The Yearnings for a Magnetic Card

The Israeli government decided already in 2005 that from 2008 the Palestinians would no longer be allowed to work in Israel.

The rumor spread like wildfire: For the past two months, officers from the Civil Administration had been inviting people defined as "prohibited for security reasons" to obtain a magnetic card. People were excited - it was a sign their "prohibition" had been lifted. Ever since the magnetic card was invented in 1988 as an additional computerized identity card, it was given only to people the Shin Bet deemed fit for security reasons. This will perhaps be considered a minor moment in the history of the bureaucracy of the Israeli occupation. But in a society hit by unemployment and poverty, it's a great moment for thousands of people because the magnetic card is the prerequisite for obtaining a work permit in Israel.

The Israelis are convinced that the definition of "prohibited" is fixed purely on security considerations. The truth is that there is a great deal of arbitrariness, inflexibility, power games and the desire to win over collaborators. Proof of this exists: In around 70 percent of cases where Palestinians have petitioned Israel's High Court of Justice through human rights organizations, the prohibition against the petitioners has been canceled.

However, it soon became clear to those who obtained the magnetic card that the prohibition for security reasons had not been lifted. This is also a dramatic change regarding the history of the bureaucracy of the occupation - the magnetic card is no longer proof of security reliability. The Shin Bet has told Haaretz that "the change in the policy of issuing the smart [magnetic] card was made by the Civil Administration and indicates that the card is seen as a means of identification alone."

There are those who say this is a struggle between the Shin Bet's approach and that of the Civil Administration. The latter is interested in cutting down the number of people who are prohibited for security reasons. The administration's officials are collapsing under the burden of appeals from people against the prohibition, which limits their movements. The Civil Administration's officers are in favor of increasing the number of people allowed to work in Israel. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has petitioned the High Court against the arbitrary categorization for security reasons. The officers of the Civil Administration therefore initiated a campaign of "lifting the prohibition."

The first stage was issuing magnetic cards. The second was a talk with Shin Bet area coordinators. Around 10 coordinators were invited two weeks ago to one of the Civil Administration offices to "talk" with candidates to have their prohibition lifted. The candidates did not show up. Last week, they informed people from a different area that "the decision has been canceled" - magnetic cards would not be issued to people who are "prohibited." Is this not confusing? Or is it perhaps in keeping with the Shin Bet's explanation that this is merely a means of identification?

The magnetic card is called a "smart" card because it can carry out a biometric identification. It bears a picture of a person's face and hand from both sides, an imprint of the eye and a fingerprint. It began being issued at the beginning of 2005. In March of that year, some 2,000 residents of the West Bank had a magnetic card. Today their number has reached 120,000.

Officially the magnetic card is not obligatory and is necessary only for people who wish to leave for Israel. Unofficially, it makes it easier to travel in the West Bank. Soldiers at checkpoints ask to see it. People have found - despite denials from the authorities - that a magnetic card makes it easier to get a permit to cross at internal checkpoints that require a special permit.

Soldiers often are ahead of the official policy. Perhaps the people in charge examine the reactions in the "field." Perhaps the lower ranks tend to interpret their instructions more strictly, and their interpretation takes root. But this is a bureaucratic apparatus that acts within a planning, architectural, political and economic dynamic of splitting the West Bank into Palestinian lock-ups that are separated by military checkpoints from the wide area of expanding Israeli settlements.

The Israeli government decided already in 2005 that from 2008 the Palestinians would no longer be allowed to work in Israel. So there will soon no longer be any use for the smart cards. Is it not a shame to throw away this great treasure of biometric identification that makes possible such close surveillance? Is it not logical to bring the smart scanners to the checkpoints between the enclaves, to encourage people to hold these cards, perhaps even to require them to do so in the future? In any case, these checkpoints are undergoing a technical and stylistic upgrade so that they will become part of the topography.

This is a bureaucratic machine acting in an atmosphere that calls for increasing the close surveillance of all Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, using excuses of security. It is acting in a society obsessed by demographic calculations and demographic separation. The roadblocks, the separate roads, the fence and the prohibitions against entering the country for everyone who is not Jewish are different levels in this system of separation. The "smart" cards fit into the picture in a natural way that strikes fear in anyone who understands that "separation" and peace are contradictory terms.