The permit system for Palestinians allows Israel to recruit informants, suppress political activity, and create an opaque system of segregation and control. Just don’t say it’s about security, says Yael Berda.
The image should be familiar to every person with even the slightest bit of knowledge about Palestine. Hundreds of middle-aged men huddled together at ungodly hours, waiting in interminable lines in corridors enclosed by concrete walls, turnstiles, guard towers, and armed soldiers. Young boys mill about selling Arabic coffee in miniature disposable cups as the men lurch forward, one by one. The men hand their entry permits to the soldiers, and are let through.
The checkpoint is perhaps the image most closely associated with Israel’s military rule in the occupied territories, where tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers pass through to work in Israel on a daily basis. For most Israelis, the checkpoints are a tool Israel uses to protect its citizens from terrorism. For Palestinians, particularly Palestinian laborers, it is part of a system of control, one so many are forced to accede to in order to provide for their families.
For Yael Berda, assistant professor of sociology at Hebrew University, the checkpoint is what she calls the “black box of the occupation,” concealing as much as it reveals about the true nature of Israel’s labyrinthine permit regime. For the past decade, Berda, one of the foremost experts on the permit regime, has tried to unpack that box.
Her 2017 book, Living Emergency: Israel’s Permit Regime in the Occupied West Bank, based on interviews with Palestinian laborers, Israeli officials, contractors, and archival research, is an in-depth look at the various ways in which that regime — run by the Shin Bet, the army, the government, and the Civil Administration — holds hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the palm of its hand.
An attorney by training, Berda never set out to become an expert on the permit regime. When she opened her own law office amid the violence of the Second Intifada, she began to receive calls from Israeli contractors looking to obtain permits for their workers. “I began hearing story after story about workers who had been with these contractors for over 20 years who are suddenly barred from entering Israel for security reasons,” she says. “It was madness.”
Berda sought the advice of Israeli human rights workers, whom she assumed would be able to explain how the revocation of entry permits was possible, but no one knew what she was talking about. She realized she was witnessing a system being built in real time. The more she dug, the more she understood that these wholesale revocations had little to do with security.
She would end up representing nearly 80 Palestinians who were denied entry into Israel for security reasons, an experience that revealed the contours of the permit regime. The more people Berda spoke to, the more she understood that the primary motivator of the permit regime’s architects was control and segregation, not security.
While Palestinians in the occupied territories have been governed under Israeli military rule since 1967, until the early 1990s the Israeli military brass had believed that the best way to manage the population in the West Bank was through an open-border policy, in which movement to and from Israel was allowed freely, except at night.
Permits did not exist, explains Berda, and apart from curfews on particular villages, the occupation was largely unconcerned with the movement of civilians. Its architects, those who enshrined the legal justifications for military rule, viewed it as part of Israel’s “enlightened occupation.”
“The military didn’t perceive Palestinians as a security threat back then,” Berda says. “It differentiated between the civilian population and armed groups, while also believing that the more Palestinians made their livelihood in Israel, the better off everyone would be. All at once there was freedom of movement — a new open space where there was previously an international border. All of it was based on the racialized idea that Palestinians aren’t ‘ready yet,’ and that ‘we can help them.’ It was very paternalistic.”
Yet by the early 1980s, ruling over Palestinians in the occupied territories had become a burden on the establishment. Israel thus established the Civil Administration, whose goal was to administer the lives of the occupied population. For Palestinians, it was a sign that the occupation was not temporary.
Many people think the permit regime began during the Second Intifada as part of Israel’s war on Palestinian terrorism. You write that the regime began to coalesce around the First Intifada.
“The First Intifada changed everything. Suddenly Palestinians were living under curfews and closures, and the presence of the military became much more felt. The Israeli government introduced emergency legislation canceling the general exit permit that had allowed Palestinians to freely enter [Israel] and began demanding that all Palestinians carry a permit.”
“The suicide bombings of the 90s meant that closures were happening more often. With the bombings came preventative closures during major Jewish holidays or during visits by major leaders. Eventually Israel imposed closures that lasted 70 to 80 days on all of the occupied territories.”
With the eruption of the Second Intifada, the Shin Bet shifted its focus to data collection and profiling the entire Palestinian population, rather than focusing on prevention of violence or profiling only particular groups within Palestinian society that endangered Israeli security. In order to do so, it created a massive profiling apparatus under which more than 200,000 male residents of the West Bank — around 20 percent of the male population — were classified as “security threats,” barring them from obtaining entry permits into Israel. Officials described the blacklist as a “one-way street” — a constantly expanding list of categories of security risks that Shin Bet agents used to decide who will be barred entry.
Neither Palestinians nor the bureaucrats managing the system know the reason for an individual’s barring. Case-by-case basis justifications, says Berda, became one of the Shin Bet’s key ingredients for keeping secret the criteria of who or what qualifies as a security threat.
The Shin Bet’s growing control also allowed it to begin amassing a pool of people they could recruit as informants. This was an unforeseen development, explains Berda, since as long as Israeli forces were present in Palestinian cities, they were able to gather intelligence through Israeli undercover agents. “All of a sudden you have 40,000 informants at any given moment,” she says. “It gives you a blanket of data on everyone, and those who refuse to collaborate can be blacklisted themselves. It creates a regime of dependency in which workers are constantly subject to the whims of the Shin Bet.”
In the book, Berda tells the story of Omar, a 41-year-old Palestinian who for years worked as a mechanic and was granted permits to enter Israel. In 1996, he was barred from receiving any more permits. A decade later he began the process of appealing his classification as a security threat. He recounted his interview with a Shin Bet captain, at the end of which the captain said: “I am prepared to help you, if you help me.” Omar understood that the only way he would be removed from the blacklist would be to collaborate with the Shin Bet. He refused the offer, after which he was instructed to sign a document in Hebrew, confirming he was forbidden from ever entering Israel again.
What does the permit regime look like today? How has it adapted to a changing reality in the occupied territories?
“One thing the Israeli authorities did was transform Palestinians into a category of migrant workers, which means they can no longer challenge their blacklisting by appealing to the Supreme Court. Today they can only appeal to the district courts for legal remedy, and those are far keener on accepting the Shin Bet’s designations as security threats.”
“The rise of the permit regime also created a regime of intermediaries and middlemen who help Israeli employers obtain permits for Palestinian workers. Many Israeli employers were very badly hit by the permit regime, since a lot of the lower-tier small and mid-tier businesses were built on the backs of Palestinian labor. The Israeli middlemen help the employers while the Palestinian ones help the laborers obtain a permit from the Civil Administration’s District Coordination Offices (DCO).”
“Then there are employers who make their workers pay between NIS 1,000-3,000 ($270-$800) a month to obtain permits, which amounts to at least a third of their salary. These employers can obtain more permits than they actually need, which they then sell off to other employers who may have a hard time getting permits. In effect, what we’re seeing is a huge black market for permits from which both employers and middlemen are profiting.”
Berda describes how between 2004 and 2005, a number of IDF officers were arrested for selling dozens of forged entry permits to workers and contractors. The offenses led to the installation of a population management software at checkpoints across the West Bank, which linked registered permits to a single database, allowing the authorities to easily check the validity of the permits. Despite the clampdown, forgeries became even more prevalent and sophisticated. Between 2007 and 2017, only three Israeli soldiers were indicted for forgeries, while the number of indictments against civilians involved in the permit forgery grew.
“Not only is the black market completely illegal,” Berda says, “it’s also a fundamental breach of security that often directly involves Israeli personnel. And yet no one is put in jail for security offenses for selling permits to blacklisted Palestinians. At best they are put on trial for bribery or fraud. If the permit regime was actually about security, these people would be going to jail for treason.”
“While I was researching for the book, I learned that an employer who wants to obtain a permit for a Palestinian to work in the settlements doesn’t have to go through the Shin Bet or the police. Instead, he speaks to the Ravshatz (the settlement security coordinator, a civilian), and they decide who can or cannot obtain a permit. He has as many permits as he wants, which means construction in the settlements becomes an incredibly lucrative business.”
Why does the security establishment care about Palestinians who enter Israel but not those who enter the settlements?
“I don’t have an answer. It’s as if the Palestinians coming into the settlements can’t hurt Jews. Most of the attacks on soldiers and civilians actually happen in settlements, not inside Israel.”
How do you explain it?
“That it’s not about security! It’s about segregation, separation, and containment. Things become much clearer when you understand that. The logic of security is different from the logic of taking over land.”
We often hear criticisms of Israeli human rights organizations that their work with the security establishment only ends up reinforcing and legitimizing the occupation. Do you agree with that?
“One of the hardest things as a lawyer was the knowledge that I was legitimizing the system, even though I was helping people who came to me because they needed work. For me that was the major thing – every single person who could work was another family that could live. But I knew that I was legitimizing the system. That’s why I stopped.”
“The permit regime needs to be dismantled and buying into it only entrenches and enhances it. Period.”
There’s no way to reform it?
“No, because it is based on racial hierarchy that says every Palestinian is a potential terrorist. The Palestinians we let in are the only ones who have the OK, and they must be of a certain age. We keep out those who engage in political, cultural, or civil activities, in an attempt to decapitate any Palestinian political leadership that might emerge. What’s the point of reforming this system?”
It sounds like a lose-lose situation.
“The one thing I think is helpful is promoting self-sufficient, viable economic solutions for Palestinians. This means creating new projects within Palestine for, say, construction workers. It also means the Palestinian Authority must do more to fight the permit regime. Instead of cooperating with the Israeli authorities, the PA can demand entry permits for all Palestinian workers over the age of 25, effectively putting an end to the blacklist.”
How are Palestinians currently resisting the permit regime?
“In many ways. Palestinians turn checkpoints into economic hubs and micro-economies. They don’t put up any resistance as they pass through into Israel, effectively doing the opposite of what the system expects of them. They join together to stop Israel from establishing new makeshift checkpoints, as we saw in several East Jerusalem neighborhoods during the so-called ‘knife intifada.’”
Is there internal criticism in the Shin Bet of what it has become?
“Absolutely. The architects of the military government supported the idea of an enlightened occupation and the rule of law. After building the system, they came to see how futile the entire thing is, and that’s when they got disheartened. They started wondering what it’s all for, especially because nobody will stand behind the permit regime and say it’s a good idea. [Even the current head of the Shin Bet] will tell you it’s a necessary measure, but that there are always better and different ways to do it. It’s just not effective.”