When Inspectors Become Detectives: Hunting Palestinians on the Beaches of Tel Aviv

Inspectors are supposed to enforce bylaws and help keep the beaches clean, but it turns out they also keep an eye open for 'suspicious characters,' and have them arrested.

Six o'clock in the evening, last Thursday. The weather is pleasant. The Jerusalem Beach in Tel Aviv is full of swimmers. A perfect chance to escape the news. Two young inspectors dressed in orange with appropriate hats advance towards seven men who seem Arab, and demand their ID cards. The inspectors' intuition is spot on: these are, indeed, Palestinians. Probably construction workers who are dividing apartments into separate units or fulfilling the holy vocation of constructing luxurious  residence towers, and hoped to relax after a long day that began at sunrise.

The Palestinians, aging between 20 and 50, some of them in bathing suits, are almost disinterested as they slowly pull out their ID's. The inspectors examine them, and say that they don't have work permits. The Palestinians are "shabachim," an acronym denoting people who are illegally in Israel.

The inspectors hold up the Palestinians until the police arrive. None of the Palestinians try to plead for their lives, beg or accuse. Maybe because they're tired, maybe because they're used to this humiliating ceremony, even when they were only trying to cool off after a hot day of work. They simply stare sadly into space. One of them tries to latch on to a group of men passing by and disappear without the inspectors noticing, or maybe he just wanted to move a bit, but the leaner inspector of the two shouts "hey" and he returns to his friends. They all stand there with their ID's, seemingly indifferent. They await the cops.

Legally, only a policeman can arrest them. Meanwhile, one of the inspectors picks out two more Palestinians on the water line, requests their ID's and adds them to the group. They are surrounded by beachgoers in the sun, indifferent or unaware of the incident. Some of them probably notice that nine men are standing there with their ID's, but prefer not to ruin their time at the beach, or the aftertaste of the Bulgarian cheese they ate along with watermelon.

There's nothing unique about this incident. I witnessed a similar scene at the beach a month earlier, beach inspectors and tired indifferent Palestinians who slowly make their way to the beach police headquarters. I've never seen Israelis behave so indifferently when caught at any wrongdoing.

Beach inspectors are in charge of enforcing municipal bylaws and keeping the beaches clean. According to the municipality it employs 31 beach inspectors, in compliance with the 1964 law regulating beaches. Its an insipid job, whose only benefit is the occasional flirt with tourists. Wherever the beach is filthy, they clean it up. If someone lets his dog of the leash they can request his ID, land him a fine, and be sworn at. Rather boring in comparison to hunting down Palestinians. I film the scene with my cellular phone from my beach mat. For a moment the balance is broken – the hunter becomes the hunted. For one fleeting moment the inspectors managed to locate someone beneath their social status, and that moment is gone. The double misery of the inspectors and the Palestinians suddenly surfaces as the sun shines.

They grunt something to the effect that when the policeman comes, they'll complain that I filmed them illegally. One of them approaches me and asks for my ID. But I have my bathing suit and nothing else. No one ever goes to the beach with an ID, except illegal Palestinians.

I become a problem, but they're no more than beach inspectors and have absolutely no authority over Jews or European tourists, as long as you're not littering the beach with popsicle wrappers.  They complain to their superior, but he tells them, out loud, that I have every right to film them, and they shouldn't be afraid because they did no wrong. One of them comes up to me and shows me his inspector's ID, to prove his point. It says they can request and ID as part of their job. But what is, exactly, their job? How did they transform from cleanliness inspectors to Palestinian hunters? How did "Green Patrol" officials, another municipal branch of Mayor Ron Huldai, that were originally supposed to prevent the disposal of agricultural waste on the wrong day, to central players in a political struggle? What next? Will parking inspectors be armed with artillery?

Translator Ilana Hamerman, who helps smuggle groups of Palestinian women to beaches in Israel, and aids arrested workers, told me about the sad fate of those caught. First and second time offenders sign some document and are returned to the Palestinian Authority. Third time offenders are fined, jailed and receive suspended sentences. At present she is handling the case of A, an unemployed worker with a poor family who I happened to meet a few months back. In order to make a living, he entered Israel for the fourth time, in spite of the suspended sentence, but his only alternative is hunger. He was caught in Kiryat Gat, and is now facing six months in prison and a NIS 12,000 fine. He has no idea how he's going to pay the fine.

"We're talking about thousands of people who can't make a living," says Hamerman. "Thousands of them cross the border because they can't find a job. There are two crossing points that are inspected by the IDF. They leave at impossible hours and are constantly in danger. If it really was a security issue, Israel would close the crossings. But if they close the crossings, there will be widespread hunger in the West Bank, which might destabilize the PA. ultimately, Israel has become a nation of informers. In Jerusalem I was asked to inform about workers. And that's what the beach inspectors are, informers."

Tamar Zandberg, Tel Aviv council member for Meretz, who recently left Huldai's coalition, is shocked by the tale: "What we're seeing here is a constant process of exceeding authority by the inspectors. We can see the same phenomenon with the "Green Patrol" against the social protest. It's a very serious matter. When I asked several officials, including the municipality's legal advisor, I was told that the beach inspectors are authorized to deal only with parking tickets, cleanliness, smoking, and similar issues. I can say unequivocally that they have no authority as to criminal or security issues. This is a troubling phenomenon that the municipality is remarketing them as a patrol with colorful uniforms, when in reality they exceed their authority. It is not coincidental that the inspectors were not trained or authorized to deal with matters concerning the police and security forces."

The Tel Aviv Municipality's response: The municipality cooperates with the police according to procedures to prevent hostile terror activity. If the inspectors identify suspects, they are authorized to request ID's. If the suspect doesn't have an ID they report to the police which takes the necessary enforcement actions. The inspectors do not enforce the laws, only request ID's and report to the police."

Zandberg responded "how can inspectors know how to deal with terror activity? Its a matter of intelligence. The inspector thinks he's acting beyond the call of duty, but it has grave significance from a democratic point of view."

Palestinians being held up on a Tel Aviv beach.
Roy (Chicky) Arad