Probing the Bureaucracy of Occupation

Attorney Yael Berda's new book looks inside the daily operations of the Palestinian permit system, where she says no one is in charge and everyone loses.

"The Bureaucracy of Occupation: The Permit Regime in the West Bank 2000–2006," by Yael Berda, allows us to peek over the shoulder of the military bureaucrat, as Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, put it. Berda, a practicing lawyer, specializes in administrative and constitutional law and is a research student at Princeton University. In her book, she surveys the administrative system of the Israeli occupation of the territories, exposing the day-to-day work of the clerks, the organizational devices and the rituals that manage the Israeli occupation in the territories.

The permit regime is the worlds largest and most developed mechanism for filtering, identifying and restricting the movement of a large civilian population, says Berda. Since the Oslo Accords, Palestinians from the territories have needed entry permits to enter Israel. The permit regime is inefficient and clumsy system of documents and permits that are difficult to obtain.

Haaretz: When did you first encounter the military legal system in the territories?

For the first case I worked on when I was self-employed, I drove to the Ofer military base to find Naim and Ayad Murar, who were among those who organized the popular protest against the separation fence in the village of Burdus," says Berda. Together with attorney Tamar Peleg Sharik, I appealed their administrative detention. The court accepted our position that the arrest had been made for political reasons and released them. I was shocked by what I saw in the military courts. Not only were there different laws for the entire [Palestinian] population, but there was also physical separation in the court between the entrance for Jewish civilians and the entrance for Palestinian residents. There were even separate sitting areas. One of the soldiers said to me, What are you so shocked about? Youre in the territories – there are different laws here.'

What is the bureaucratic model of the occupation?

The bureaucratic model that most people are familiar with is what sociologist Max Weber called the legal-rational authority. This is when the bureaucracy is supposed to operate according to clear laws and administrative work is performed systematically in a universal way. In other words, the laws apply to everyone equally with no connection to the identity of the client or the clerk. We talk about corruption and crooked behavior mostly regarding bureaucratic systems. But I say the bureaucracy of the occupation is a different model. It operates like the British bureaucracy that managed populations of subjects in the colonies. The colonial model is based on the principle of racial hierarchy, in which there is one legal and organizational system for the ethnic group in power and another for the group that is under their control.

Israel claims that it acts this way out of fear of risks to its security. What do you think?

One of my principal claims is that the way the civilian population in the West Bank is being managed endangers the security of the Jews. This is because the way what constitutes a security risk is decided makes all the Palestinians a security risk. This kind of model prevents two important things from happening: the management of security risks (if everyone is dangerous, then I cannot make decisions about allocating resources), but more important, it leads us into a political catch-22. If everyone is dangerous, no political solution can be found, and if there is no political solution, there are only violent solutions.

Who is actually responsible for managing the civilian population in the territories?

That is a really good question. It is supposed to be the Civil Administration and the OC Central Command, who is the military commander of the area. But in practice, this system has many partners: the General Security Service, the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, the Employment Service, the Border Police, the Israel Police, the Manufacturers Association of Israel, the Association of Contractors and Builders in Israel, international organizations and corporations. This is a very complex system that contains uncertainty, administrative flexibility and the constant creation of exceptions. I call this difficulty in finding someone who is accountable, the phenomenon of the phantom sovereign.

Who gains from such an inefficient bureaucratic system?

Its important to understand that the system was not planned this way. There was never any decision by the government or any other administrative agency to establish the permits regime, so it was not done deliberately. As far as gain – the administrative flexibility, waste of resources and the frequent administrative friction that is part of granting work permits leads to two desired results in the governmental system. It makes the Palestinian civilian population dependent on the administrative system, enabling the system to control, monitor and apply pressure and it preserves the principle of keeping the two populations separate.

checkpoint bikot
Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri