When British colonial forces took down the Union Flag and sailed out of Haifa port in 1948, they not only left Israel behind them but also colonial practices and understandings to be utilised by the nascent state. Britain used a series of emergency regulations — the Defence (Emergency) Regulations 1945 — which were intended to control the population living in the land that it occupied under a League of Nations Mandate. When Britain left, the new Israeli army’s legal branch didn’t even bother to paraphrase the regulations; they were just translated into Hebrew and applied to the Palestinians. This made Israel an emergency state and Palestinians a people under colonial rule living in a state of emergency.
Yael Berda’s book is an exceptional example of how Israel is applying the colonial logic of bureaucracy and a permit regime in the occupied territories, and how the Palestinian workers struggle while living under this state of emergency. Berda is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University as well as a human rights lawyer who has worked with Palestinians to petition to the Israeli Supreme Court to revise the decision of the internal security agency, Shin Bet, restricting Palestinians in obtaining work permits and having freedom of movement. Her study is important, especially for those looking at bureaucracy, colonialism and human rights, thanks to her experience with Palestinians and Israel’s colonial bureaucracy across the occupied West Bank.
The book is the outcome of a study of organisational and institutional consequences of governing through emergency regulations. Israel as a colonial entity in Palestine needs a perpetual state of emergency in order to impose its sophisticated permit regime and manage population movement in a settler-colonial way. The writer uses as sources of her research archive material, military directives, verdicts, court documents, correspondence with the military authorities, documents from Palestinian labourers, structured interviews with Palestinians and officials within the permit regime, and observations that she derived from representing Palestinian clients with applications for work permits between 2005 and 2007. Berda also offers the reader a tour of Israel’s bureaucratic labyrinth, including the secret services, government and “civil administration” (run by the military) which rule over millions of Palestinians, by exploring documents and events revealing the structure of the permit regime.
In the first chapter, “Dangerous Populations”, she presents a historical perspective of Israeli colonial practices, the decision-making process of the officials and the relationship between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel’s military civil administration starting from 1967. She also looks at how the consequences of important events such as the signing of the Oslo Accords changed bureaucratic practices in the West Bank. Oslo created a complex jurisdictional map separating the legal status and territory of the West Bank. The planned transition from Israeli administration to Palestinian also constituted double-headed bureaucracy in which Israeli officials with opposing ideas about the Accords worked. Following the killings of Israelis after the first and second intifadas, those officials who were sceptical about Oslo and worked on colonial bureaucracy justified their position and started considering the Palestinians as a dangerous population.
Under the Israeli permit regime, Palestinians can be marked as a security threat without any explanation in a perpetual emergency situation. However, exactly who makes that decision is a major discussion for the colonial bureaucracy in the West Bank. Berda reveals that it is Shin Bet and not the civil bureaucracy which decides who is a security threat in the West Bank by presenting a comparison of legal points of view and the facts on the ground. Maybe the most interesting part of the study shows how Shin Bet is using the permit regime to recruit potential informants from among the Palestinians. Put simply, Shin Bet tells Palestinians, ‘’Bring us information, take your work permit.’’
The writer’s main argument is that Israel uses the permit regime to control Palestinian movement rather than protect Israeli civilians. In 1967, after Israel occupied the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, it turned the economy from one based on agriculture to a service base. As a result, many Palestinians depended on employers who lived mostly within Israel to earn their living. In that sense, the permit regime became the most important factor for Palestinians. However, Israel has some secret weapons when using the permit regime as a control mechanism: ambiguity and uncertainty. When Palestinians apply for a work permit, they can be rejected easily without any explanation, and when they appeal against the decision, it takes a long time to get an answer. This may sound normal to anyone who has faced bureaucracy in their own country, but for people who depend on such permits, ambiguity and uncertainty become a form of torture. Ambiguity also generates despair among people who need hope in order to exist on the land that Israel is making every effort to control completely.
The permit regime applied by Israel on the occupied territories doesn’t only affect Palestinians psychologically in the collective sense, but also at an individual level. Palestinians who have been marked as a security threat by Shin Bet become more self-controlled and avoid talking openly due to possible informants around them; Yael Berda calls this “atomisation”.
The study has a weakness in that it does not show how the permit regime is giving a free hand to the Israeli occupation forces to take over Jerusalem. While the author gives us an extraordinary insight into how Israel uses permits to control, restrict movement and collect data about Palestinians living in the occupied territories, it should be noted that the authorities also restrict Palestinian access to Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli occupation for decades. During the month of Ramadan, Israel loosens these restrictions, though, and the city becomes a place full of Palestinians and even walking in the Old City becomes difficult. This suggests that Israel also wants to restrict Palestinian mobility in order to break possible resistance in Jerusalem by utilising, albeit unwittingly, Palestinians from the West Bank.
What Berda concludes is that Israel’s permit regime should be terminated not reformed. She has realised that fighting in military courts in Israel for Palestinian work permits is almost always a lost cause. She also calls for an end to the application of Israeli military courts against Palestinians in order to legitimise the struggle.