QALANDIYA — The sun had not yet risen over the Qalandiya checkpoint, the main Israeli-controlled crossing between Ramallah and Jerusalem, but Matan Asher was already engaged in a lively conversation with a young Palestinian man, advising him on how to obtain an entry permit into Israel.
A 24-year-old law student at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, Asher has been coming to Qalandiya every week since February as a volunteer for Blue-White Human Rights, a new initiative of the right-leaning think tank The Institute for Zionist Strategies.
Asher is tasked with monitoring the human traffic streaming to Qalandiya every morning from Palestinian Authority-controlled Ramallah and the surrounding West Bank villages, and he’s on the lookout for violations. He’s the one to make sure the humanitarian gate designated for the sick and disabled is operating, for instance, and he’s the one to convey complaints of Palestinians standing in line to the Israeli authorities on duty.
With his unshaven face, over-sized beige coat, and burning cigarette, he could almost be mistaken for a Palestinian day laborer.
“As we can see, things here are usually fine,” Asher said. “Every now and then it gets crowded because the state gives many [Palestinians] work permits, and the number of inspection stations isn’t always adequate.”
Qalandiya made a splash in Israeli media last month when MK Adi Koll of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party described on her Facebook page the humiliation she experienced at the hands of a young female soldier while crossing into Israel from Ramallah.
“Even if I posted a photo of the frozen, filthy corral at the Qalandiya checkpoint which I crossed through yesterday on my way back from Ramallah, you could not see and certainly not feel the insult and humiliation that I — and Palestinians with entry permits who have to cross every day — feel,” wrote Koll on April 21.
Qalandiya is indeed an austere and inhospitable place. Empty snack bags and plastic cups litter the waiting area ahead of the actual crossing, consisting of elongated and metal barred corridors which workers must traverse before arriving at a turnstile operated from afar by an IDF soldier.
‘One of the distortions in Israel is the fact that two skewed monopolies were formed: Zionism has become the monopoly of the right, which is untrue; while the left received the monopoly over human rights and morality’
Asher said Palestinians would not have to walk under barbed wire on their way to work were it not for repeated attempts to climb up and throw stones. He wished MK Koll would come to Qalandiya on a regular basis and talk to the soldiers stationed here, who are normally civil and respectful.
“If she thinks she could live peacefully in her city without these crossings, I disagree. I think my life would be in danger.”
Asher should know. During his mandatory service as a commander in the Givati infantry unit, he spent four months at Huwwara checkpoint outside Nablus — an experience, he said, which had a profound impact on him.
“It’s not an easy challenge. You’re an 18-year-old soldier managing civilians’ freedom of movement. It was always important to me, and still is, to make sure that things run properly, that soldiers understand the value of ‘purity of arms’.”
That was not always the case, though. On one occasion at Huwwara, Asher recalled, a soldier passed the metal detector over the Kafiya (traditional headgear) of an elderly Palestinian man, just for laughs.
“It’s humiliating, disrespectful, and does not reflect the value of ‘purity of arms,’ which the vast majority of Israeli soldiers uphold,” he said.
Yoaz Hendel, a former director of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel advocacy bureau and current director of The Institute for Zionist Strategies, said Blue-White Human Rights was created in order to shatter a traditional posturing in Israeli society.
“One of the distortions in Israel is the fact that two skewed monopolies were formed: Zionism has become the monopoly of the right, which is untrue, while the left received the monopoly over human rights and morality. This assumes that all others are immoral and anti-democratic, which is wrong, of course.”
Asher phrased that idea less diplomatically.
“No one can tell me that just because I wear a kippah and don’t vote Meretz I care less about what happens here. I care just as much as they do, and that’s what I want to show.”
Hendel claimed that conflating the issue of human rights and “ending the occupation,” does a disservice both to Israel and to the cause of human rights. In many cases, he argued, human rights are merely used as a pretext for Israel-bashing, even among Israeli organizations. As long as Israel exists, border crossings will exist as well, he added; and Israel — as the sovereign power — is obligated to do its utmost to ensure that Palestinians are treated fairly when crossing them.
At a safe distance, about 10 feet away from Asher, two middle-aged women also kept watch. They belong to Machsom Watch, a women’s organization founded at the height of the Second Intifada in 2001 to report on human rights violations at the crossings. These are the women Hendel refers to as well-intentioned but “politically problematic.”
Ina Friedman, a New York native who emigrated to Israel in 1968, has been coming to Qalandiya at the crack of dawn every week for the past three years. She seems slightly perturbed by the high level of media attention the young men from Blue-White Human Rights have been receiving since its establishment two months ago, but insisted there was no human rights turf war at Qalandiya.
“The more people come and observe at checkpoints, the better off we all are,” she said, but added that “we have different philosophies. These young people support human rights but they don’t have anything against the occupation. We don’t quite understand how these two issues jive.”
Machsom Watch defines itself as ”women against occupation and for human rights.” Accordingly, the women volunteers publish reports in Hebrew and English describing the situation at the checkpoints every day.
“We believe sunshine is the best disinfectant,” Friedman added. “They believe that problems should be reported only to the army. It’s a different philosophy regarding the notion of human rights.”
Alon Begin (no relation to the Likud political family), a biomedical engineering student at Tel Aviv University and Asher’s partner on the shift, said that publishing damning information on the Internet for the world to see could hamper his organization’s ability to cooperate with the IDF at the crossing.
Begin, who defines himself as a political centrist, arrived at Blue-White Human Rights after being disillusioned by the arguments of right-wing organizations he met on campus.
“I was annoyed by their childish advocacy. The arguments I kept hearing were along the lines of ‘it’s worse for Arabs in their countries.’ I say, ‘Take care of the problem, prove that you’re doing something.’ ”
A native of Beersheba, Begin said he is an oddity among his friends, who have grown “deeply antagonistic” towards Palestinians after years of rocket fire from Gaza.
“I don’t tell them about my work here. They are ‘Death to the Arabs’ types. There’s not much for me to say to them; it would be like talking to the wall.”
At the entrance to the crossing, Muhammad from Ramallah, 26, is manning the Wataniya mobile phone stand, selling SIM cards to passersby. He said he was surprised to hear that the Israeli right was getting involved in human rights for Palestinians.
“Will they really spread the idea among the right that there’s no conflict between us and that we all live in one land?” Muhammad wondered. “I know they have many extremists, and am not sure that this idea will develop there.”
He said he would not have a problem being assisted by any Israeli regardless of political affiliation, but remained suspicious of someone who had served in the military.
“I don’t believe that someone who was, or will be, a soldier can help me at the checkpoint. Once he’s stopped me here, taken my ID, and humiliated me, how can he assist me after being discharged?”