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'Princesses of the wall' united against Israeli occupation

The Israeli women of Machsom Watch have won respect and criticism for monitoring checkpoints. There's one thing the activists agree on: Israel's occupation is damaging and must come to an end.

Every morning before the sun rises, an Israeli women's group of mainly retired grandmothers, travels to the epicenter of the daily conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians. Their stated purpose is to monitor checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank, but their role is far from that of silent observers.

The women have fans and foes - some refer to them as the "princesses of the wall" for the work they do to help Palestinians, while others see them as anti-Israeli and an obstruction.

At this time in her life Sylvia Piterman, 67, could be quietly enjoying her retirement; instead, the Israeli Jew volunteers full time advocating for Palestinians who have had their permits to enter and work in Israel revoked.

She joined the women-only organization Machsom Watch 10 years ago, after she left a senior post at the Bank of Israel.

Piterman's early morning shift at the Bethlehem checkpoint bordering the Palestinian territories of the West Bank is far from her former life behind a desk as an economist and foreign exchange manager.

Along with two other Machsom Watch women she monitors the flow of people through the Bethlehem checkpoint. On her Sunday shift this week, 6,500 Palestinians had passed through the checkpoint by 7 a.m.

A group of Palestinian men crowds around Sylvia Piterman at the civil administration offices in Gush Etzion on the West Bank

Sylvia Piterman advises Palestinian workers who have been blacklisted by Israel

This week she found the humanitarian gate open, allowing women, children and the elderly to pass through, escaping the huge crowds of men who queue to cross into Jerusalem to get to work on time.

"When the checkpoint is very slow, we call here and there and complain," Piterman says. "All kinds of telephone centers were opened for us because our ladies used to call the generals in the early hours of the morning. They didn't like it so much, so they opened a humanitarian hotline."

"It's good because sometimes we can make the life of these people a little easier."

Pushing boundaries

The women of Machsom Watch oppose the occupation and the separation wall.

"There is no real claim against the fact that it's occupied territory," says Piterman. "It's occupied territory and we are against it. The way we have to demonstrate against it is to come to the checkpoint and stand here."

She would not say what pushed her into the rare position as a Jewish Israeli woman supporting Palestinian people, but admitted she was initially reluctant to get involved with the all-women group.

"I saw an all-women group as a kind of discrimination," she says. "At some point I started going to the checkpoints and I found that in some ways we exploit the fact that we are women. Men become very violent in these situations, and the soldiers see that we are grandmothers, so they behave differently towards us, to the people themselves."

Piterman's work is focused exclusively on monitoring the checkpoints once a week. The rest of her week is pushing paperwork to enable Palestinians who have been blacklisted from entering Israel to have their permits reinstated by the Israeli Defense Force.

If they permits are denied through initial bureaucratic means, she pursues the matter through the courts. Last year, 1,000 Palestinians took their blacklisted status through the courts at a regional and high court level.

Palestinians wait to cross into Jerusalem next to Israel's controversial barrier at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank town of Bethlehem July 7, 2013 (Photo: Ammar Awad)

Palestinian workers in Israel face long delays to get through the checkpoints

Propelled to act

Retired Orthodox Jew Daniela Yoel remembers exactly what propelled her into activism with Machsom Watch: The story of a highly pregnant Palestinian woman who needed to get through a checkpoint to get to a hospital and give birth to twins.

"She came, with pains, to the checkpoint and the soldiers didn't let her pass to the hospital," Yoel recalls. "She had to give birth in the checkpoint and the baby died immediately. The family implored the soldier to please let her arrive quickly to the hospital because she had another one and they didn't let her. She gave birth to another boy and he also died."

Yoel, whose twin grandsons had been born safely and happily just months before, was radicalized by the death of the Palestinian twins.

"I became mad, I couldn't live with myself," she says.

But being an Orthodox Jew is a conundrum when it comes to supporting Palestinians, Yoel claims.

"During the Holocaust people were anonymous; nobody gave us solidarity. I have the same emotions when I go to the checkpoint," she says. "But in my work as a volunteer, someone is looking. My religion and heritage, combined with my work at the checkpoints, make me feel schizophrenic."

Against occupation

Tamar Fleishman got involved in Machsom Watch over time.

"It took me awhile to decide I was ready to dedicate a day every week at the checkpoints," she says. "I live in a peaceful place, there are no checkpoints, no guns and no army. I was not in the left, I came from a Zionist family, very mainstream background, and my friends were quite militant."

Fleischman described becoming an activist as an "inner process" that was not the result of any external event. Living in Singapore and Bangkok with her husband had an impact, she said, causing her to come into contact with different people and views.

But she's taken a different approach from Yoel and Piterman. She uses her work at the Qalandiya checkpoint - the main entry before the city of Ramallah - to oppose the occupation. She does not provide direct help to the Palestinian people and debates whether she is helping indirectly.

A portrait of Yasser Arafat is painted on the separation wall at Qalandiya checkpoint in the West Bank

The women of Machsom Watch oppose the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians



Fleishman has been taking photographs of local children from the Qalandiya refugee camp for nearly 12 years.

"In the beginning they said, 'No photo,' but now they are keen to have their photos taken, even dying people say, 'Take my photo and show the world what they are doing to us.'"

It's clear when she comes to the checkpoint and greets Palestinians there - people who have become her friends - that she has made a difference.

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