What is about to happen here constitutes deliberate exploitation of the attention given to the humiliating security check undergone by New York Times photographer Lynsey Addario. It is very likely that without the report last week about how Addario was stripped at the Erez checkpoint and the subsequent apology of the Defense Ministry, the following lines would not have been written. We won't be writing here about a Pulitzer Prize winner, but about a housekeeper, a Palestinian woman with Israeli citizenship, and about what happened to her at the Sha'ar Eliyahu checkpoint on the occupied land of Qalqilyah.
On November 9 the following email message arrived in the inbox of Machsom Watch (an Israeli women's organization that monitors West Bank checkpoints ), from Talma (the names in the article have been changed ): "I would like your help in assisting a young woman who works in my home, who underwent a humiliating intimate security check at the checkpoint on November 6. The examination was done by a female employee of a security firm, and according to the examinee, it was done rudely behind a curtain while many people were passing by ..." Thus, Hedva, a Machsom Watch activist, heard about and was able to reach the young woman, Nabila.
Hedva had difficulty interesting a journalist with whom she is in contact about this story. She left a recorded message for this writer, asking to be called back. Last Sunday the shock and anger could still be heard in her voice when she told about the woman who passed through the Sha'ar Eliyahu checkpoint, and about the exchange of letters with what is called the ground (or land crossing authority. This writer hesitated, oscillating between "Nobody will believe this story," and "Nobody will be interested in it" - although in everyday conversations the banality of the humiliation at the checkpoints always comes up.
Last Tuesday, at 7:10 A.M., Hedva phoned excitedly: On page 10 of Haaretz Hebrew edition she had discovered the report about Addario. Isn't this the right time to write about Nabila, she urged. Indeed it is.
Nabila and her four daughters, Israeli citizens, were returning from a visit to her husband and their father: a Palestinian from the West Bank. They have been married for 16 years, and their request for family reunification has been frozen. The Sha'ar Eliyahu checkpoint is intended for Israeli citizens and a handful of Palestinians who live in the gray area between the Green Line and the separation wall.
During a phone conversation on Friday night, Nabila said that, like everyone, or at least like all the Israeli Palestinians, she and her daughters entered the examination room at Sha'ar Eliyahu. Her bag and the hijab she was wearing were put in the scanning machine. The sensor on the electromagnetic gate did not beep when they went through it. Her daughters were permitted to return to the car; she was told to stand aside. Meanwhile, her blue Israeli identification card was taken from her.
After about 15 minutes she asked what was happening. She was told: "Wait." That order was repeated once every 15 minutes. Every 15 minutes she asked again about the delay, until she was told: "It's forbidden to speak to you."
In the end the security guard came, took her into a corner of the room and pulled out a curtain mounted on wheels. How many shirts are you wearing, she asked. Two, answered Nabila, who was told to remove the top one; she did so. Then she was told to remove her pants and other shirt; she did so. Then she was checked with a manual scanning device that beeped.
"Look, it's the metal in the bra," she explained to the examiner, but still the security guard demanded that she remove it. "Is there a problem? Tell me," she said in her fluent Hebrew. But the examiner replied, "I'm not allowed to talk" - and demanded that she remove her underpants and head covering as well. And then?
"Then the examiner did what you do in a gynecological examination," said Nabila, choked up. "In the hospital they ask for permission. I felt like an animal."
Nabila was shocked at the undressing and at what followed. On the way out, and afterward for an hour and a half, she couldn't stop crying.
On November 12 Hedva of Machsom Watch wrote to the ground crossing authority, a unit in the Defense Ministry. The reply to her on November 21 stated in no uncertain terms that "the passenger was not stripped naked at any stage of the examination. Nor was there any vaginal examination."
The letter also said that the woman in question was examined in accordance with normal procedures, but there was a need for an additional examination. In accordance with procedures, the woman was asked to enter a physical search booth for a continued exam. She was given an explanation of the process she had to undergo before the examination was carried out, said the letter.
"During the examination, which was done by a senior examiner, there was a warning indicator from the chest area. The woman was asked to remove her bra while her shirt remained on her body, to maintain her modesty. The employees of the checkpoint authority work very hard to ensure Israel's security while providing the best possible service to the thousands who use the crossings every day," according to the letter.
Her word against their word.
Nabila also works as a housekeeper for a policeman in the Israel Police. She told him what happened to her, and he advised her to complain. But she doesn't have the emotional strength for those processes, she says. Since then she hasn't dared to return to the crossing and visit her husband. But her main concern, she says, is for her daughters, the eldest of whom is 15.
"What guarantee do I have that the same won't happen to them?" she asks. "How will they deal with the shame and the humiliation at such a young age? How will I teach them that there's no difference between human beings, Jews and Arabs?"
P.S. Sha'ar Eliyahu is a "checkpoint" for us, because of this column's objection to euphemism. A "crossing" is usually meant for everyone, but at Sha'ar Eliyahu only Israeli citizens and tourists can cross freely. They have freedom of movement on both sides of the Green Line. Palestinians who are residents of the West Bank are not allowed to enter Israel freely. And whoever has an entry permit to Israel (always for a limited period ) is not allowed to go through a checkpoint that serves only Israelis and tourists. Furthermore, the term "crossing" deliberately gives the impression that this is a border crossing. And that is not the case here. Sha'ar Eliyahu is located deep inside the West Bank.
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