Machsom Watch Founder Reflects on Her Occupational Hazards

Since 2004, Hagit Back has been documenting the realities of the occupation on the Palestinian people in the West Bank. Haaretz joined her on the roads less traveled.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

She calls herself “the social worker of the occupation.” Since founding the southern branch of Machsom Watch – Women for Human Rights in 2004, Hagit Back, 60, has notched a string of small victories with her now 20-strong group. The one major victory we hoped for, and could practically touch, faded some time ago, but that doesn’t mean she has let up. She keeps going full steam ahead, with unflagging energy.

A typical Sunday morning at her home in Omer, near Be’er Sheva – where she lives with her husband Shlomo, an education professor – begins with a call for help from a Palestinian in trouble. At 9 A.M., a Bedouin from the Negev town of Lakiya calls on the phone, and he sounds agitated. He signed as a guarantor for a Palestinian, from the village of Dura, near Hebron, who is supposed to be standing trial in Be’er Sheva at 10:30 A.M. But there’s a problem. The Palestinian did not obtain an entry permit from the District Coordination Liaison Office, and will not show up. If the judge rules that the Bedouin must pay the bond money, it will be a disaster, since he hasn’t a shekel.

“He begged me to help him get the trial date changed. I managed to find a lawyer who will represent him for free. Now I need to deal with the entry permit for the Palestinian from Hebron,” Back says calmly. Routine stuff.

I heard about Back from Ron Barkai, a writer and Tel Aviv University expert in medieval history, who toured Hebron and the South Hebron Hills with her a few weeks ago. He spoke admiringly of Back’s energy and ability to communicate with all parties: the soldiers at the checkpoint, the settlers and the Palestinians. (Machsom means checkpoint or roadblock in Hebrew.)

We meet at the Be’er Sheva train station. Back is a very small woman, just 1.45 meters tall. “I’m the shortest one in a family of very short people. Relative to them I’m a midget,” she laughs. We didn’t speak much about the reason for this, something about her bone structure that doctors discovered when she was 12, but that does not affect her health.

At the wheel of the van with a yellow ‏(Israeli‏) license plate is Mohammed, 33, from Lakiya. He serves as the driver for the activists of Machsom Watch’s southern group.

There are no planned stops, unless something is happening in the field – such as hastily erected, surprise roadblocks or patrolling police cars. Back explains that we’ve turned toward Highway 60, which begins in Be’er Sheva and ends in Nazareth, and is also known as the ancient “Road of the Mountain” or “Road of the Forefathers” that traversed the land from top to bottom.

Early in the morning, all was quiet at the Meitar Crossing ‏(Sansana‏). Palestinian workers pass through here. “If it was bad or they were harassed, they call,” Back explains. As she moves about, she keeps track of everything in her head. She carries no map and no notebook.

A few buses have brought visitors from prisoners’ families. A new fence has been built by the shelter where the laborers wait on their way to pass through the turnstile and corridors that will eventually lead to another day of work in Israel. This morning there are about 3,500 cars parked here belonging to Palestinians with entry permits for Israel.

“By the increase in the number of cars, you can see there’s been an improvement in the standard of living for residents of Palestine,” she notes.

The parking lot is strewn with plastic bags and litter; the source of the pollution lies in the nearby Nahal Hebron. While we are here, an attractive, neatly dressed young Palestinian woman passes by. Her movements are assured, as if she isn’t facing various stages of inspection and ugly iron fences. Back asks the drivers there how the morning has been. One complains that he can’t make a living because he’s barred from entry by the Shin Bet security service.

“The architecture of evil inside the cage bothers me,” Back says. In a report on the Machsom Watch website she notes: “There is nothing new under the sun and no horror stories, just the same awful ugliness and ingrained attitude.”

‘Normal and humane Israelis’

How is it possible that, after nearly a decade operating around Hebron, Back still doesn’t speak Arabic? “My lack of knowledge of Arabic unwittingly perpetuates what I’m fighting against,” she says. “Even though I try not to be a ‘living-room leftist,’ the fact that I’m not fluent in Arabic situates me precisely there. I don’t feel guilty though, because I am doing a lot more than the ‘living room leftists.’ I’m concentrating on the political aspect of action. Have you ever seen a happy Sisyphus? Someone who keeps rolling the boulder up the hill over and over again, and is content? The more manifestations of racism appear in Israel, the more committed I feel.

“Who’s waiting for victories anymore?” she asks. “When I started my activity in Machsom Watch, I was sure the occupation would end and peace would come. That was my megalomaniacal thinking. I was certain that if we described the injustices of the occupation, people with common sense would be influenced. That it would have an effect like you see in the movies. Apparently there’s been no effect.”

And what about the small victories?

“I want to keep the candle burning, so the Palestinians will see normal and humane Israelis. Perhaps through my actions I’m reducing their terrorism and hatred. Maybe I’ll be an olive tree in the Palestinians’ holocaust museum. One mustn’t compare, I know. Human rights are an integral part of my security outlook. When former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar decided that schoolchildren should go on tours of Hebron, I decided we needed to keep this going full force.”

On a six-hour tour of Hebron and the South Hebron Hills − another activist from Be’er Sheva, Tzipi Zagofsky, joined us − Back did not miss a single settlement, illegal outpost or disputed area. Her information is extensive, but visitors must see everything in order to get a full picture.

At the start, even before the Meitar Crossing, she points out the Tene Omarim settlement, situated on a ridge and being marketed to settlers as a kind of utopia offering quality of life in a special rural atmosphere − and just 20 minutes from Be’er Sheva. In 2005, some families that were evacuated from Gush Katif moved there. The Meitar Crossing was supposed to serve as a border between a future state of Palestine and Israel. Today, goods are transferred in both directions. There used to be trained dogs at the checkpoint to sniff the Arabs’ vehicles. Now a machine does the job.

The white van makes its way to the intersection of Highway 60 and Highway 317 near the settlement of Shema. Later we pass by Sussia, Ma’on and Carmel. To the right is the illegal outpost Asael, home to 13 families. It may be illegal, but that hasn’t stopped the Egged bus company from erecting a stop there (as yet without a name). The flag of the Har Hebron Regional Council waves alongside the Israeli flag, and there is a paved road that climbs up the hill to the houses. Water and electricity are also in plentiful supply.

“Asael will never be dismantled because the settlers know how to build, expand and maintain a settlement, even when it is illegal. In Asael, the army is already protecting them and moving around here all the time,” Back says.

The van slows at the sight of an armored Israel Defense Forces jeep. The people in the van wonder if shepherds are perhaps being harassed.

Back: “After the separation barrier was built, the shepherds couldn’t cross the road. We contacted the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which brought the matter before the Supreme Court. It ruled that the internal concrete barrier had to be dismantled, and the concrete sections were removed.”

We pass by Mitzpeh Abigail, named for the wife of the biblical Nabal the Carmelite, who eventually married David. Twenty families and several single people live there. “The children here enjoy wide-open spaces, a fun park and playground,” promises the website of the settlement, established on Yom Kippur Eve in 2001. We don’t stop here. Our destination is the Palestinian cave village Umm Fakara, located in Area C ‏(under complete Israeli control‏) in the South Hebron Hills.

The place has a history of demolition orders issued by the Civil  Administration.The IDF, aided by the Border Police and regular police force, evacuate the residents and demolish the buildings. The bulldozers crush everything, from tents to concrete structures. The mosque and school were demolished long ago. Water for the residents comes from a tanker. The locals live in caves and houses built nearby, and work in agriculture. They are registered as residents of the city of Yatta but live as nomads.

Back: “We’re in the area of Firing Zone 918, and the IDF and the Civil Administration expel Palestinian residents from their villages on the pretext that they are invading this zone. The site was declared as such in the early 1980s and this status was renewed in the 1990s. Following two petitions, a High Court injunction ordered that the residents should be allowed to return to their homes. In July 2012, the Defense Ministry announced that the area is vital for IDF training.” Across the way are the illegal outpost of Havat Ma’on and the houses of Sussia and Mitzpe Abigail, surrounded by greenery. There, they have plenty of water.

Cave-dwellers’ saga

Fadel Hamamdi has eight children. The youngest was born a year ago, to his young, second wife. His eldest daughter is 17 and goes to high school in Yatta. The whole family lives in a cave in Umm Fakara. Above it he built one more, not very big, room from concrete blocks. So far, it hasn’t been demolished. He asks Back to help him obtain an entry permit so he can work as a builder in Israel. It’s hard to support so many people from farming and shepherding.

The descent to the Hamamdi cave is steep and rocky. The area around the mouth of the cave is cold and windy. Inside, it’s not much warmer. The baby wails inconsolably, even as Back rocks him and sings him a little song to try to calm him. His bare feet are frozen. “Don’t ask about socks,” I’m told. “This isn’t Tel Aviv, and that’s the least of the problems.”

Back will write in her report that very few military vehicles were seen on Highways 60 and 317, but there were many red signs warning against entering Area A ‏(which is under Palestinian civilian control‏). “This is the canton method, a legacy from South Africa. Area A is reduced and fenced in, so that all the rest can be appropriated,” she says.

It’s impossible to continue without discussing the issue of Hirbat Al-Tawani, located on the other side of the hill, where the settlers of Ma’on and Havat Ma’on have established themselves. There have been a number of clashes between the settlers and villagers. They have fought over the land and grazing pastures, and access to the roads. The clashes came to a head in 2006 when it was decided that IDF soldiers would escort the Palestinian children on their way to school.

Back says this was preceded by the children being harassed by barking dogs, stones “falling on them” and being spat at by settlers. Furthermore, the Palestinians had water cisterns that chickens “chose” to die in, she adds. “If you want to talk about small victories, here’s one: The Palestinian Authority is prepared to organize transportation for the Al-Tawani kids so they won’t have to walk three kilometers to school. The IDF refused because the settlers wouldn’t consent to have Palestinian vehicles passing beneath their chicken coops.”
At the grocery store at the Zif Junction, you can pick up a lot of information, says Back. The guy who runs the shop knows everyone, knows who was detained and where rocks were thrown, and whether the army made arrests. “I’m a witness,” Back adds, “and my job is to tell the story of the occupation so that later Israelis won’t say they didn’t know.”

The Ray-Ban sunglasses that Back’s daughter, Aya, bought her sit well on her face, but her hat is a bit of a surprise. “It’s retro,” she explains. Back has to agree with me, though, that its time passed long ago; the same goes for the faded sweatshirt she pulled out when gusts were swirling at Umm Fakara.

“I’m against throwing things out. These clothes aren’t just for Machsom Watch shifts. Didn’t you notice how the Palestinians and Bedouin are dressed? The ‘shlumpy’ look is also popular among the settlers. I dress this way deliberately. It matters how the Palestinians perceive me. You see the poverty of the Palestinians, especially in South Hebron Hills and Hebron. I have some good, expensive clothes at home, but I won’t wear them on shifts.”

It is clear that the women of Machsom Watch’s southern branch are different. “It’s important that [the well-to-do types] know that there is life beyond the Kastina Junction [a north-south intersection], and that we are a little different from the snobs in north Tel Aviv, and more strongly connected to the periphery. I’m not cut off from the hardships of people’s lives,” Back notes, as she puffs on a TIME cigarette, a brand very popular in the 1970s, and whose aroma has not improved over the years.

Scouts romance

Hagit was born by the sea on Kibbutz Shefayim, in the early 1950s. Once a week she goes there to visit her mother, who is almost 100. Back was an opinionated girl and voracious reader who taught herself to read at 3 and a half. Until she was 16, she didn’t give a thought to her physical appearance.

“When I was 16,” she relates, “the United Kibbutz Movement committee picked me to represent the typical kibbutznik girl, in a documentary filmed by an American crew over a three-week period. The movie was shown in the dining hall at Shefayim and for the first time I saw what I looked like. For a week I didn’t leave the cabin until the caregiver said, ‘Get up! We’re suffering from this just as much as you are.’ The movie heightened my awareness of how I’m perceived. To this day, I have an issue with how I look. I’m okay in front of the mirror, but not with photos of me.”

Her father, David Aman ‏(Kintzler‏), was a member of the Mapai Youth, founded in 1926, and part of the core group that founded Shefayim. Her mother, Miriam Uri, originally from Jerusalem, met and fell in love with Aman when she came to a work camp at Shefayim. The couple had seven children − six girls, and a boy who was killed at age 20, during his military service, in 1959.

She did her military service as an operations clerk at the Ramat David air force base. Afterward she traveled and then enrolled in the Tel Aviv University philosophy department and worked in the Hanoar Ha’oved youth movement. In 1981, through her work, she met the love of her life, Shlomo Back. “He’s gorgeous and I love him so much,” she says softly.

When they met, he was working on his doctorate in education at TAU, and also coordinating, on a volunteer basis, new Scouts troops in development towns and urban neighborhoods. He arrived at the Jesse Cohen neighborhood in Holon to see the troop Hagit was running.

“I saw that he could love me because he’s not very tall himself and he’s very smart,” she recalls. “I invited him to Shefayim and we went to the beach. I put a few pebbles in the hood of my sweatshirt and I thought that I’d ask him to take them out and if he stroked the back of my neck it would be a sign that he was interested, too.” A few days later they decided that, instead of waiting any longer, they would move in together. He was 31 and she was 27 − an “old maid.”

They soon married and later had two children. Having children wasn’t easy for Back. Her son Yonatan, 27, now studying psychology in Be’er Sheva, was one of Israel’s first test-tube babies: “The year Yonatan was born, I waged the most important public battle of my life  – to convince Shoshana Arbeli-Almozlino, the health minister at the time, that every woman should be entitled to fertility treatments as part of the ‘basket’ of health services, for up to two children.”

In 1987, Back’s efforts paid off again and Aya was born; she now works as a researcher for the “Uvda” (Fact) television program. The couple decided that Hagit would concentrate on raising the children, and when the kids were grown they decided that she would not have to focus on contributing to the family income. Aside from some occasional proofreading work for publishing houses, the bulk of Hagit’s time is devoted to volunteer activism and anti-occupation activity.

In 2001, her activism focused on trafficking in women, and she helped a woman from Moldova as she waged a legal battle against her employers: “I hosted her in our home for four months and when it was all over, I ended the contact with her. I don’t like having a person that you helped feeling grateful to you all the time.”

Later that year, she accompanied her husband on his sabbatical in Canada. One day, while listening to the radio, she learned that certain books − like Camus’ “The Plague” − were being banned among Palestinian security prisoners. She was shocked. When she heard her son’s friends talking arrogantly about their upcoming military service, she realized the time had come to do something. Or, as she puts it, “to oppose the occupation and promote the issue of human rights.”

Upon their return to Israel in 2002, for the first time in her life she registered with the Meretz party, and hoped that a group of women for peace would be established in the south. She was involved with organizations like a coexistence forum in the Negev that promoted civic equality, and eventually found her place in Machsom Watch. She has had plenty of run-ins with military personnel and settlers, but accepts it as part of the gig. She has no fear. “People don’t scare me. For the most part they are good.”

Odd quiet

As part of the trip around Hebron, we visit the “Calev Ben-Yefuneh field” − the biblically named vineyard belonging to Menachem Livni, who was the No. 1 defendant in the Jewish underground terror organization, convicted of murder and other offenses. The vineyard, protected by a fence and electric gate, is stuck on the outskirts of the Palestinian town of Bani Naim, eight kilometers east of Hebron. Livni is guarded by IDF soldiers when he works there. A red sign declaring “Israelis are barred from entering Area A” was recently erected nearby.

Next to the gas station in Kiryat Arba, Back spots four Israel Electric Corporation vehicles whose occupants are being briefed by Coordination and Liaison personnel, before entering Hebron in a convoy via the checkpoint by Givat Ha’avot. She explains that IEC is planning a big job there and is protected by the army in an area that is under PA control. We follow them until the checkpoint that is opened for them. “We did not find out what type of job,” Back wrote in her report.

On the basis of the 1987 Wye River Accord, Hebron, home to 170,000 Palestinians, was divided into two section: H1, which is under PA control, and H2, which is under Israeli control and where 60,000 Palestinians live. Back points out that, between the two areas, 12 manned checkpoints were erected as well as 160 rock barriers that prevent the passage of Palestinians, allowing in only those who have entry permits. This is for the benefit of the 800 residents of the Jewish neighborhoods in Hebron: Avrahram Avinu, Tel Rumeida, Givat Ha’avot and in the market square.

We walked in the Al-Kafisha quarter, from which Palestinian vehicles are banned. We enter a little grocery store and Back greets the owners. The owners of the welding business across the street are also friends of hers.

“Here, far from the eyes of the settlers, I can meet quietly with Palestinians or bring visitors from abroad and explain to them about the situation in the city,” she says. But today, in the welding shop of her Palestinian friend, she finds Avner Tzubari from Havat Ma’on. He rudely rejects her proffered handshake. “I don’t shake hands with women,” he says, and then declares that there are no “settlements,” only “yishuvim” ‏(communities‏) in the Land of Israel. To my surprise, Back agrees with him. “I don’t want to make any trouble for the shop owner,” she says afterward.

It was difficult not to notice the odd quiet in Hebron. “It’s very hard to monitor the occupation on quiet days,” Back notes. “That’s the Sisyphean part. When there’s action and trouble, you have to solve problems, and you also have the media coming to your aid. But on routine days, it’s hard to talk about the little evil that’s hiding in the everyday stories, when it doesn’t interest anyone who lives just a half-hour drive away.”

The so-called Brown House, evacuated in 2008 at the order of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, still stands empty. Not far from there, a Palestinian comes up to Back to tell her about a problem with family unification. His wife and mother live in Jordan and their children live in Hebron. Back tells him to call her later and says, “Maybe we can help.”

Right now we’re on our way to see what she calls the “new apartheid fence” near the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Haven’t we skipped something on the way? For sure, Noam Federman’s illegal outpost, the ruins of Mitzpeh Avichai, Givat Ha’avot. On the “worshiper’s route” in Hebron, traces of graffiti proclaiming “Every time an Arab is killed it’s a holiday” and similar sentiments are still visible. At the so-called apartheid fence on the eastern side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, we were subjected to awful blaring music coming from the Gutnick Center, a visitors’ center next door. We kept going.

We visit the Jabal Muhar quarter, and Back also insists that we see the village of Abu Asaja, by the entrance to Dahariya in the Hebron Hills, where last October settlers torched a taxi and sprayed graffiti on a nearby building saying “Price tag − Sussia” and “Regards from Ettinger.” She greets the soldier at the checkpoint with a big smile and says, “Shalom, haver ‏(Hello, friend‏).”

“I deliberately use the phrase ‘Shalom, haver,’ so the [Rabin] association will come to mind and perhaps they’ll finally understand what happened here in the wake of the Rabin assassination,” Back explains. When a patrol car with Israeli policemen passes by, she waves and smiles in friendly greeting. Next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Palestinian children try to tempt us to buy a bracelet in the colors of the Palestinian flag. They keep persisting and she asks them to stop. When that doesn’t help, she scolds the most tenacious one: “Enough, friend. We’re not tourists.”

She notices that the Border Policeman at the checkpoint has a pierced ear. “Did it hurt when they pierced it?” she asks. At another checkpoint, she says to the soldier standing there, “Hi, darling. What’s your name?” “Sa’ar,” comes the reply. “And where’s your unit tag?” “In my jacket.” “Where will you be for the seder, darling?” “At home, hopefully.” “Hope so, too.”

“I want them to remember me, so I make personal contact,” says Back. “We’re all human beings. It’s not the soldiers’ fault they’re here. At age 18 it’s hard to say no. Sometimes I tell myself that I haven’t been able to effect change and to alter the occupation, and because of me the soldiers are still here. I’m in the field and I’m not against the soldiers. We need to see to it that the IDF is not the army of the occupation, but the Israel Defense Forces. It’s our responsibility.”

When a civilian with a thick Russian accent standing at the checkpoint near the exit from Hebron and entry to Kiryat Arba asks the Haaretz photographer for an ID, she scolds him, and then immediately turns nostalgic.

“Remember how we fought the first time we met at the checkpoint?” she asks him. A few minutes pass and as we head toward Be’er Sheva, on Highway 60, shortly before the Meitar Crossing, we see a shepherd leading a vast flock. She waves to him in greeting and he waves back. He recognized her and the Machsom Watch van.

Back’s frustration level is high. “I’m worried because of growing failures. And now that the objective is settlement expansion, and the defense and housing ministries are in the hands of Moshe Ya’alon and Uri Ariel, and the Edmund Levy report [examining the legal aspects of land ownership in the West Bank] might be implemented, it could lead to the annexation of the West Bank. But I’ll continue for as long as I can to serve as a fig leaf for the only democracy in the Middle East. History will be the judge.”

You think you’ve failed?

“I can’t admit failure. Martin Buber wrote about the kibbutz movement that it’s an exemplary non-failure. My opinions must be heard even if it is not in my power to change a thing, and deep down I feel like the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dike. Even though it sounds like a cliché, one has to warn about the injustices of the occupation. Should I just give up and surrender when an apartheid state is taking shape in the territories? I will muster all my energy and do the little I can do, knowing that it’s a failure, but at least I’ll know I tried.
“The repeated attempt is my little victory. Not to compare by any means, but the people who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto also knew they had no chance. There aren’t too many like Rosa Parks, who got to see with her own eyes the changes they wrought. The kind of Jewish state I want to see is not going to happen. Maybe there will be a binational state and there really will be a state of all its citizens.”

Postscript

On March 12, two days after we accompanied Back, Mahmoud al-Teeti, a 25-year-old Palestinian, was shot dead by IDF troops. On Highway 60, at the Dura-Al-Fawwar junction, two more Palestinians were injured in clashes, one of them seriously. A reservist unit entered the Al-Fawwar refugee camp to search for suspects. The jeep they were riding in got stuck and was attacked with a barrage of rocks and the soldiers opened fire.

Back read about it on Facebook and the next day she set out on an unscheduled shift to see what was happening: “It was the day of Teeti’s funeral, and there were soldiers and Border Police at the junctions. We didn’t enter Al-Fawwar village. I saw the signs warning Israelis about entering Area A. I break the law sometimes but not blatantly.”

At 6:45 A.M., she was at the Meitar Crossing and saw the Palestinian workers waiting for rides. She drove to Hirbat Al-Tawani and saw that the IDF escort for the children arrived on time.

She and another woman activist noticed that there was an increased military presence at the Zif junction. A Palestinian motorcyclist was stopped at the intersection, but was released “when they saw us.” They also visited the teachers at the Cordoba school. At curve No. 160 before the checkpoint, a Palestinian reported to her that five 9- and 10-year olds from the Asisiya boys’ school threw rocks at the checkpoint and in response the soldiers entered the school and, according to the teachers, sprayed tear gas; an ambulance evacuated the injured.

At the checkpoint there were police cars and a military vehicle. The officers were not wearing helmets and appeared relaxed. On the road, Back saw small rocks. The soldiers said 50-100 kids had thrown stones. “The routine of the occupation,” she concludes.

Hagit Back at the Meitar Crossing. 'I’m a witness and my job is to tell the story of the occupation so later Israelis won’t say they didn’t know.'Credit: Nir Kafri
In Umm Fakara with Fadel Hamamdi (and Tzipi Zagofsky in the background). 'Should I just surrender when an apartheid state is taking shape?” Back asks.Credit: Nir Kafri
Hagit Back at work in the South Hebron Hills.Credit: Nir Kafri

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