Living Emergency: Israel’s Permit Regime in the Occupied West Bank by Yael Berda, Stanford University Press (2017)
This slim book, only 152 pages long, contains volumes. Although it focuses on a single aspect of the Israeli occupation – the use of permits to control the Palestinian population – Israeli author Yael Berda manages to illuminate the occupation as a whole.
The focus of Living Emergency is even narrower than the “permit regime” implied in the subtitle, as it examines work permits specifically and, in particular, the use of the security threat designation to deny work permits to Palestinians.
Living Emergency conveys a Kafkaesque world imposed on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank who may one day find that a steady construction job in Israel simply evaporates, a work permit denied and a livelihood destroyed by classified rules and secret evidence. Many face a Catch-22, knowing that refusing to become an informer in exchange for a work permit can be considered resistance to the occupation and therefore a security threat in itself.
Berda is an attorney who represented hundreds of Palestinian clients between 2005 and 2007 from her Jerusalem office. Those experiences form the basis of this study of Israel’s “population management” strategies that have also been described by other authors as Israel’s “social engineering” or “matrix of control.”
Berda notes that her privileged status as a Jewish Israeli citizen enabled her to gain access to information that Palestinian attorneys would never receive, and that sexism – the perception that she was “harmless” and “loyal” – opened the door to yet more revelations.
Israel imposes more than 100 different types of permits on Palestinians in the West Bank. There are 13 types of permits just to travel within the “seam zone” – the area around Israel’s wall in the West Bank that divides Palestinians from their work, their hospitals and often their farmland.
The permit regime has a chilling effect on political activity and resistance to the occupation because of the fear of being classified as a security threat. Having the power to award, revoke or deny permits enables Israel to control those Palestinians who would attempt labor organizing and improvement of work conditions, enables Israel to recruit informers and imposes significant costs on Palestinian living standards and economic development.
Berda points out that in 2005 the cost of a work permit for experienced Palestinian construction workers could amount to half their salary. A more recent study found that Palestinians typically paid a quarter to a third of their wages to job brokers, or middlemen, who helped them find work in Israel and obtain the necessary permits.
Berda observes that the permit regime grew out of the 1945 Defense (Emergency) Regulations. These repressive regulations, which denied basic democratic rights in order to prevent political activity, were established by the British during the Mandate period. Zionist settlers despised the negative effects such regulations had on them. Some even compared them to laws enacted by the Nazis.
After Israel took control of the West Bank by force in 1967, the occupation authorities set up administrative rules that were copied word-for-word from the British regulations, changing only the titles of functionaries and replacing terms like “His Majesty’s Forces” with “Israeli forces.”
The 1993 Oslo accords failed to dismantle the permit regime and instead helped abet it.
Initially, the accords curbed Israel’s ability to recruit Palestinian collaborators due to the withdrawal of its military forces from many Palestinian towns and cities. Without a physical presence in these areas, it became more difficult for Israeli forces to identify potential informers.
However, Israel’s Shin Bet secret police soon realized that permit denials could be used to coerce people to inform, one of the most pernicious aspects of the permit regime.
Berda notes that this practice is a grave violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Article 31 specifies that “No physical or moral coercion shall be exercised against protected persons, in particular to obtain information from them or from third parties.”
The permit regime was injurious not only because failure to inform could mean the loss of livelihood, but also because it induced paranoia and jealousy among Palestinians.
Obtaining a permit to work in Israel could in itself imply collaboration, or a Palestinian previously denied a permit who later received one could be suspected of agreeing to inform. Meanwhile, a jealous or grudgeful acquaintance might approach Shin Bet with security accusations simply for revenge.
Berda estimates that more than 200,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have been labeled “security threats.” She notes that one of the most revealing aspects of her work in defending those so labeled is how often the Shin Bet withdrew the designation when met with a legal challenge, as if it “would rather grant an individual request than expose its practices and decision-making to judicial oversight.”
The frequency with which this happened in her practice and that of other human rights legal groups indicates the arbitrariness of the designation, particularly since the legal system is designed to prevail on behalf of the bureaucratic entities in charge of the permit system.
The author is impressed with how many Palestinians have resisted the permit regime by taking part in legal challenges, considering the risks they assume, including the possibility of receiving a lifetime ban disqualifying them from future permits. She takes to task some of Israel’s human rights organizations, such as B’Tselem and Yesh Din, for merely seeking to reform the permit regime when in her view it must be rejected “in its entirety.”
The permit regime was founded on the perception among Israeli leaders that Israel existed in an emergency situation and therefore needed to impose draconian control over Palestinians simply for being Palestinian. Berda concludes that the permit regime resulted in a “living emergency for millions of Palestinians,” in which “race and racial hierarchy infused the practices and routines” of a settler-colonial bureaucracy and made life difficult and humiliating for its victims.
Consider, for example, that some of her cases led to “clemency pleas” in which a person had to apologize for wrongdoing even though they had never done anything wrong.
The abuses against her Palestinian clients “eradicated my faith in Israel’s legal system,” she writes, but it did not eradicate her faith “in the possibility to change its political regime and demand citizenship and equal rights for all the inhabitants from the Jordan River to the sea.”
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.