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'Israel's permit regime isn't about security, it's about segregation'

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.

Yael Berda. (Oren Ziv)

Yael Berda. (Oren Ziv)

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.

Palestinians cross the Bethlehem checkpoint, as they head to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City on May 25, 2018 (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90).

Israeli soldiers check a Palestinian man’s ID and entry permit at a checkpoint separating the West Bank city of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, May 25, 2018 (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90).

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.”

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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.”

A Palestinian man, on his way to work in Israel, waits inside a locked turnstile at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Tulkarm, February 21, 2010. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian man, on his way to work in Israel, waits inside a locked turnstile at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Tulkarm, February 21, 2010. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

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.

Palestinians line up to apply for entry permits from the Israeli army outside Ramallah, September 25, 2010. (Sharon Perry/Flash90)

Palestinians line up to apply for entry permits from the Israeli army outside Ramallah, September 25, 2010. (Sharon Perry/Flash90)

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.

Palestinian workers wait to cross a checkpoint to work in Israel at the separation barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on August 23, 2010. (Najeh Hashlamoun/Flash 90)

Palestinian workers wait to cross a checkpoint to work in Israel at the separation barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on August 23, 2010. (Najeh Hashlamoun/Flash 90)

“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.”

Palestinian construction workers from the village of Abadiya pose for a portrait in a house under renovation in the settlement of Alon, north of Jerusalem, February 16, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Palestinian construction workers from the village of Abadiya pose for a portrait in a house under renovation in the Israeli settlement of Alon, in the West Bank, February 16, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

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.”

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    COMMENTS

    1. Firentis

      This is silly. The Palestinians had free access to Israel until they engaged in mass violence as part of the First Intifada. 160 Israelis were killed and 3000 injured by Palestinians. At that point the government put in place a policy of restricting who can access Israel. During the Second Intifada more than 1000 Israelis were killed by Palestinians. So the government put in place a more stringent system. As things stand roughly half of Palestinians consider attacks on Israeli civilians to be legitimate. Attackers are treated as heroes and their families get paid money if they are arrested or killed. The amount of money depends on the severity of the attack. So there is a persistent social and financial incentive to attack Israelis. The permit system is meant to limit risks to Israeli lives. It is fundamentally about security. Where the system is abused it should be investigated and fixed. The alternative is to prevent any and all entry of Palestinians to Israel. I think that this would be the better policy honestly. That is the only way to eliminate the permits system so I can only presume that this silly woman agrees.

      Reply to Comment
      • Amir

        Do you know how was their life before the First Intifada? Have you ever wondered at least why the First Intifada occured?

        What is a free access when you are under occupation and less than a second zone non citizen.

        You cry for 160 israelis killed when 1087 Palestinians were killed

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          Their lives were better before the First Intifada. They lived better lives than their cousins in Jordan or Egypt or Syria. They had free access to Israel for work or pleasure. They made money, they lived good lives, they had security. The Israeli army was barely involved in the West Bank or Gaza. It didn’t need to be.

          The First Intifada, like the Second Intifada broke out because it isn’t enough for the Palestinians to live well. As a result of the Israeli creation of Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza over time and leading up to the First Intifada there grew a local intelligentsia that had national aspirations. Whether those aspirations were to create their own State or to destroy Israel is a matter of discussion and also changes over time, but what isn’t is that the uniting line amongst Palestinians is hatred for the existence of Israel. One spark in Gaza, fanned by local student groups and the PLO and there was an uprising which involved, among other things, attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers, often by Palestinian workers in Israel. The Israeli government and army had to put in place a system for not allowing potential attackers into Israel. That is the origin of the permit system.

          I don’t cry for the Palestinian dead because to be honest I don’t care about Palestinian dead. I am an Israeli. I care about my people first and foremost. And I care about myself and I want my government to do all it can to prevent a potential attacker from getting close to me.

          This article is about why the permit system exists. The permit system exists to provide security to the people of Israel from Palestinian attackers.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Firentis, you absolutely reek of the attitude of a ruthless, imperious, contemptuous, racist colonizer. You’re kind of coming out of the closet here. It was always there, but you’re really vamping for the cameras now. Keep it up. It really does show what the typical right winger really thinks. And why no one should ever think Israelis, the critical mass of whom are basically in your camp, will “solve” anything without outside forceful intervention in one form or another.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            Waiting for your forceful intervention! Send in your divisions Emperor Ben!

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Beyond that, Firentis, I feel like our discussions always come down to (1) your sneering show of amorality or admiration for the abuse of power, and (2) an incalculable calculation—your gamble that it will all work out versus my sense that it will not. Or, to put it in your terms, which emperor is wearing no clothes, yours or mine?

            You sound like an ancient Roman Emperor mocking the Jews. Or like Stalin mocking the Pope. Or like Trump mocking everybody except his hero Putin. But like Trump, this maybe will not turn out as well as you think. (But don’t worry a lotta people say it’s gonna turn out great! You have the best people! And a really big brain! And watch the shows! And you know occupation better than anyone! And you got a wall! And you made the Americans and the Israeli lower classes pay for it!)*

            *
            https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/full/10.3366/hls.2011.0009

            ‘Hever concludes that ‘(e)ven at the cost of a huge economic burden, certain groups in Israel are committed to preserving the sharply etched hierarchy that distinguishes between dominators and dominated, between citizens and subjects, between occupier and occupied. This hierarchy awards social capital to Jews over non-Jews, and is one explanation why the majority of the Israeli public supports the continuation of the occupation, even to the detriment of its standard of living’ (p. 187). This is an important point to make, and one that many critical analyses of Israel’s occupation ignore. Unfortunately, however, while Hever insists on the theoretical importance of explaining this problematic, he either sidesteps the political implications of his analysis, i.e. that the strength of Zionism amongst Jewish-Israelis will prevent peace and justice; or he has concluded that changing Jewish-Israeli opinion is unlikely and thus the international community (defined as governments, civil society and social movements) has to force Israel to change (p. 199).

            In his final chapter, Hever suggests that while the ‘two-state solution’ is not impossible (he stresses that it is up to Palestinians to choose and does not wish to ignore or dismiss those who yearn for it), it is now unlikely and that deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians will continue over the key issues of borders, the settlements, East Jerusalem and the refugees (see also Hilal, 2007). He thus weighs up two ‘conflict scenarios’: a pessimistic one where the violence escalates and draws other regional players into the confrontation, and an optimistic one where a non-violent civil rights movement of Palestinians and their supporters leads to a single democratic, binational state. The latter, he argues, requires a ‘different type of struggle’ exemplified by groups such as the global Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement and the International Solidarity Movement which advocate non-violent resistance (pp. 198–201).’

            Reply to Comment
          • Amir

            Seriously? Are you talking about the Palestinian territories from your lalaland? So Palestinians should apologize for being under occupation? Lol

            You have no clue about how was the life there is the 70’s and 80’s

            Universities? israel has always been targeting universities and attacking students when they demonstrate.
            Many universities were created before the occupation. israel is not philanthropique. It was meaning to prevent Palestinians to study abroad and hence meet Palestinians of the diaspora so that they could not meet PLO members.

            Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Firentis: Right after the 67 war, how many Palestinian homes did Israel bulldoze into dust? – I want a number. Can you imagine being occupied by a military that’s destroying the houses of your people?

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          I didn’t realize the intifadas took place in 1968 in response to Israeli actions in 1967. My mistake. You should talk to historians to get them to fix their history books to match your logic.

          Reply to Comment
      • Jean Rene

        Great Post Firentis

        Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      Firentis’ post is standard issue occupier’s logic: blithe, arrogant, racist-supremacist occupier’s logic. “Occupation–what occupation?–all Palestinians just like to attack Israelis for no reason, that’s just the way those people are.” With the added standard issue fakery meant for children born yesterday: “Where the system is abused it should be investigated and fixed.” A system meant to do what Yael Berda documents in her book does not “fix itself,” it does not fix its raison d’etre. It maintains itself. The Israelis are not going to “fix” anything. Any more than they are going to “fix” administrative detention:
      https://972mag.com/administrative-detention-explained/139584/

      Because these things are the things you need to do to keep a whole population captive and suppressed for fifty years. Go ask the existing survivors of the East German security state how it works if you like, but reading Berda’s book would be the best local thing.

      You mean like the

      Reply to Comment
      • Ramon

        @Ben: I don’t know who you are and I don’t care. Still, I appreciate your knowledge, intelligence, eloquence, honesty, and most of all, your ability to spank into submission the nonsensical idiotic drivel that “Firentis” and many other dimwits like him continue to regurgitate and promote.

        Even with as sad and depressing as these articles do seem often times, reading your posts at the bottom of some of them makes the heartache worthwhile!

        May God bless you even more…

        Reply to Comment