Living Emergency
Israel's Permit Regime in the Occupied West Bank
Yael Berda



Issa lives with his wife and three children near Hebron in the south of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In 2001, Issa began working in construction for a Jerusalem-based contractor. Through the Payments Section of the Israeli Employment Bureau, which set quotas for the number of Palestinian laborers Israeli companies could employ within Israel proper, Issa received an official work permit that allowed Issa to enter Israel from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every day. The work permit was conditional on the possession of another document—a biometric identity card (a magnetic smart card), which was provided to Issa by the Hebron office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Occupied Territories (COGAT.) Every three months, the construction company would apply for a bulk renewal of work permits for all its workers, including Issa. The work permit was duly renewed regularly until the fall of 2004.

In November 2004, the company applied once again to renew the permits for all its workers. Out of the fifteen applications, two were refused, including Issa’s. The rejection alarmed him. Neither he nor his employer could determine why his permit renewal was declined. After speaking to a few of his colleagues, Issa thought the reason might simply be the approaching expiration date of his magnetic card. Palestinian residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (hereafter Occupied Territories) had to renew their cards every two years, so Issa started the process. He went to the District Coordination Office (DCO) in Hebron, paid a registration fee of NIS 145 (New Israeli shekels), and after waiting for several hours (the DCO did not have regular office hours), approached the soldier at the booth. The soldier told Issa he was classified as “restricted for security reasons by police” (manua mishtara), which means the Israeli police denied him entry into Israel. The soldier wrote the letters “MM” with a black felt-tipped pen on his application form.

The next day, Issa returned to the DCO to ask how he could appeal his travel ban. He wanted to know which official had made the decision to place him under a police security restriction—and why—and hoped to speak to this person directly. The soldier at the booth told him to go to the police representative at the DCO, but the representative was not in the office that day. A few days later, Issa returned and was told that the entire DCO, a department of the military Civil Administration, was closed for renovations for the next two weeks.

In January 2005, Issa made a formal request to the police representative at the DCO, and ten days later he was informed that the police had filed two criminal charges against him for entering Israel without a permit, one at the Moria police station in Jerusalem and a second at the police station in Bat Yam. A police officer said that he had no authority or discretion to remove the security restriction and could only “deliver information about the restriction, kind of like customer service.” He told Issa that the only way to remove the proscription was to hire a lawyer who could petition to close the criminal cases. Issa still had no idea why he was restricted.

At that time, I was an Israeli lawyer licensed to interact with the Israeli civilian police, so Hassan approached me to assist on the case. Every police district had different procedures for processing offenses of illegal entry. Therefore, in March 2005, to obtain dismissal of the charges and close Issa’s illegal entry files for “lack of public interest” (the authorities did not think the case was important enough to pursue), I contacted the prosecution department of the Tel Aviv district police in the Ayalon region for the Bat Yam station and the investigations department of the Moria station in Jerusalem. When my written requests went unanswered, I called Moria station on the phone. The station operator told me that even though the police database (known as “Rolling Stone”) lists Issa’s case as administered by the Jerusalem police station, since the separation wall had been built, the cases have been processed by the Jerusalem Envelope (Otef Yerushalaim) investigations unit of the Border Police, to which cases concerning Palestinian illegal aliens are automatically transferred. When I called that unit, based in the Atarot Industrial Zone in annexed East Jerusalem, a young policewoman told me the unit runs a dedicated hotline for lawyers, operating exclusively between 9:00 a.m. and noon on Thursdays. On Thursday, I called the Jerusalem Envelope investigations unit, but no one replied. I sent a fax to the chief of the unit, Lt. Moshe Avital, who called back personally with a promise to close the case as soon as it arrived at his desk.

The case at the Bat Yam station took even longer to move forward. My attempts fell over the Passover holiday, and it was impossible to reach the various litigation departments involved. A mere administrative procedure such as closing Issa’s file was not seen as urgent and therefore would not be handled until after the holiday. After I sent several letters, the prosecution department informed me by fax on May 10, 2005, that the case was dropped for lack of public interest. I called Hassan and told him one of the cases was closed; he said he would tell Issa and take care of the rest of the procedure with the Civil Administration. The next day, he contacted the police representative at the DCO with the fax from the prosecutors. The police officer told him he would need an official form from the police registrar. Again, Hassan could not approach the Israeli civilian police directly, so he called me to procure the form. The entire process—an administrative one, since the legal merit of the cases of “illegal” entry was never discussed—took nearly three months, during which time Issa could not enter Israel to work.

A week later in May, Issa returned to the DCO with the official form in hand, but again he was informed he was still under a police security restriction, which also means that he was still not eligible for a new magnetic card. Hassan called the police representative at the DCO and was told that updates from the database at the national police headquarters to the military database on the status of a case could take ten to fourteen days. I tried to speed up the process by calling the national police headquarters directly and was directed to the subunit on entry bans. The secretary told me that since there were only two clerks to enter updates on closed cases into the Rolling Stone database, in a procedure called an “exceptional populations status update” (status uchlusiyot harigot), updating Issa’s status could take up to two weeks. In early June, Hassan once again approached the police representative at the DCO and was told the Bat Yam case was closed, but the one at the Jerusalem Envelope was still open.

By this time, Issa had been unable to enter Israel for work for more than six months and was worried he would lose the possibility of working for his employer. The company that had originally hired him was still interested in his services, but the project manager told him the contractor was wary of employing workers without a work permit because, due to new laws and more enforcement, he would liable for a fine of NIS 5,000 and risked criminal charges for breaking the Entry to Israel Law. Issa, whose family had no resources for their daily needs, decided to risk being caught as an “illegal” alien. He entered Israel without a permit through the Sheik Saad area, where the separation wall was not yet built, to seek construction work as a day laborer. Every day he worked in Israel, he risked being caught by police as an illegal alien, which could lead to trial and imprisonment of up to one year. I preferred not to know how many times he took that risk during the long months of waiting.

In June 2005, I called the Jerusalem Envelope investigation unit. I was told that Issa’s case had been forwarded to the military prosecutors who would press charges, which was a direct contradiction to the earlier statement from Lieutenant Avital that he would personally close the file. After considerable effort, I managed to speak to Lieutenant Avital again. Apparently, he had neglected to write down our agreement in the file, and the case proceeded along its default course, which was prosecution in a military court.

In July, I wrote to the officer in charge of military prosecution in Judea and requested the case be closed for lack of public interest. I explained the confusion concerning the case, which was never meant to reach the prosecutors at all. A week later, there was still no reply. I happened to be representing another client at the military court at the Ofer Camp, so I used that opportunity to inquire in person about the status of Issa’s case. The soldiers at the prosecutor’s office told me they had not yet received the case from the Jerusalem Envelope unit. Throughout July, I repeatedly contacted both the unit and the military prosecutors, but both offices had difficulties locating the file.

Finally, in September 2005, the head of the investigation unit called to report that the case had been sent back to him and was finally closed. He apologized for the delay. I immediately called the Moria police station and requested an official closure form. I then forwarded it to Hassan, who took it to the DCO, where he was told the office was operating on reduced capacity during the Jewish holiday season and the police representative was unavailable. Issa had little choice but to wait for the holiday season to pass. Then in October, he applied for a new magnetic card at the DCO. The soldier at the booth informed him that while the police no longer banned him, he was now under a ban issued by the Shabak (commonly known as the General Security Services [GSS] or Shin Bet) and he should contact its representatives at the DCO.

Exasperated and terrified, Issa called me to swear by everything he held dear that he had never lifted a finger against the security of the Israeli state. He vowed by his children that “his heart was pure and as clean as clean can be.” He asked me if I thought a family feud in his village could have led to the security ban. He wondered who could have done that to him, since he himself had never committed anything worse than a traffic violation. I was already well accustomed to terrified calls like this prompted by the words “banned for security reasons,” and I tried to calm him down, telling him that thousands of people were banned for security reasons, including elderly people, the seriously ill, and so on—maybe up to more than two hundred thousand of the West Bank residents all together. There was no need for him to swear his innocence to me.

Issa returned to the DCO, presenting the Shin Bet representative there with an istircham (plea for clemency) form, in which he generally apologized for whatever he did, even though he never knew why he was put under a security ban. He asked the Shin Bet to remove the ban and reinstate his work permit. That day at the entrance to the DCO, he ran into volunteers of the human rights group Machsomwatch, who helped write the clemency plea. After submitting the plea, Issa returned every morning to the back entrance of the DCO to the metal gate leading to the Shin Bet building. Every day he presented his identity card to the guard at the gate—a reserve soldier—and waited to be called to talk to the Shin Bet representative to convince him that the security ban was a mistake. He waited for three days, from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon, and each day the soldier returned his card at the end of the day and advised him to try again tomorrow.

After his attempts to speak to the Shin Bet had failed, in November 2005 Issa hired a second Palestinian lawyer, who contacted the Office of the Legal Adviser for Judea and Samaria, a branch of the Civil Administration in the settlement of Beit El, asking them to remove his client’s security ban. Although the Shin Bet is not officially part of the Civil Administration Population Registry Department, the request to the legal adviser to review Issa’s status was an appeal of sorts against the decision of the Shin Bet. In effect, this was the last legal recourse available short of appealing to the Israeli Supreme Court as High Court of Justice.

A month later, the Palestinian lawyer received a letter from the legal adviser with a request to resend his appeal along with an original power of attorney. The lawyer promptly complied. In January 2006, after several reminders, the population registrar told the lawyer that in light of classified information, the security ban of his client could not be removed and advised the lawyer to try again in a year’s time.

Issa was desperate. He feared he would lose his employment with the contractor, who recruited new laborers, residents of annexed East Jerusalem or West Bank residents who carried the coveted magnetic card. The Palestinian lawyer contacted me once again, asking if there was any possibility of bypassing the decision of the legal adviser. I wrote to the public complaints section at COGAT in another attempt to remove the ban. COGAT replied after two weeks, stating that the legal adviser acted according to guidelines and advising Issa to approach the DCO in a year, which was the earliest he could appeal a security ban to the legal adviser.

In February 2006, Issa was caught by a Border Police patrol while trying to enter Israel through a gap in the separation wall near Sawahre a-Sharkieh in East Jerusalem. He was detained for a few hours, asked to sign a form that he had been detained, and released. Issa feared he would be summoned to a military court, but the incident had no consequences. In the meantime, the Palestinian lawyer told Issa that the only way to remove the ban was to petition the Supreme Court. At the time, my (subsidized) legal fee for assisting Palestinians who were facing a security ban and who contacted me via Checkpoint Watch was NIS 1,200. On top of that, Issa needed to pay a court fee of NIS 1,507. Although the court usually absolved those who could provide documented proof they could not pay the fee, Issa decided not to apply for this particular waiver, so as not to prolong the process even further. He borrowed money from his family to pay the court and legal fees.

In March 2006, I petitioned the Supreme Court, requesting its intervention in the decision to classify Issa as a security threat and deny him a magnetic card and a permit. The court ordered the state attorney to respond within thirty days. In May 2006, after a two-week extension and a request by the state attorney for a “review” by the Shin Bet, a lawyer at the state attorney’s office informed me that Shin Bet had decided to remove the ban and Issa would no longer be classified as a security threat. As a result, I retracted my petition before there was a hearing. Issa had to suppress his desire to find out why he had been banned in the first place. Neither he nor we, his lawyers, were ever told why the security ban had been imposed or why the Shin Bet decided to lift it.

Meanwhile, even though the case was supposedly closed, the ban was not removed from the DCO computers and Issa still could not get his magnetic card. Two weeks later, after a considerable number of phone calls to the legal adviser and the state attorney’s lawyer, the restriction was removed from his official record. A few days later, the project manager of the construction company, with whom Issa stayed in close touch, contacted the Payments Section at the Employment Bureau with a request to provide Issa with a work permit. In July 2006, Issa resumed his work with the company.

Issa could not restore his work permit for nineteen months. For most of that time, he did not work and lost more than NIS 100,000 in salary. He borrowed money to support his family, and his legal expenses climbed to more than NIS 10,000. Today Issa works in Israel, with a work permit, and although he still fears a possible police or security ban, he is managing to support his family.

Issa’s story is not unique. In my practice, I encountered hundreds of similar stories of many Palestinian residents of the West Bank caught in the enigmatic process to obtain and maintain work permits in Israel. The permit regime in the West Bank is an extreme case of a sophisticated apparatus to manage population movement in a settler colonial context, so it is not representative of other types of contemporary border controls and policing. However, it does reveal the institutional logic of other systems throughout the world to control and monitor populations through classifications of security.1 In some ways, the management of the Palestinian population in Israel has served as a laboratory for policies and technologies restricting mobility, particularly to police social inequalities.2 This book is a study of organizational and institutional consequences of governing through emergency.

Between 2005 and 2007, I represented two hundred Palestinian clients in their attempt to obtain various types of movement permits. I gathered materials for this book when I set up my legal practice in Jerusalem, focusing on human rights issues, particularly impediments to freedom of movement. Many of my clients were Palestinian residents of the West Bank; the Shin Bet or the Israeli police classified most of them as security threats. I represented some fifty families in the process of family unification between members living in the West Bank and members who were residents of East Jerusalem, more than thirty Jewish employers of Palestinian laborers, and several companies and restaurant owners in the Greater Jerusalem area. I represented my clients in the military courts of the Ofer Camp and in Ashkelon detention center, in civilian district courts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and in the Supreme Court. My status as a Jewish Israeli attorney in a racialized political structure granted privileges that provided access to documents, enabled conversations and interviews with clerks in different departments, and allowed me to observe in minute detail attempts to acquire permits from the vantage point of both Israeli employers and Palestinian employees.

During these two years, I conducted observations, held conversations, and investigated archives and correspondence in the various sites of the bureaucracy of the occupation, such as the Payments Section of the Ministry of Industry; the Civil Administration’s DCO offices in Beit El, Hebron, and Etzion; Border Police headquarters in Judea and Samaria and its investigations section in Atarot; the employment office in A-Ram, the litigation section of the Israeli police; and the entrance to the Shin Bet installation in Ofer Camp.

I conducted eighty interviews with individuals classified as security threats and members of their family, as well as six structured interviews and some thirty unstructured interviews with officials within the permit regime. Hundreds of phone conversations with clerks and casual conversations in hallways and offices revealed details that allowed me to re-create the institutional framework of the permit regime.3 Apart from military directives, verdicts, court documents, and correspondence with military authorities, most of the documents used as sources for this book were received from Palestinian laborers in the process of securing their work permits and from fellow attorneys and women active in a Machsomwatch project aiding laborers classified as security threats to clear their name and receive permits.

I relied on conversations with officials from the military Civil Administration, which are inaccessible to the Palestinian subjects of the permit regime because Palestinians have no direct contact with the system that controls vast aspects of their lives, except for the soldier behind the glass partition at the DCO office or at the checkpoint. The vantage point I had into the world of occupation bureaucracy was made possible by virtue of my being a Jewish Israeli citizen and a lawyer. Because I am a young woman, many agents within the administration perceived me as harmless; no one questioned my loyalty, and people opened up and shared their woes and difficulties. Nevertheless, accompanying laborers and families from the West Bank, which included representation, as well as translation of the administrative and legal jargon, also allowed me to encounter the bureaucratic mechanisms from the perspective of the victims of the population management system. I followed their day-to-day struggle with the bureaucracy of the permit regime, as well as their daily resistance to the system, and observed both the organizational structure and the impact of the practices of governmentality from the vantage point of its subjects.

I represented mainly service and construction workers and a small number of urban professionals from cities and villages around Jerusalem: Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Hebron. In all these cases, the Palestinian workers received some backing from their Israeli employers and had made contact with lawyers or human rights organizations, so these were people who could maneuver and utilize resources and networks to influence their lives. Nevertheless, the main criteria applied by the bureaucracy of the occupation is not class, economic and professional status, religion, or the workers’ personal and professional relationships with Israelis. Their identity as Palestinians was the central element.

In this book, I explore examples of documents and events that revealed the structure and practice of the permit regime. I chose to present cases that illuminate the obscure parts of the bureaucratic labyrinth that governs the lives of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank. I focus on documents that code the relationships between the subject and the state or between organizations within the bureaucracy of the occupation, the colonial authorities located in the West Bank, and the departments of the Israeli government within Israel proper. The examples I present are a small fraction of the cases and data collected; they are a sample of organizational practices that demonstrate the routine and mundane operation of the permit regime. These are not outliers but accumulated evidence of thousands of administrative interactions that are local yet over time became the mammoth institutional system I call the bureaucracy of the occupation.

Israel’s persistent justification for the management of Palestinian mobility and the perpetual violation of human rights of millions of people daily is presented as an absolute necessity for the security of the Israeli state and its citizens. In this study, I found that the structure and daily practices of the myriad institutions involved in the permit regime call into question the necessity of such measures as security and point to other institutional goals, such as control of daily life on a massive scale and recruitment of thousands of informants to the Shin Bet.

This book is about Israel’s prevention of civilian movement in the Occupied Territories, but managing “dangerous” populations is a central concern for most governments in an age when terrorism, crime, immigration, and labor have been compounded into a broad range of security threats to states. Population management systems on a global scale have been developed to deal with these security threats, by preventing and slowing down the movement of populations across and within contested borders. States deploy technologies, expertise, and staff to prevent movement; collect data about “risk” populations; and monitor, identify, and label target populations. Israel is not a representative sample of the global mobility regime, nor have global changes in surveillance and profiling throughout the world created the Israeli permit regime in the West Bank. Yet, because Israel is a state in a perpetual state of emergency, Israeli practices of population management are mimicked and proliferated as part of the “global war on terror.” The knowledge, technologies, and institutional logics of the population management apparatus in the West Bank have proliferated throughout Europe, the United States, and South Asia in the last decade. Marketing technologies and training forces proliferated, as states struggle with governing and preventing movement of perceived dangerous populations through consolidation of organizational scripts for border control and homeland security.4


1. Sociologist Ronen Shamir suggests that this type of population management is part of a “global mobility regime” in which persons are profiled according to certain indices of risk and then movement is allowed or prevented. See Ronen Shamir, “Without Borders? Notes on Globalization as a Mobility Regime,” Sociological Theory 23, no. 2 (2005): 197–217.

2. Rema Hammami, “Qalandiya: Jerusalem’s Tora Bora and the Frontiers of Global Inequality,” Jerusalem Quarterly 41 (2010): 29–51.

3. Many of the internal decrees that I describe that were secret at the time of the study between 2005 and 2007 were released to the public in 2015 by COGAT following a Supreme Court decision, mostly confirming the outline of practice I analyze in this book.

4. Rhys Machold, “Mobility and the Model: Policy Mobility and the Becoming of Israeli Homeland Security Dominance,” Environment and Planning A 47, no. 4 (2015): 816–832.