How the Shin Bet Got Unlimited Power to Decide Which Palestinians Are Allowed Into Israel

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Palestinians waiting at the Tarqumiyah crossing.
Palestinians waiting at the Tarqumiyah crossing. Credit: Emil Salman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

Sociologist and legal scholar Yael Berda tends to open her lectures with a guided exercise.

“Close your eyes,” she tells her listeners, “and imagine your last encounter with any form of bureaucracy. How much time did you wait in line? How did the room you were sitting in look? How did the clerk sitting across from you look? What did you feel in your body while you were there?” Then Berda begins to describe the bureaucracy that Palestinians experience as part of their daily interaction with Israeli authorities. It is pretty clear to the audience at this stage, if they aren’t Palestinians themselves, that they haven’t even begun to scratch at the full force of the bureaucratic experience.

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Berda’s professional, academic, political and activist journey stems first and foremost from her personal life experiences. It is no coincidence, thus, that she starts her most recent book, “Living Emergency: Israel’s Permit Regime in the Occupied West Bank” (Stanford University Press), with the personal story of Issa, a Palestinian construction worker who lives with his wife and three children in a village near Hebron. The book, she tells Haaretz in an interview, “seeks to tell the story of the occupation through the individual case of the permit regime, through the experience of the bureaucrats and the effects of the occupation. When you understand the story of the Shin Bet in the territories, all kinds of questions about the security service’s role in general arise.”

Issa started working for a construction contractor in the Jerusalem area in 2001. He received a work permit that allowed him to enter Israel daily for 12 hours. Issuance of the permit was conditioned on receipt of a magnetic card from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. Every three months, the contractor would renew the permits of all his employees, including Issa. This process went smoothly until November 2004, when the company tried to renew the work papers of 15 workers, and the applications for both Issa and one other were rejected. When he went to the COGAT office in Hebron, Issa was informed that the police had banned him, on security grounds. Additional inquiries revealed that he was being investigated for two cases of illegal entry into Israel.

Yael Berda.Credit: Emil Salman

Berda goes from here to describe a long, winding and exasperating bureaucratic path, in which she was involved in as a lawyer attempting to understand why Issa was denied entry to Israel on security grounds, if and how it would be possible to lift the ban and who was responsible for deciding on the matter.

The Shin Bet lifted the ban after 19 months, during which Issa was unemployed and lost over 100,000 shekels (at the time, about $22,000) in income. He was forced to borrow money to cover family expenses, and his legal fees topped 10,000 shekels.

Today, Issa again works in Israel with a work permit and comfortably supports his family. He never discovered why he was considered a security risk and his fear of being arbitrarily banned again is a constant.

Oslo disaster

The research at the heart of the book forced itself in a certain respect upon Berda, 41, who as noted, lets her life experiences, not just her academic knowledge, guide her. She wrote her first book in 2012, “The Bureaucracy of Occupation,” which is based on her master’s thesis in sociology and anthropology, from Tel Aviv University. By the time she wrote that, she says, she already realized that the entry permit regime is a huge system that rules over a huge population, and much more about it is hidden than is revealed. As a lawyer, she was also filing petitions to the High Court of Justice on behalf of the NGO Machsom Watch, which attempted to help Palestinians denied entry into Israel on security grounds get their bans overturned. No one, according to her, including Palestinian Authority and COGAT officials, actually knew how the permit regime worked.

'Are there a quarter of a million terrorists in the territories? I don’t think so, but that’s the method.'

Berda represented hundreds of such Palestinians, and along the way, she collected a great deal of information on the workings of the Shin Bet’s entry-permit system. When she began working as a sociologist, she used this data for her research. It is the most detailed description available about the way in which the method works – a bureaucracy of “constant emergency,” as her book is titled.

Berda says there are about 250,000 Palestinians banned from Israel on security grounds. A security-related reason, she says, can include having a family member who has been wounded by Israeli forces, as this makes one suspect of wanting to seek revenge. Other reasons can be even more arbitrary. “An employer can say something about you, and you will find yourself banned on security grounds because of a job dispute,” she explains. “Are there a quarter of a million terrorists in the territories? I don’t think so, but that’s the method.”

The watershed moment, at which point the Palestinian situation deteriorated dramatically, was the signing of the Oslo Accords, in 1993. “After the occupation, Oslo is the worst thing to happen to the Palestinians,” says Berda. Until 1991, she explains, Palestinians had general daytime-entry permits into Israel. The conditions changed as part of the Oslo Accords. The Judea and Samaria police district was created in 1994, and from then on Palestinians were required to carry a permit issued by both the Shin Bet and the police. The permit was valid for three months, and an accompanying magnetic ID card was good for two years.

Israel’s ability to know what was happening within the Palestinian population in the territories also changed significantly during this period, explains Berda. “Until Oslo, for many years, the Shin bet had people in place in the towns,” she says. “They were agents disguised as Arabs or they were collaborators. They had sensitive intelligence and accessibility, and they went in and out and did as they pleased. Like what you see in an episode of ‘Fauda,’ except without the wall.”

Berda describes two seemingly contradictory processes, which together led to the Shin Bet becoming the sole authority to decide which Palestinians could enter Israel. On the one hand, the establishment of the PA and the construction of the security barrier led to a significant reduction of the Shin Bet’s direct involvement in the Palestinian population.

Berda quotes Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari, who claims that the Israeli security apparatus basically became blind. “Tamari speaks of the period in which Fatah wiped out the collaborators, and then, too, the Shin Bet went through a rough period. When they can’t see, they get nervous. After Oslo, they could no longer be in the cities, because it was too dangerous. They couldn’t get their people out fast enough. So, what did they do? I don’t think they planned it in advance, but suddenly this story of people needing entry permits fell into their laps.”

Jordan's King Hussein, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, PLO chief Yasser Arafat and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak at the White House before signing the Oslo 2 Accords.Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO

On the other hand, the Israeli authorities became more dependent on cooperation with the PA. After a number of years, this also went wrong. “The apparatus of collaboration collapsed in the second intifada, and all the faith that the Oslo people had in their Palestinian partners was completely upended,” she says. “The Shin Bet became the only body that could determine who was a friend or foe. From this moment on, its people could do what they wanted and everything went through them – the rules, the profiles. People stopped talking about economic or other factors, because now only what the Shin Bet said was important. They attained unlimited power.”

The new collaborator

The harder it became to enter Israel, the more dependent Palestinian lives became on entry permits. Because the permits require frequent renewal, explains Berda, the Shin Bet exploits the renewal request as an opportunity to offer Palestinian various deals, thus creating a dense network of intelligence, numbering tens of thousands of people. “They say, if you help us – we will help you,” she says. “They [the collaborators] aren’t loyal like agents, but they provide eyes on almost every home it can also be useful for assassinations. They say to the Palestinian, just notify us when Yusuf goes out in the morning. Send me a text message with the number 9.”

Although most people, she says, refuse the deal, there are still many who take it. “Collaborating among the Palestinians today is no longer something to be murdered over, like in the days of the agents. Today, they won’t touch you, because there are simply too many people involved. Everyone goes through this, because everyone need permits for work or medical treatment or family visits. Anyone receiving an entry permit is viewed as an informer. The result is the dissolution of the social fabric, due to the constant suspicion.”

'After the occupation, Oslo is the worst thing to happen to the Palestinians.'

The guidelines determining who gets an entry permit are a mystery. Berda says that she has handled 800 cases in which Palestinians were refused entry into Israel on security grounds, but for which there was no apparent reason. Her tactic, she says, was not to go to court, where it was clear the Shin Bet would always win. “The court never told the Shin Bet to lift a security ban. They don’t hear the security argument, because it is secret. Rather, they hear a paraphrase of the real reasons, and that paraphrase is always accepted. Thus, the courty they always accept this version. The court authority has no real power against the Shin Bet, so there’s no point in filing a court appeal.”

What one can do, says Berda, is to drag the process out so that the case doesn’t go to the High Court, which will rubber stamp the security ban. “We would file many appeals to the prosecution simultaneously, and because the prosecution has its plate full it would try to broker a deal between us and the Shin Bet to avoid a trial. I imagine the prosecution lawyers asking the Shin Bet, ‘Perhaps you can take a pass on him?’ That’s how I lifted the security ban for so many people, because they have no strength to deal with it because the security ban isn’t that serious. I managed to get it lifted for 40 people. That’s food for 40 families.”

Another absurd situation that Berda points to is that, sometimes, the security ban was lifted only for work in the settlements. “There were Palestinians who were banned on security grounds from entering Israel, but who were permitted to work in the territories. Are there no Jews in the settlements?”

So, are the security grounds not real?

“The entry permit regime is not a security instrument, and nothing will convince me otherwise after so many years of research,” says Berda. “It’s an instrument for controlling a population. It enables the prevention of attacks, but not because of the instrument itself, but rather due to the advantages that grow out of it, such as the recruiting of collaborators, which is forbidden by the Geneva Convention.”

A colonial heritage

Palestinians wait to cross the Qalandiyah checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem. Credit: ABBAS MOMANI / AFP

In her book, Berda describes a system that isn’t subordinate to the political echelon, but that, rather, shapes its own policies. “It isn’t only an executive authority, it’s a decision-making authority,” she says. “No one is prepared to take responsibility for it. At the end of the day, the one who is executing is the one who is deciding.”

Is that because they are perceived as the only body that really knows what’s going on?

“The Health Ministry has doctors and researchers and experts, and still in the end the health minister is the one who determines policy,” she says. “Here it is apparently supposed to be the defense minister, but he isn’t a factor. Only the Shin Bet is significant.”

Berda explains that the Shin Bet’s unlimited power is rooted in two factors. The first is a lack of sufficiently strong political leadership; the second is the colonial heritage of Israeli bureaucracy – the subject of her doctoral thesis, which she wrote in Princeton University’s sociology department.

“There are no separate legislative, executive and judicial authorities in a colonial regime, but rather an executive authority alone. In my dissertation, I looked at the heritage of British bureaucracy and how it influenced the models in Israel, Cyprus and India.” Berda suggests that, “a choice was made here to continue British colonialist policy, which is based on racial hierarchy. And you need to understand that our bureaucracy is a reflection of a non-democratic system, in which the executive authority has a lot of power, and the legislative and judicial authorities do not have much power.”

According to the standard model of bureaucracy, she says, as formulated by sociologist Max Weber, the basic assumption is that the system is subject to clear and known laws, and it is important that it be methodical and not arbitrary. Colonialist bureaucracy, in contrast, “because it is operating in a situation of constant emergency – because there is no legitimacy on the part of the ruler and because the occupied population verges on the definition of a hostile population – constantly creates exceptions to the law The population is divided into categories, and the law is adapted accordingly.”

Does no one in the system see the injustice and want to effect change?

'The Shin Bet exploits the permit process to offer Palestinian various deals, thus creating a dense network of intelligence.'

“I don’t believe that everyone is cynical,” she responds. “People want to make changes, but then they are asked, do you want to take responsibility for the next terror attack? You can hear many wise and able people who sound completely helpless in the face of the demands of the security hawks. And then it becomes very clear that the law isn’t significant. The High Court of Justice and the human rights organizations are seen as a nuisance. They get called traitors and Israel haters because they don’t let the the system continue on its way unfettered. The very demand that everything be defined by law and be transparent is perceived as a threat to power.”

One proof of her claim that there is no connection between the permit regime and state security, according to Berda, comes from the forgery scandals that are occasionally revealed. “At least 1,000 permits are forged annually,” she says. “There is a black market for excess permits, which get sold to workers who haven’t passed through the review process. An employer receives a permit in one person’s name, and gives it to somebody else.

“How many indictments are issued annually for forgery? Between one and three. If it was such a matter of security, the forgers would be considered traitors, but they aren’t. One individual made 1.5 million shekels [about $440,000] forging 1,400 permits, conspiring with an official in the Civil Administration and another official in the payments department. He received a four-year sentence that was effectively a year and a half. He should have received a more severe sentence. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s list of priorities.”

If the system is not protecting state security, then what is it doing there?

“It’s mainly preserving its own power and control over a very large population,” she says. “This has very important economic effects. I am a big devotee of Hannah Arendt, who describes how the fostering and preservation of police and intelligence power are among the characteristics of totalitarianism. It is the source of all the processes that lead to the fascism we are talking about [nationally]. This is a logic in which there is no law and you operate within a framework that you built for yourself, in which the justification for acts is an internal one. And it doesn’t stay in the territories or behind the fence. It also moves to our side of the fence.”

The Shin Bet collaborates with the forgeries?

“I don’t think there is corruption in the Shin Bet related directly to money or bribes,” she says. “The exploitation and corruption in the Shin Bet happens through work. They send the army to demolish someone’s home at 6 in the morning and to bring him and his brothers in. And if the Shin Bet asks for it, there has to be a reason, and no questions are asked. The moment they took ownership of the security risk, they had a lot of power. Imagine a neighbor woman coming to you and saying that there’s a sex offender in the neighborhood. Within a second you become your own Civil Defense. It’s totally human. This activity relies on propaganda.”

Isn’t anyone trying to pop this balloon?

“The far right is trying. The ‘hilltop youth’ say the Shin Bet are fascists,” she says. “And it’s true, by the way. Why are they putting Bentzi Gopstein [founder of the anti-Arab Lehava organization] in administrative detention? Collect the evidence and arrest him. But, these attacks [by Jews on Arabs] strengthen the Shin Bet. Its people become the knights of the rule of law. Having a ‘Jewish department’ in the Shin Bet makes the organization egalitarian.”

Palestinians waiting at the Tarqumiyah crossing into Israel. Credit: Emil Salman

Berda says someone should ask the Shin Bet why it needs the permit regime. “There needs to be someone brave enough to say, ‘We have lived with a certain concept, and now I want to offer something else.’ And that person has to be prepared to pay the price. Today, simply no one dares.”

Faith-based activism

Berda enjoys recalling how her family story pushed her into activism as well as toward the study of bureaucrats. Berda was born in New York as the oldest daughter of a French father who grew up in Morocco and an American mother. When she was 4, her parents moved the family to Jerusalem. That’s where she lives today too, with her two young children. She has two twin sisters, who are six years younger than her.

Her parents, she says, made every possible financial mistake in Israel, and the results, when combined with her father’s poor health, were disastrous.

Prof. Yehuda Shenhav.Credit: Alon Ron

“We were poor,” she recalls. “There was no heating or telephone. When I was 14, my father went bankrupt, and the relentless pursuit of the bailiff’s office began. I would go every two months to get back the television they had taken from us. They wanted to take the house from us. My parents sat in detention because of debts, and I was always running around between the lawyers. From a very young age, mired in poverty and hardship and lacking assistance, I saw that it was the bureaucracy that was doing this evil. And I couldn’t understand how all this could be happening in the good, egalitarian and democratic country that everyone was talking about. It’s impossible to describe what this does to a 14-year-old girl whose safe space, the home, turns into a battlefield in a truly existential war.”

Berda got her law degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and she worked as a lawyer before obtaining her graduate degrees in sociology. Today she is a member of the Hebrew University’s sociology and anthropology department. She says that she was inspired to study bureaucratic systems by her work with sociologist Yehuda Shenhav.

“When I was a lawyer, I became acquainted with the system of the permit regime and I realized that no one in the world knew that it existed, other than the officials who issue them,” she recalls. I met Shenhav through the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow [social-justice organization]. I told him there was a system of control over the Palestinians that was totally bureaucratic and connected not to military force but rather to employment, and that it was very important that he write about it. And he said, I’ll be your advisor, and you can do it as part of a master’s degree at Tel Aviv University. I decided to do it, and I fell totally in love with the discipline. It was a revelation for me, that there is knowledge in the world that relates to thoughts, feelings, culture and power, as opposed to legal knowledge, which makes everything that is important and interesting irrelevant.”

'The entry permit regime is not a security instrument… It’s an instrument for controlling a population.'

Berda says she turned to Shenhav precisely because of his way of thinking about political and governmental frameworks via a sociological analysis of organizations. “It’s a prism that looks at organizational practices. He understands through this the underbelly of the state, not only [shiny surface]. It is very different than a legalistic viewpoint, which speaks of the law as being the building blocks of the state, or the activist viewpoint, which speaks of values. When we follow political power through the documents, we can see how the state truly looks.”

She uses an example the Economic Arrangements Bill (hok hahesderim, by which spending is added to the budget without going through the regular vetting process) as proof that Israel is not a democracy. “The arrangements law is like a leech on the budget,” she says. “It is an instrument through which the Finance Ministry’s budget division can introduce any legislation it wants, including regulations, and can decide to freeze, unfreeze or add funds. The executive authority basically manages the country according to its will. And if MKs vote against the bill – the Knesset dissolves. It means that basically the treasury’s budget division is the one that sets Israel’s policies. And that’s impossible to discover from what the politicians say or from journalists’ investigations. You can only discover it by examining the system.”

You don’t hold ideology responsible for some of this?

“No, we usually relate only to the ideological issue, or at best the cultural and economic, and say that Zionism is a real estate project,” she says. “But, the repertoire of methods the state uses to govern is critical. There can be all kinds of ideologies. What allows them to be realized is a system that provides the executive authority with unlimited power, and in which the legislative and judicial authorities lack power.”

Crossing the fence

Beyond being a lawyer and academic, Berda is active in the “A Land for All” movement, which until recently was called “Two States, One Homeland,” and advocates a confederative solution. “The idea is two sovereign states with full freedom of movement between them,” she says. “There would be a common passport and a common high court, and they would deal together with issues like water and infrastructure. The settlers could stay as individuals, but not as an enterprise in the areas of the Palestinian state. There would be a Palestinian right of return to within the [occupied territories], and as part of the arrangement, some 1948 refugees would be permitted to return to the within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Who, how much and how – for that, each state would have its own an immigration policy. We might decide that Israel would continue being the state of the Jewish people in times of distress, but the Law of Return for Jews would not be automatic. There is no Palestinian who objects to Israel being a refuge for Jews in times of trouble. They object to you coming from Brooklyn with your suitcase and within 24 hours, receiving an immigration grant and a basket of services and being able to open a business, because a Palestinian refugee cannot return, neither to within the [post-]1948 border nor to the [post-]1967 border. The whole argument is about this.”

Berda asserts that A Land for All’s biggest mission is to change the feelings of fear and suspicion, a problem that she thinks mostly characterizes the Jewish side. “The moment they start to talk with Palestinians who don’t parrot the national narrative – because, on their side, there is also a kind of Habayit Hayehudi – you see that they don’t have a problem with Jews living in Palestinian communities. The Jews don’t say this. They are very afraid of the Arabs on a day-to-day basis, too. It’s also connected to not knowing the language. When you read newspapers from Palestinian society, you see the depth of political and administrative discussions.”

The way to be free of the fear, she says, needs to go through the physical experience of moving to the other side. “If I tell you go to Ramallah, you will consider it for a week, and think what to wear and what will happen. The fear is in the body. But if you stand together with Palestinians at a demonstration, opposite soldiers, you are freed from the fear. The moment you cross the fence, you’re free.”

Berda says she sees it especially with men. “They’re uncomfortable going to Jerusalem’s Old City because it reminds them of the army,” she says. “They return to a place where they were a moving target for the conquered people. When they hear Arabic, they return to this place. They take this fear with them everywhere, both into politics and business. Everything here is motivated by this existential, unfathomable fear. I had the good fortune of growing up in the Gilo neighborhood [on Jerusalem’s southern border]. Every Shabbat my parents would travel to Bethlehem. I felt at home as a child. I have no doubt it influenced my political thinking decisively.”

Despite the depth of the fear, the alienation, and her firm conclusions about the way bureaucracy maintains its own power, Berda is optimistic, and remains convinced everything is reparable. “If they eliminated slavery, you can eliminate racism,” she says. “I am talking about political regimes that enjoyed full legitimacy and now don’t. Colonialism is dead. This is something that can be done.”

Asked to respond to Berda’s claims, the Shin Bet made the following statement to Haaretz: “The General Security Service stresses that its positions regarding the entry of Palestinians into Israel are made strictly from considerations of security and to thwart terror. These positions are routinely examined, subject to the security situation and varying terror threats. It should be emphasized that these positions have proved themselves over the years as a significant tool to prevent harm to human life and to foil terror attacks originating in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. The General Security Service rejects any and all claims alleging that it considers non-security related matters in formulating its positions on the issue.”

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