Israeli troops and Palestinians at the Tarqumiya checkpoint. Amira Hass

Why These Palestinians Are Desperate to Be Declared 'Clean' by Israel

A day spent with Palestinians, as they waited for hours in the wind and rain in the hope that the Shin Bet security service would clear them for the privilege of applying for Israeli work permits



On February 13, a rainy, foggy Tuesday, it was the turn of the Hebron-area village of Beit Awwa to take part in the clean-up operation declared by the Israeli authorities. Starting at 6 A.M., hundreds of men aged 20 to 65 gathered at the Tarqumiya checkpoint behind the bars of the security-check facility for people entering Israel.

Once an hour, up until 10 A.M., a Palestinian employee of the Israel Defense Forces Civil Administration, a striped scarf around his neck, collected dozens of ID cards, placed them in a small plastic basket, and brought them into the offices on the other side of the exit lane, with its forest of iron rods and turnstiles. Four armed soldiers were posted at the edge of the facility to prevent the hundreds of men from entering.

Officially, it was an operation to reconsider the status of those previously denied entry into Israel for security reasons; the term “clean-up operation” derives from the argot of the checkpoints and Israeli policy of restricting movement.

“You’re clean,” soldiers of the Civil Administration or Shin Bet security service personnel tell people if the computer screen doesn’t produce reasons for denying them an exit permit. “Clean” has lost its moral meaning and become a purely technical term. Someone who’s been declared “clean” is then entitled to embark on the arduous bureaucratic path of submitting a request for a permit to work in Israel or for a merchant’s exit permit.

In the past few months, Palestinians who had been denied permission to enter Israel or to go abroad have been invited to report to the District Coordination and Liaison Office (or DCL, a branch of the Civil Administration) and submit their IDs for rechecking. The invitation is delivered in two ways. During nighttime raids on villages, soldiers paste on walls or otherwise disseminate Arabic-language notices of the date and place of the operation. Similar announcements are also published on the Facebook page, in Arabic, of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

Residents were apprised of the Beit Awwa operation on the night of February 7. Those who did not hear the soldiers as they entered (one person said he had been awakened by the sound of the stun grenades that the soldiers fired on entering the village) or didn’t see the notices that were pasted on windows or left in the mosque, saw the copy that was publicized within minutes on the social networks. The announcement states, in part: “Operations to lift security denial will continue in the region in accordance with the degree of noninvolvement of the district’s inhabitants in terrorist actions and in incidents of stone- and Molotov [cocktail]-throwing.”

In Tarqumiya, on that same rainy and cold February day, the Palestinian employee of the Civil Administration returned the green ID cards to their owners in batches, between 12:30 and 5 P.M. The first bunch of documents returned in each batch had all been declared “clean.” The eyes of the recipients grew moist. The others congratulated them and awaited their turn. The checkpoint jargon evolved in real-time: “Now he’s handing out the dirty IDs,” people joked in order to hide their disappointment and affront, or they said, “We need to wash.”

There was also much confusion. By the time some of the IDs reached their owners, it was no longer clear whether they were “clean” or “dirty.” In a similar operation conducted at the DCL office in Gush Etzion, south of Bethlehem, the “clean” documents were returned together with a note to that effect, according to a resident of a different Hebron-area village who had been summoned there. Here in Tarqumiya there were no such notes.

“The operation is a Shin Bet initiative,” a source in the Civil Administration told Haaretz. “We’re just supplying logistical assistance.” From clips on the COGAT Facebook page, it can be inferred that the initial check of the documents, via the computer screen, is done by DCL soldiers. Another inference that can be made is that residents from several dozen Palestinian villages have already been invited to take part in the operation.

In a written statement, the Shin Bet told Haaretz that, as part of steps taken in the past year “whose goal is to examine the possibility of lifting security denial for entering Israel among Judea and Samaria region residents it was decided to lift the denial in the case of hundreds of Palestinians who live in geographical areas in which a decline in the scale of terrorism has been identified, based on an intelligence and security-related appraisal, and after an individual examination of the information that exists concerning the applicant.”

The fact that it’s been decided in advance that the number will be limited to “hundreds” in several dozen villages is consistent with the conclusion reached by those who have already gone through the process: Most applicants have little chance. After all, the number of those who have already huddled at the various DCLs for hours on end already totals a few thousand.

“They sort us like tomatoes; they take a few and throw out the majority,” remarked a bespectacled individual who introduced himself as Yusuf Masalmeh, 48. Gradually, during the long hours of waiting, he told his story.

Alex Levac

“Go into any house in Beit Awwa. There will be 10 people. Nine are sleeping. Why? They have all been denied exit permits by the police or the Shin Bet. We have nothing left. I didn’t even have the money to pay for my son to be circumcised. I owe 300 shekels [$86] to the sheikh and his wife, because my youngest son went to their preschool. The municipality is demanding that I pay for electricity and water, and I have no way to pay.”

Added Masalma, “I have had security denial for 30 years. Since the first intifada. Fatah flowed through all my arteries then. I was held in custody for two years, in Ketziot [a prison camp in the Negev desert]. I was convicted of [throwing] stones, but mainly I hoisted Palestinian flags, so the whole world would know that we wanted freedom. That was a serious crime. Today we’ve stopped thinking about political parties. Today we think only about earning a living. You know, no one cares about us. No one looks at us. Now I will cut my son’s hand off if he throws a stone. Write that down, write it.”

Dense human mass

In the meantime, hundreds of men waited in the checkpoint’s parking lot. Standing, leaning on cars, walking in place, pacing, effortlessly squatting. When the rain became more intense, they squeezed in next to the security-check facility, until the soldiers allowed them to take cover for a few minutes under its roof. Twenty centimeters, maybe half a meter, separated those longing for a permit and the IDF rifles. When the rain stopped, the soldiers ordered them out. The dense human mass again broke up into its individual parts, like a torn string of beads.

Whether from curiosity or boredom, whether in search of a straw to clutch at or just an attentive ear, they turned to the only woman who was there – namely me – and shared their ordeals and thoughts.

Rami Sweiti is studying medicine in Abu Dis, adjacent to Jerusalem. The exams will be held in two months, at Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem. Without a permit, he won’t be able to get there. Omar Sweiti, also in line, relates that his daughter was injured 13 years ago, when she was a year old. “She suffered the same thing as Superman [Christopher Reeve, who had a spinal-cord injury that left him a paraplegic], except that the operation in Israel saved her,” he said. But she needs rehabilitation at Alyn Hospital, a Jerusalem-based rehabilitation center, and her father must accompany her. Mohammed Aref Sweiti is 26. He had a merchant’s exit permit, but it was suddenly canceled a year and three months ago: “And I don’t know why. I want something that will clean me. My heart aches. I have children.” (Sweiti and Masalmeh are the names of the village’s two clans, but the speakers are not from the same nuclear families.)

Yusuf Masalmeh occasionally joined the conversation – for example, in order to illustrate how much the desire for a permit costs: “To get here we paid 10 shekels [$2.90] for a taxi. When we go back, we’ll pay another 10 shekels. Calculate the coffee we drank, too. When we get back, our wives will ask where the money is, and we’ll say: We don’t have any, because we paid for traveling.”

Also on hand is an angry man of 64: “Why don’t they let me leave via Allenby Bridge?” He wants to fulfill the precept of making a pilgrimage to Mecca, but a year ago he was sent back at the border. True, his brother is in prison – he’s about to be released – but why punish him? He also has a son and a brother who serve in the Palestinian Authority’s preventive security service.

Asked another: “Convey our voice to the world. But not to Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas]. He doesn’t even look in our direction. We can die and he won’t look.” A third explained: “The Shin Bet encourages people to get married, by giving them permits. But then, when a young man gets married, he goes into debt and doesn’t get a permit.”

One man surprised me with his original view on the entry-permits issue: “There are some among us who think that the Jews in Israel are living in mobile homes and can be kicked out with a few stones. Give them permits, so they will go to Tel Aviv and see that the Jews are not going to disappear.”

Another person butted in: “We’re a wretched people, we are, wretched at the hands of the Arabs and at the hands of the Jews.” A fellow villager elaborated on the theme: “We didn’t gain either from the East or from the West. In the East, everything depends on wasta [connections, literally “strings” in Arabic]. They [the PA] employ only their cronies. Even if we were munadeleen [freedom fighters], we’ve had it. And in the West, Israel – closes us in. They don’t give us work.”

Yet another revealed a male chauvinist attitude in summing up the situation: “Fatah has become Fathiyeh [i.e., feminized]. We struggled and brought them the sulta [the PA], which didn’t do the least thing for us. Out of the people who rose up in 1987, in the first intifada, and were in prison, only five percent are working, the rest were thrown into the street. Our children will not be munadeleen.”

Another said, “For 14 years I’ve been exit-denied for security reasons. Give me an explanation. Everyone is being pushed to throw stones and blow [themselves] up. We’re being mocked. Does it really take 10 hours to do a check?”

Amira Hass

Data relating to the Palestinian labor force explain why people are willing to wait 10 hours in the wind and the rain for an answer from the DCL. The rate of participation in the Palestinian workforce in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is low – only 45 percent of the population aged 15 and above, male and female combined – mainly because of the restrictions Israel imposes on the development of the Palestinian economy.

In 2017, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 870,000 people participated in the Palestinian workforce in the West Bank. That figure includes both people with jobs and the unemployed who were looking for work, who numbered 157,000. There were more than 132,000 who worked in Israel and the settlements last year, namely 18 percent of all the working Palestinians. Of these, 69,700 had permits, and 22,100 worked in Jewish settlements. Among the Palestinians who received their incomes in Israel were also 19,400 people living in PA enclaves but with Israeli or foreign citizenship, and some tens of thousands succeeded in working without permits.

For Palestinians with jobs in Israel, work days are longer than in the West Bank, because of the hours spent traveling and waiting at checkpoints. But the daily wage in Israel is double (though not in farming or in work in the settlements). Some of those with Israeli work permits obtained them through middlemen: They register as workers of a particular employer, although in practice they work for someone else. For that, they pay a monthly commission of 2,000 shekels ($575) – more than the Palestinian minimum wage. That covers the taxes owed by the fictitious employer, his increased risk factor and the baksheesh scattered along the way among everyone involved in the process.

The one percent

Yusuf Masalmeh stood there tensely, like everyone, even though he’d said at the start that “only one percent will come out of here clean.” But his ID wasn’t in this batch. His face said that it’s still too early to be disappointed, there are more rounds ahead.

Pointing to someone from his village, he said, “Look, he’s like me. He doesn’t have a penny to his name. He’s 45 and has been security-denied for 22 years. No one knows why. Why are they afraid of people like us, fathers with children? What are we going to do outside except work in order to bring food home and pay for the electricity and the water?”

Masalmeh is convinced that the problem with his case is related to his activity and arrest 30 years ago. On the other hand, he has many friends and acquaintances who also took part in the first intifada and are not denied an exit permit. Yet others, “who never picked up a stone in their life,” are not “clean.” Some have been hoping in vain for 10 or 20 years for the security denial to be lifted. Others arrived at a checkpoint two years ago, or six years ago, only to be told by the soldier that their permit was null and void and they were denied exit. They say they don’t know what the reason is – although sometimes they do.

“Look what your son wrote on Facebook,” a soldier told one man whose work permit was revoked.

One construction worker who was upset about the reports of fatal work accidents wrote innocently on Facebook: Forgive me – a kind of universal farewell in case anything should happen to him. The Shin Bet took it as a declaration of intent to perpetrate an attack and canceled his permit.

“Ya, Coordinator,” someone wrote in response to the February 14 post of COGAT, which featured images of smiling, grateful people whose exit denial was lifted. In very direct spoken Arabic, he wrote: “We were [at the Tarqumiya checkpoint] around 400 people from Beit Awwa, and of all the 400 maybe 80 were cleaned. All the others are refused, and I among them. My whole life I was never a security prisoner and my whole life there was never an Israeli soldier who knocked on the door of my house and told me, You’re wanted. Is there any possibility you’ll tell me what the reason I’m denied is? This is no way to behave. And in the name of Allah, if I ever threw sunflower seeds at you... I only want to say that I didn’t do anything. Why do I get a security denial?”

Another commenter wrote: “I went crazy. I went [to the checkpoint] from 7 A.M. until 5 P.M., and they told me I was refused” And another reaction: “Ya, Coordinator, my whole life I was never in jail and I have no security file. Refused for 20 years already. We went to Tarqumiya crossing a whole bunch of guys. You didn’t remove our denial. I stood there at the crossing for eight hours without sitting, and in the end comes the answer of security refusal (thank you, ya Coordinator).”

Some commenters angrily charged that the head of COGAT and his staff are liars engaged in propaganda.

Many of those who have been refused entry for years interspersed their remarks with sentences in Hebrew, fluent to a greater or lesser degree. Why? Because a great many of them have nonetheless gone to work in Israel and continue to do so without permits, getting along until they’re caught. Like Yusuf Masalmeh. Immediately after the establishment of the PA, and like many enthusiastic Fatah young people, he joined the preventive security unit. “But what could I do with 800 shekels a month?” In 2006, he got a job in Sderot manufacturing insulation panels. He became an expert, he claims. He both made panels and ran the machinery alone. Relations of trust developed with his employer; his salary was 6,000 shekels [about $1,500] a month.

“I was a lunch guest in half the houses in Sderot,” he said with something of a swagger. But in 2012 he was caught by the police. In the meantime, the Sderot factory put the machine up for sale. Yusuf hoped to buy it and run it, but it didn’t work out. An investor from Bethlehem bought it, and hired Yusuf. “But what could I do with 100 shekels a day? Half of it went just on transportation back and forth.”

Even before the Shin Bet clean-up operation, many workers tried to get their denial lifted on their own initiative. “I was told I was denied for a hundred years,” one of the hundreds waiting at Tarqumiya said. “I was told I was denied for 95 years,” someone else said. Both burst out laughing as they spoke. “Do they really expect us to live until the age of 141?”

‘Denied for 100 years’

Did my interlocutors at Tarqumiya exaggerate? Were they fantasizing? Not in the least, says Sylvia Piterman, from Jerusalem. An economist who held a very senior position in the Bank of Israel, Piterman joined Machsom Watch, a group of women activists, after her retirement. At the checkpoints, she became acquainted first-hand with Palestinians who worked in Israel or were merchants, until suddenly their whole world collapsed: for unknown, arbitrary reasons, their permits to enter Israel would be revoked. She and a few of her colleagues started to devote time to finding out the reasons for this, and trying to get the permits restored through oral and written negotiations with the authorities.

\ Alex Levac

During their activity, they also came across the “denied for 100 years” assertion. That’s what DCL soldiers tell people who have applied to them to clarify their status. Sometimes the soldiers say: You are denied until 2099. In written replies, the level of precision is at its height. Applicants receive a standard form to confirm their request from the DCL, headed “Request to check denial.” It notes the date of the application – May 3, 2017, for example – then the applicant’s details, the type of denial and finally the date of the termination of the denial – let’s say, February 28, 2116. According to Piterman, this means that the permit was revoked on February 28, 2016. However, a handwritten note on the form states that the applicant can submit a request for the denial to be lifted on, for example, April 25, 2018.

In other words, the “100 years” is not engraved in stone.

Over the years, Piterman and her colleagues have become increasingly professional, learning the bureaucratic intricacies of the permits and refusals. They know what to advise the workers or merchants, which documents need to be brought, whom to apply to; they know when to contact the authorities by phone and by email, and whom to contact, and then, with the power of attorney they received from the applicant, they submit an official request for the denial to be lifted. The activists have also contacted Israeli employers who were also at a loss to understand why their veteran workers were suddenly refused exit from the West Bank. At present, 12 Machsom Watch activists are devoting their time to the issue, on a voluntary basis. Their phones are open for requests 18 hours a week, and they never stop ringing.

In 2015, Machsom Watch activists dealt with 1,922 Shin Bet-denied Palestinians who succeeded in submitting requests to be removed from the list of those denied entry. Some of the requests were drawn up and handled independently by the individuals themselves, some were handled by the activists and submitted by them to the DCL. Replies were received for 1,750 of the requests. For 897 people, 51 percent of the applicants, the reply was positive: Their names were removed from the “blacklist.”

The success rate in 2016 was lower. The activists submitted 2,475 requests, the DCL replied to 2,052 of them, but only 38 percent – 780 people – received a positive response. The same rate, more or less, held for 2017, too: Of 2,869 requests that were submitted and replied to, 39 percent, 1,124 people, were removed from the refusal list.

Those who receive a negative reply must wait a year before submitting a new request, or they can appeal to the Administrative Affairs Court. The Machsom Watch team works with attorney Tamir Blank, who files such appeals on the basis of information the women have collected and clarified. The activists’ volunteer work reduces considerably the cost of the process, which involves a court fee and legal handling fee – bringing it down from as much as 10,000 shekels to 2,300 shekels ($660) – but many of the applicants still can’t pay. Since launching their activity, a decade ago, the women have filed, through Blank, 900 appeals, with a 70 percent success rate until 2017, when it fell to 63 percent.

One of the explanations Palestinians offer for the Israeli authorities’ refusal to issue a permit is “revenge.” They believe that someone who wanted to harm somebody else gave the authorities false information. According to Sylvia Piterman, this is exactly what the Israeli authorities want: for every Palestinian to suspect everyone.

Deterrence denial

In mid-2016, a new type of exit denial was added to the existing ones (Shin Bet denial, police denial – mainly for being caught in Israel without a permit – and being denied permission to go abroad). At first it was called “operations branch [of the Civil Administration] sanctions denial,” in the wake of the declaration by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman that Palestinians would be punished collectively for what was known as the “intifada of individuals” or “intifada of knives”. Afterward the name was changed to “operations branch deterrence denial”: If someone was involved in an attempted attack or is suspected such involvement, exit permits are immediately revoked for many dozens of workers and merchants who have the same surname as the perpetrator or suspect, even though they are not necessarily part of the same extended family. Until a month ago there was no appeal procedure for this situation. Today, some of the DCLs will accept appeals to such denials, which formally end only on December 14, 2117.

Among those who have turned to Piterman and her friends for help were the brothers Mohammed and Khaled Sweiti, from Beit Awwa. They too came to Tarqumiya, to bask in the illusion of hope for a few hours on that cold day earlier this month. Since their youth, they had both worked in the “alte zachen” (Yiddish for “old things”) business. Like many in Beit Awwa, they would buy secondhand goods in Israel and bring them to the central flea market of the West Bank, which became based in their village. Khaled is 55, Mohammed is 38.

Alex Levac

They drove into Israel, when that was still possible, made the rounds of stores and homes, and bought stuff. For the past 17 years, however, both have been denied entry to Israel. Resourcefully, they found another way to get their hands on used merchandise. They would call Israeli companies and shops that sell electronic goods and furniture, and ask about secondhand or flawed items. Through liaisons who were able to enter Israel, or are Israeli citizens, the merchandise would be brought to Beit Awwa. But the brothers always felt cheated. Khaled decided to stop working like this, in order to avoid conflicts with people; now he looks for used merchandise in the West Bank. For his part, Mohammed swallows the bitter pill and pays the middlemen.

Subsequently, their brother, Ali, joined Hamas’ Iz al-Din al-Qassam brigades and was suspected of murdering a Border Policeman in 2004, in the village of Idna, near Hebron. In April 2010, he was killed at home by a combined force of the police counterterrorism unit and the IDF Nahal Brigade; according to the official report, he refused to give himself up and opened fire at them.

Khaled explains why he came to Tarqumiya anyway: “I am 55, I expected to be cleaned. There’s someone in the village whose brother is a shahid [martyr]. And he came out clean. I was glad. I thought the same would happen to me.”

Mohammed summoned up their plight in advance: “I – my brother is a shahid. That one – his father is a shahid. And this one – his father is in prison. Even if the three of us were to enter the ocean, we would not be cleaned.”

Indeed, there was no change in their denial status.

Candy for children

Yusuf Masalmeh’s turn came in the 4 P.M. round. By now there were fewer people to gather around the official who gave back the documents. Yusuf’s name was one of the first to be called. “Clean.” The tension drained from his face, replaced by a glowing smile. He looked at the card, as though wanting to hear from it what it had to tell.

All his bitterness vanished instantly. In the car on the way back to Beit Awwa, he was bursting with plans. “I’ll buy candy for the children, today we will celebrate, I will call the factory that makes insulated panels in Beit Shemesh, in Sderot.” Some people, when they get their permits, he added, shoot off cap guns in their joy. But there’s still a long road ahead before he can work in Israel. As the Shin Bet, too, noted in its reply to Haaretz, “In itself, the lifting of the security denial for entry into Israel does not automatically grant an automatic right to work in Israel. A work permit for Israel is issued separately, in accordance with the procedures and policy of the Civil Administration.”

On February 21, Yusuf went to the Palestinian Liaison Office in Hebron and submitted a request for a temporary permit to look for a job. The Palestinian side transmits the request to the Israeli DCL. If it’s approved, Yusuf will have a few days in which to find an employer and a job in Israel. The employer, if one is found, will register Yusuf in the Israeli Interior Ministry’s payments department. Only thus will he obtain a proper work permit.

The temporary permit for merchants is called a “permit for work meetings,” Machsom Watch’s Piterman says. “With both types [workers’ and merchants’ permits] the default is to get a week to search for an employer. But sometimes the DCL allows more than that.”

To obtain an initial merchant’s permit, one needs to be registered with the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, receive a letter from an Israeli merchant who is in contact with the Palestinian applicant, and show tax invoices.

The PA and its security forces aren’t fond of these operations, and don’t cooperate. In their view, the reviewing process can be done through them. Indeed, from the outset, this was reason they were established within the Oslo Accords framework: to obviate the need for direct contact between Palestinian residents and the Israeli authorities.

“There is no need for thousands of people to waste 10 hours waiting for an ID card,” PA representatives say. “People who want their exit denial lifted can come to the Palestinian civil liaison committees, which can transmit their names to the Israeli side,” as is done in the submission of requests for most other permits. There is always also the apprehension and suspicion that those who are summoned directly to the Israeli offices – there were about five in that category on the day of the Tarqumiya operation – will be subjected to an attempt to turn them into Shin Bet informers.

The Shin Bet reply to questions from Haaretz encapsulates two extremes: an understanding of the importance of work in Israel, given the vulnerability of the Palestinian economy; and an intention to continue regimenting the Palestinians through that work.

“The purpose of these steps is to allow a regular fabric of life for all the Palestinian inhabitants and to act to improve their standard of living,” the Shin Bet wrote. “But at the same time, it’s expected that the residents themselves will fulfill their responsibility to preserve quiet in the region, including abstention from fomenting disturbances and from attempting to harm security in the region.”

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