The final chapter of the exhibition is entitled “body language” and aims to show that the Israeli soldiers present themselves as masters over the Palestinians. However, this impression of Israeli supremacy is not apparent in the picture, but created through the manipulation of the photograph, or through techniques such as perspective, layout and composition.


                  Figure 1                                                   Figure 2

                     

The photograph Beit Iba Checkpoint: God and Men’s [sic] Hands: Checking an I.D. (December 2004)by Esti Tsal (figure 1) evokes Michelangelo’s painting of The Creation of Adam (1512).  The viewer is directed to identify the Israeli soldier with God, and the Palestinian man with Adam. In the original photograph taken by Tsal (figure 2), the Israeli soldier and the Palestinian civilian are aligned horizontally, just as in Michelangelo’s mural. Yet, for the purposes of this exhibition, the picture was rotated by 90 degrees to the right, dissolving the balance and equality among the protagonists, and creating an artificial hierarchal relationship, with the Israeli at the top. The cropping of the picture also contributes to a false impression of Israeli domination. We see neither of the men’s faces, human beings’ most expressive feature.  Both men may be smiling, but we are denied this view and left to deduce the nature of their interaction from the position of their hands. In sum, the representation of Israeli control over the Palestinian civilians is not objective, but artificially constructed through the rotation of the photograph and arbitrary cropping. This modified picture appears three times, first as part of the title page of chapter twelve, then as a background for the synopsis and finally on its own as an object in the exhibition.

Figure 3

The misrepresentation of photographs in order to portray the Israeli soldiers as aggressors and the Palestinian civilians as victims is again apparent in Huwwara Checkpoint: A Taxi Driver Attacked by a Soldier and Pushed to the Ground (2004), also by Esti Tsal (figure 3), featured in chapter seven, “Violence at the Checkpoints”. Once again, the title is misleading and is not supported by the poses of the figures. The soldier stands upright with both hands on his gun barrel (pointing to the ground), while a Palestinian man lies on his back and stretches out his arm for the soldier to help him up. If the soldier had just pushed the man to the ground, he would be leaning forward and at least one of his hands would be outstretched. In addition, the Palestinian man would appeal to his Palestinian comrades for help and not to the Israeli soldier. Moreover, the other Palestinian men are standing around in all kinds of relaxed poses, leaning on the railing or on each other’s shoulders, not in the least alarmed or fearful, and do not rush to help their companion up. One of the men, standing on the left in the white shirt, even appears to be laughing, but covers his mouth with his hand. In fact, it seems that the man on his back is just lying down to rest in the shade, until the Israeli soldier announces that his turn has come to cross the checkpoint, and so the Palestinian man asks him for help in getting up. Yet the caption condemns the Israeli soldier and accuses him of aggression toward the Palestinian. 

Conclusion:

Machsom Watch’s stated goal of protecting the human rights of Palestinians passing through Israeli checkpoints is admirable. However, in reality, Machsom Watch pursues a political campaign against the Israeli government and military, with the aim of “ending the occupation”. Its omission of the context of terror, as well as its use of legal human rights vocabulary, “apartheid” rhetoric and emotive language contribute to the demonization and delegitimization of Israel. The work of Machsom Watch would be much more effective if it reported accurately, and promoted human rights universally, recognizing the difficulties in balancing Israeli rights to life and security, and Palestinian human rights.

 

Endnotes:

1.In our telephone conversation of October 25, 2007, NIF representative Liora Halivni would not say how much NIF gives to Machsom Watch from its own budget."

2. Tsilli Goldenberg, “Systematic Abuse by Administrative Means: A Matter of Policy? A Report on the Operational Practices of the Civil Administration in Occupied Palestinian Territories”, Machsom Watch, 2003. Available: http://www.machsomwatch.org/docs/civilAdministra
tion.asp?link=summaries&lang=eng

3. “MachsomWatch Observations During December 2006”, Machsom Watch. Available: http://www.machsomwatch.org/docs/monthlyReports/December2006Eng.asp?link=
summaries&lang=eng

4. Amelia Thomas, “Checkpoint Witnesses,” The Christian Science Monitor, June 7, 2006. Available: http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0607/p13s02-wome.html

5. Yehudit Kirstein-Keshet, “On Founding Machsom Watch,” originally published in Hedva Isachar’s Sisters in Peace, Feminist Voices of the Left, Resling, 2003. Available: http://www.gilasvirsky.com/yehuditkeshet.html

6. Tsilli Goldenberg, “Systematic Abuse by Administrative Means: A Matter of Policy? A Report on the Operational Practices of the Civil Administration in Occupied Palestinian Territories”, Machsom Watch, 2003. Available: http://www.machsomwatch.org/docs/civilAdministration.asp?
link=summaries&lang=eng

7. NGO Monitor, “Machsom Watch Reports Distorted by Political Bias”, December 15, 2004. Available: http://www.ngo-monitor.org/article/_machsom_watch_reports_distorted_by_political_bias_