The Fine Line Between Political Tourism and Voyeurism: My Impressions of a Tour of the West Bank with Machsom Watch

Having spent some time in Israel I had already visited many of the usual Jerusalem tourist attractions, the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, and the Mahane Yehuda Market. But at the end of July I was invited along for something truly different - A checkpoint tour with the women's organisation ‘Machsom Watch’.

The idea resonated with me immediately, and having spent most of my time in Israel and West Jerusalem but reading extensively on conditions in the West Bank I was eager to go and see for myself.

So at 10 am I found myself amongst a large group of foreigners, mostly Europeans and Americans. We gathered nervously, waiting for the day ahead, unaware of hardships we were about to witness. Before I knew it we were at the checkpoints watching these people's daily life unfold in front of us.

photo credit: Flash90

The Last Checkpoint on the Machsom Watch tour (Photo: Ben Doherty)

Machsom Watch treads a fine line between engaging, educational, political tours and voyeurism. Critics argue that touring the Occupied Palestinian Territory’s (OPT) regions and ogling at the Palestinians that are subjected to these conditions is not beneficial at all; it's voyeurism. However this could not be further from the truth; Machsom Watch maintained a political inspiring, interesting and yet sensitive tour.

Machsom Watch are a group of a few hundred women who started monitoring checkpoints in 2001. They have since expanded their activities to monitoring military courts and also dealing with the Israeli bureaucracy in an attempt to remove innocent Palestinians from the ‘Black List’.

A New Challenge – Educating the international community about the Occupation

Now Machsom Watch have also taken it upon themselves to try and educate Israeli society and the international community to the horrors of occupation. They started with these tours in Hebrew, encouraging students from universities and pre-military academies to attend. Their aim is to provide a counter narrative to the mainstream. The purpose is to show the dire conditions that Palestinians are subjected to under occupation.

Just recently the organization has extended this activity to English tours as well with the hope of showing the outside world the issues of checkpoints. Daniella runs the English tour, and she stated at the start of the tour that she does in no way intend to give a balanced overview of both sides. The justification and acceptance of occupation is already over represented in society and this is her chance to show the other side. She proceeds to give us all a detailed map showing all the current and previous checkpoints throughout the West Bank and explains to us exactly where we will be going today and what we will be seeing.

The tour starts with a meeting with the owner of a large flower nursery; who asked not to be named. He explains to the group the issues faced by him and his staff having to pass through an agricultural checkpoint every day to access his property and run his business. The checkpoint is only opened three times a day for about an hour each time; morning, lunch and evening. They must all enter one by one through security gates, surrounded by barbed wire, into a holding room, through a metal detector and out the other side. The process can be excruciatingly long winded, standing in sun, whilst under the watchful gaze of the IDF.

He has a permit to enter with a vehicle that he must try to get renewed once every six months. However the permit states that only he and he alone is allowed to travel with the van so at times he is required to move all of his flowers due to inspection alone.

He talks of the issue that his only customers are Israeli settlers; I naively assumed he would dislike these people, however he was a peaceful, loving man. He holds no hate against individual Israelis; instead he retains his frustration for the occupation.

Sensitively dealing with the contradictions

Afterwards we proceed to the agricultural checkpoint in question. This is where the purpose of our trip had the potential to be blurred. I felt uneasy, watching, almost ogling at these people. It felt like a contradiction, to want to end the practices of unnecessary checkpoints but yet going to watching them, as if we were on safari. However Daniella maintained a fantastic atmosphere throughout the observation; she managed to maintain the educational aspects of the tour ensuring that we were not just there to look, but also to learn.

photo credit: Flash90

Agricultural Checkpoint (Photo: Ben Doherty)

The IDF turned up late, to what was only an hour period anyway; nevertheless Daniella spoke quickly and politely with the soldiers. This also touched upon another contradiction in my mind, she was campaigning for a change in the ways these soldiers worked, she detested the things they are forced to do, the conditions they put the Palestinians through. Yet these people are her children, her friends, her family, her people.

Weekly Palestinian protests at Kfar Kadum

We continue onwards on the tour, traveling through various checkpoints. The final stop of our tour was in the town of ‘Kfar Kadum’ which is a Palestinian village just 1.6KM from the main road - Road 55. However a few hundred meters closer to the road is the Israeli settlement of ‘Kdumin’. Here the settlers erected what was at one time an illegal roadblock. They blocked the road with huge rocks. However the IDF instead of clearing the road has actually acted to stop Palestinians clearing the road themselves. This has meant that that townspeople of Kfar Kadum now have to drive an extra 14km down a dirt road to reach what was originally only 1.6KM from their homes. This is an outrage; the IDF claim that clearing the road would risk the safety of the Palestinians. This is just one of the countless hardships imposed on Palestinians all across the West Bank.

As a result of this the people of Kfar Kadum have organised a weekly protest every Friday at 12 pm. They are protesting the existence of the roadblock; they want access to the main road once again. In response to this the IDF have put up barriers of rocks encroaching further into the town; they do this in an attempt to stop the protesters reaching the top of the hill to the Israeli settlements. The townspeople also add rocks to these barriers to attempt to prevent the IDF entering the village. It is common occurrence for the IDF to break up the weekly protest with tear gas and arrests. Below is a photo of one of these barriers in Kfar Kadum.

photo credit: Flash90

Homemade ‘roadblocks’ on the outskirts of Kfar Kadum (Photo: Ben Doherty)

Hopefully more people will be able to see the realities of the occupation

I felt uneasy about the tour beforehand, however by the end it was clear my worries were unfounded. The tour enlightened me to the ever increasing complexities of the occupation, and the difficulties these cause for normal people of the West Bank. This day cemented my frustration of the treatment of the people in the West Bank. I hope Machsom Watch increases their mission of educating non-natives on the realities of the occupation. It provided a great insight; something that I hope more people will have the chance to see first-hand. Through actions like this, international support to the end of the occupation will continue to grow.