Analysis

The Big Trap of Palestinian Bureaucracy Under Israel’s Watchful Eye

This is how a self-governing administration works to preserve itself while wearing the disguise of a national liberation organization

File: A Palestinian security officer watches a television screen showing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas address in the West Bank city of Jenin,
אי־פי

G. wanted to open a bank account in Ramallah. He’s a resident of Jerusalem who lives in one of the neighborhoods on the other side of the separation barrier. In practice, Ramallah’s Manara Square is more accessible to him than Jerusalem’s Saladin Street.

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G. has long since ceased renewing his Israeli identity card because he can’t meet the requirement of proving that he has paid municipal taxes in recent years, which is considered evidence that his life is centered in Jerusalem. The minute he tries to renew his identity card, the state is liable to revoke his residency, and then he’ll lack any legal status.

But the bank in Ramallah refused to open an account for him. “Go renew your Israeli identity card,” he was told. Regardless of the reasons, the bank obeys the Israeli Interior Ministry’s order not to recognize old identity cards held by Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

The official media in the West Bank terms the Jerusalem municipality “the occupation municipality.” But in practice, the banks are careful to obey its dictates.

This week, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council instructed its executive committee – the PLO’s government – to suspend its recognition of Israel. But in practice, suspension is still a long ways away. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas controls the executive committee, and he’s the one who will decide whether or not to obey.

Yet even if recognition of Israel is suspended, will this have any impact on reality? For instance, would the Palestinian Authority instruct its banks to thumb their noses at the rules that have governed the authority to date and open bank accounts for G. and other Palestinian residents of Jerusalem in the same situation?

This is not a minor question. There’s a vast gap between the political moments that make headlines – like Abbas’ speech to the Central Council and the decisions or recommendations made by this body, which is the PLO’s mini-parliament – and people’s real lives.

This distance stems from the double bureaucracy created in the 24 years since the Oslo Accords were signed, during which the PA has often acted as a subcontractor for Israeli orders. Sometimes, it has done so for lack of choice, and sometimes because it has adopted Israel’s logic.

People are affected by this no less – and perhaps even more – than by what is known as security cooperation. Thus the true test of the sincerity of the Central Council’s official statements is whether there’s a change in Palestinian bureaucracy and the logic of its existence. Is this possible?

For instance, Israel forbids Palestinian residents of the West Bank to drive cars with yellow Israeli license plates. The PA requires anyone who is married to an Israeli citizen or resident to obtain a special permit from the Palestinian Transportation Ministry if he wants to drive the family’s Israeli car in Area A, the part of the West Bank that’s ostensibly under full Palestinian control. Every so often, the Palestinian police conduct operations to locate stolen or unsafe cars with yellow plates.

Many Palestinians, especially those who live in the villages and refugee camps, buy cheap Israeli cars that are 10 or more years old and whose annual registration is about to expire and drive them in Area B, which is under Palestinian civil control but Israeli security control. The Palestinian police are under restrictions in Area B, while the Israeli police aren’t interested in this type of violation.

So will the PA abandon its role in this bureaucratic morass following the Central Council’s meeting and Abbas’ militant statements and allow Palestinians to drive Israeli cars, as long as they have paid-up registration and insurance?

Another example is the work of the Israeli-Palestinian Water Committee, which resumed about a year ago. The committee’s work was frozen under the PA’s previous water minister, Shaddad Attili, because it became a tool for securing a Palestinian stamp of approval for the settlements. The Palestinians were forced to approve water and sewage projects in the settlements as a condition for getting approval for their own limited water and sewage projects.

Three and a half years ago, massive Israeli pressure on the PA resulted in Attili’s dismissal and the appointment of a replacement, Mazen Ghoneim. Will the Central Council’s militancy, inspired by Abbas’ speech, lead to renewed Palestinian opposition to giving backing to the colonization process through the PA’s participation in the water committee?

A woman asks to accompany her sister to a hospital in Israel. The Palestinian clerk tells her she can’t get a permit (she’s too young, perhaps married to a Hamas policeman or maybe too vocal a feminist – there’s no way of figuring out why). Instead of assisting her in obtaining the right to accompany her sister, he explains the Israeli standpoint, one that he’s completely internalized.

A foreign national married to a Palestinian and living in the West Bank for twenty years wishes to become a PA “citizen.” In other words, she wants to go through the process of family reunification and become a West Bank resident, which requires Israeli approval. The Palestinian office for civilian affairs, which is supposed to transfer her request to the Israeli Civil Administration, adamantly refuses to do so. “The Israelis don’t address these requests, there is no point in submitting them,” concludes an official.

Punished for disobedience

For years, Israel refused to let most Gazans travel abroad through the Allenby Bridge crossing, which connects the West Bank to Jordan. It has started allowing this in the last two years, subject to people signing a document stating that they won’t return for at least a whole year. Israel obliges them to travel in groups, once a week, directly to the Allenby Bridge, forbidding them to stop – even for a few hours – in Palestinian Authority territory. Those who are returning to the Gaza Strip through the crossing must also travel in organized groups, directly to the enclave.

Once every two weeks an organized group of Gazans travels to the American consulate in Jerusalem in order to apply for visas to the United States. Permits for these trips were renewed after an interruption of several months after a petition by the nonprofit group Gisha. The several hundred people on these trips have to adapt to a rigid timetables and must be accompanied by a representative of the Palestinian liaison committee. He ensures that no one deviates from the conditions set in the permit. People traveling from the Qalandiyah checkpoint in the West Bank to the Erez checkpoint in Gaza are also accompanied by such a person. These groups include residents of Gaza who obtained exit permits, usually for medical treatment, but overstayed the permit’s specified duration.

The Palestinian Authority’s bureaucratic arm accepts it as a given that it is weak in relation to the power and dominion of Israel. This is why it agrees to employ these chaperones, who ensure that people abide by Israel’s travel restrictions posing as freedom of movement. This is why it couldn’t prevent the construction of a jungle of high-rise towers, built without permits, in Kafr Aqab and the Shuafat refugee camp. The Israeli authorities only bother to enforce their power there when it comes to municipal taxes, not when it involves the safety and wellbeing of the Palestinian residents. These areas fall under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem municipality, meaning that Palestinian Authority agencies are strictly forbidden to enter, even for the sake of preventing a planning disaster that took shape in the light of day.

It’s doubtful that this bureaucracy can change and allow itself to stop following orders from Israel. The minute it stops obeying, it will no longer be able to provide many of the services for which it was created in the first place, and Israel will punish it for every violation. This is the big trap of a self-governing administration that works to preserves itself while wearing the disguise of a national liberation organization.