Matan, a former soldier, remembers that Palestinians would come in the evening to the base where he served, between 8 P.M. and 11 P.M., to meet with senior officers. David, who got out of the army a few years before Matan, did not recall the specific hours, but knew that after the visitors had left, and long after his formal shift was over, he would have a lot of work to do: issuing them and their families travel permits. Alon, also a former soldier, says he remembers senior officers meeting with Palestinians off the base.
Matan, David and Alon (not their real names) served in recent years in the Civil Administration unit in a number of areas in the West Bank. They told Haaretz about what their unit defined as “interlocutors” – Palestinians with whom the administration fostered special ties, involving give-and-take: Give us information and general assessments of the mood in the Palestinian street, and we will make it possible for you to receive a travel permit for yourself, your family and perhaps friends and others in your circle.
The former soldiers stressed that these Palestinians were not considered collaborators used by the Shin Bet security service and the police, who supply security, classified and incriminating information and in exchange receive payment (as well as travel permits). At least, the three said, that is what their commanding officers told them.
Matan, David and Alon are three out of dozens of discharged soldiers who served in the Civil Administration and provided evidence to the anti-occupation NGO Breaking the Silence, about the nature of their unit, its role and its functioning.
They said that the unit had developed a bad reputation among new recruits. Indeed, it has come to be perceived as a place for “Arab lovers and leftists” because its role is to issue Palestinians permits for basic things like traveling, receiving medical care outside the West Bank and Gaza, cultivating their land, visiting relatives, paving a road, installing water pipes, etc. Some sarcastically call the unit the Palestinians’ "military social worker."
For this very reason, some of those offering testimony said they wanted to serve there – to help people, get to know Palestinians from a place from which they could assist them. They very quickly discovered, however, that the unit is actually a mechanism of control and domination that wields “bureaucratic violence” in its dealings with people, as some described it.
This cruel and disappointing discovery encouraged the ex-soldiers to report their experiences to Breaking the Silence. The organization is publishing a book Monday called “Military Rule,” presenting excerpts of the evidence given by the soldiers regarding the Civil Administration and its invasive role in the lives of the Palestinians.
For his part, Matan said he believed that “there is an interlocutor for every [senior] functionary in the District Coordination and Liaison office,” which is under the Civil Administration. In the West Bank there are eight DCLs and each is responsible for coordination with civilian and security officials in the Palestinian Authority in their areas, and for handling permit applications by Palestinian residents.
“A good officer is one who initiates a meeting with an interlocutor and fosters a relationship with him,” Matan said, adding that he was present at a few such meetings. He recalled hearing his superiors asking their guest what he thought about this or that incident and how to understand the situation. Sometimes, Matan said, he got the impression that the conversation had no real content – that it was “just to keep in touch, and at the end of the meeting there was a whole bunch of permit requests.”
Matan and David told Haaretz that they realized the importance of these individuals in the eyes of the Civil Administration when they, the soldiers, failed once or twice to obtain the sought-after permit for them. Their commanding officers were furious with them, in contrast to their indifference vis-a-vis the negligent handling of requests for permit applications submitted by "ordinary" Palestinians.
Official and semiofficial ties
The direct connection with Civil Administration officers spared and continues to spare Palestinians defined as interlocutors from the long wait for a response to their request for a permit, or from standing in line at the Palestinian liaison offices and DCLs. It also saves them from soldiers’ contemptuous attitude at the application-submission window.
The ties with the interlocutors may also yield permits that are good any time of the day or night, which were issued even during the COVID pandemic, as well as permits that are valid for an entire family and/or that also allow the Palestinian to pass through checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel, intended solely for Israelis.
Israelis are aware of the existence of Palestinian collaborators who pass on security and incriminating information. They also know about the circles of official and semiofficial ties between people in Palestinian military and civilian agencies, and those in the Israeli agencies. But the third, unofficial layer of ties fostered by the Civil Administration, is much less familiar in Israel, or not known at all.
This aspect is being raised openly now in the new Breaking the Silence booklet. In contrast, the existence of the Palestinian interlocutors is not concealed from soldiers being inducted for service in the Civil Administration. “We learned about them in the preparatory course in the Liaison and Coordination school in Tzrifin [military base],” Alon revealed.
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The soldiers were told that the purpose of fostering such ties is to create a friendly relationship that may help in tense situations, should they arise: For example, during a protest of Palestinians at an army outpost, interlocutors may be able to disperse the demonstrators at an early stage.
But there are also more complex situations for which the army and the Civil Administration, which is part of the army, must prepare: the complete Palestinian withdrawal from security coordination, the collapse of the PA or the death of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The closest scenario to these situations occurred in 2020, when the PA partially froze civilian and security coordination because of Israel’s intention to annex parts of the West Bank, when COVID was at its height. Matan said that Civil Administration officials had the feeling that they could manage things without the PA. Some of that feeling stemmed from their relationships with the interlocutors.
None of the phenomena published in the new Breaking the Silence booklet will surprise the Palestinians, who experience them personally. Among these experiences, for example, is the foot-dragging in granting permits to ordinary Palestinians; the hostile and aggressive attitude at the window at the DCL offices where Palestinians submit their requests for permits; the wholesale cancellation of permits for an entire village; the discrimination against Palestinians when it comes to construction and water-hookup permits; and the influence settlers wield over officers and senior officials in the Civil Administration with regard to the takeover of Palestinian land.
The report of the existence of interlocutors will not surprise the Palestinians either; only the Hebrew term is unfamiliar to them. Usually the Palestinian public knows or guesses who are the individuals that are close to the Civil Administration, who easily receive various permits. This is the “Civil Administration Party,” an official in the Civil Affairs Administration – the Palestinian agency parallel to Israel's Civil Administration, told Haaretz. About two months ago a senior Fatah official said, exaggerating, that “the largest Palestinian party is the Civil Administration Party”; in the Hebron district this was the nickname used for a number of slates of parties running for municipal election in March.
Providing information and assessments in return for easier access to permits is nothing new: The Civil Administration was involved in such activities before the Oslo Accords. Indeed, that’s the way it was during the rule of the military government in Israel at the time, and with certain variations, that’s the way it is today.
The former soldiers who spoke to Haaretz said the interlocutors they met were businessmen and merchants, municipal officials and officers in the Palestinian security agencies. Though it seems that the group in question includes even more categories. A WhatApp message obtained by Haaretz, sent by an adviser on Palestinian matters at one of the DLC offices, said: “From conversations with interlocutors in the chairman’s [i.e. PA president's] office and journalists in other agencies it appears that…” This attests that there are people in President Mahmoud Abbas’ bureau whom the Civil Administration regards as “interlocutors.” It is not known whether these people know they are defined this way and if they knowingly assumed this role.
According to another WhatsApp message, interlocutors who are members of the Palestinian General Intelligence described Hamas officials who “enter the mosques…” and incited the worshippers.
Here too, it is unclear whether in giving this information the Palestinian intelligence officers have consciously exceeded their role as defined in the Oslo Accords – meaning, to coordinate with Israeli security agencies – and whether as a result, they expect to receive and do receive in exchange special expedited individual permits from the Civil Administration.
Another WhatsApp text said that an interlocutor reported that the Palestinian Education Ministry had issued a certain directive, and in a fourth WhatApp message, that Haaretz obtained, interlocutors reported that a mood of quiet prevailed. At least according to these reports of the adviser for Palestinian affairs, no information ostensibly conveyed by interlocutors is secret. It can be accessed by listening to the news, reading the newspaper and scrolling through Facebook and other social media platforms.
Haaretz spoke to a number of Palestinians about the phenomenon. Some of them were unforgiving and said that the people involved were collaborators to all intents and purposes, who act out of selfishness. Others showed more understanding, or called them “collaborators-lite.” The entire PA is built on the logic of relationships and direct communication with Israeli government agencies, they said.
Everyone assumes that senior officials of the PA and its agencies get benefits from the Israelis, especially in terms of freedom of travel and the concomitant possibilities for economic prosperity. At the same time, the national project that Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization have promised to achieve – the establishment of a state, independence and liberation from reliance on Israel – has failed.
Under these circumstances, people find nothing wrong with going directly to the "real" government, as the Civil Administration and the Ministry of Defense's unit of Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories are sometimes called in the West Bank.
Some people place partial blame for the interlocutor phenomenon on the Palestinian Civil Affairs Administration, headed by senior Fatah and PLO official Hussein al-Sheikh. The Palestinian DCL offices subservient to that administration are meant to pass on permit applications to the Israelis. The experience is one of long waits in crowded offices and total indifference on the part of officials.
Above it all, rumors of bribery hover. At the end of the process, the Palestinian officials send a laconic message in the name of the Israeli side, to the effect that said request is “denied.” West Bank residents thus feel that the Palestinian officials in question do not represent them vis-a-vis the Israeli authorities and merely serve as messengers. Which is why some of these residents prefer to go directly to the Civil Administration.
But according to a Palestinian official in the Civil Affairs Administration, the Israelis do all this on purpose: That is, they knowingly delay responses to applications from Palestinians, for example, for permits to leave the West Bank for medical treatment, to renovate a road to a village or to allow entry of a relative who wants to come visit from Jordan. In this way, they push people to go directly to the Civil Administration and then they fall into the “interlocutor” net.
The ramifications of fostering ties with interlocutors go beyond discrimination against most of the people applying for permits: The known phenomenon of Palestinians developing close ties with the Civil Administration strengthens suspicions about the nature of their relationship, stigmatizes people as collaborators and raises suspicions about the way permits were granted to allow the most basic things. As a few Palestinians who talked about the phenomenon with Haaretz said: “In the end this is also an Israeli goal: to raise mutual suspicions in Palestinian society.”
A spokeswoman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories declined to answer the specific questions sent by Haaretz, first and foremost about interlocutors. Instead, she sent the following statement: “The Civil Administration is a military and professional organization in charge of a number of realms of responsibility in Judea and Samaria, both by dint of laws governing the area and by political decisions. The officers, soldiers and employees of the Civil Administration act in a way that is professional, principled and fair with the entire population, providing strictly professional and proper responses to the needs of that population and in keeping with regulations, orders and legal directives.”
The statement also said: “We regret any attempt to defame the work and the integrity of employees of the organization, and vehemently reject the attempt to attribute one political agenda or another to the work of the organization, based on general statements by anonymous individuals that fall short of the truth. We would like to clarify that the organization is always strict about checking and dealing with cases that exceed the regulations, law and orders. Such cases are exceptions and do not reflect the conduct of the Civil Administration.
Trustee of occupied territory
After the conquest of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1967, civilian affairs were placed in the hands of a senior officer who reported directly to the minister of defense: the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. In fact, district military governors controlled both the military-security realm and civilian affairs.
In 1981 it was decided to separate security from civilian issues and thus the Civil Administration was established, under the aegis of both the government activities coordinator and the heads of the army's central and southern command soldiers and officers in the career army as well as civilians (heads of various departments) serve in the administration, representing various government ministries.
The declared aim of the organization is to ensure the welfare of the population. At the same time, the Civil Administration has from the beginning handled the planning and supervisory authorities that advance Israel's takeover of land for the settlements – which runs contrary to international law and is the opposite of seeing to the welfare of the local population.
When the PA was established, the Palestinians hoped that the Civil Administration would be dismantled, as was called for in the Oslo II Accords, signed in 1995, to wit: “After the inauguration of the Council, the Civil Administration in the West Bank will be dissolved, and the Israeli military government shall be withdrawn."
But the agreement itself poses a number of restrictions regarding this promise, and that has not only allowed the Civil Administration to continue to operate, but also to expand its role in serving the large population of settlers. The coordinator of activities in the territories' annual reports in recent years have stated that the Civil Administration’s job is to “initiate and promote processes that shape the arena as a reflection of Israeli interests.” A 2018 report by the human rights group Yesh Din states: “In so doing, the army declares openly that it has breached its obligation as trustee of the occupied territory, which is to act to promote the interests of the protected population.”