Systematic Abuse by Administrative Means: A Matter of Policy? | Machsomwatch
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Systematic Abuse by Administrative Means: A Matter of Policy?

Tuesday, 13 November, 2007

A Report on the Operational Practices of the Civil Administration in Occupied Palestinian Territories

by

Tsilli Goldenberg

MachsomWatch, Jerusalem

This report is based on observations made at the Etzion District Coordination Office (hence DCO) on follow-up of applications for permits to participate in the Ramadan holiday prayers, and on observations at checkpoints:

9.11.03 (Sunday) DCO and Etzion Checkpoint
          Maya Bluhm, Mikhal Zupan, Tamar Goldschmidt, Tsilli Goldenberg
21.11.03 (Friday) Bethlehem Checkpoint
          Yehudit Elkana, Chaya Ofek, Tsili Goldenberg
21.11.03 (Friday) Wadi Nar Checkpoint
          Mikhal Zupan, Rita Mendes-Flohr
21.11.03 (Friday) Qalandiya Checkpoint
          Barbara Schmutzler 
23.11.03 (Sunday) Etzion DCO
          Maya Bluhm, Tamar Goldschmidt, Tsilli Goldenberg
20.11.03 (Thursday) IDF Spokesman Announcement:
          “The IDF and the Civil Administration Grant Permission for Palestinian Civilians to
          Attend Prayers at the Temple Mount"
Appendices:
          Our letters to the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, November 12, 2003

PERMITS TO PRAY ON THE TEMPLE MOUNT

This report was written in response to a new Ministry of Defense decree in honor of the Ramadan holiday which ended on November 24. In the past, adult Palestinian heads of households from the occupied territories were permitted to enter Jerusalem to pray on the four Fridays of Ramadan, provided they passed through the checkpoints. The new regulation (published by the IDF Spokesperson on 20.11.03) made the right to pray conditional on the presentation of a special permit to enter Jerusalem. This demand represents a significant worsening for the entire Palestinian population, most of which is religious, and an additional infringement on human rights in the occupied territories.

The regulation states: “The IDF and Civil Administration are preparing to facilitate the passage of Palestinian civilians who may desire to attend the ‘Leylat al-Kader’ prayers and the last Friday night prayer of the month of Ramadan.” According to this regulation, travel to the Temple Mount, permissible only to men 45 years and older and to women 35 years and older who have families, is contingent upon obtaining a special permit at the local DCO. In retrospect, this demand turned out to be cynical and provocative, as only 5,000 permits were granted to the entire population of the occupied territories—i.e. to only 0.2% of the approximately 3 million inhabitants of the territories. For the IDF and the Civil Administration, freedom of worship apparently means requiring the Palestinians to obtain yet another permit and issuing it to a miniscule number of people.

At the same time, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued pronouncements in the media promising “an easing of the restrictions imposed on innocent members of the population, who are not involved in terror”. Our observations show there is no relation between these pronouncements and the daily realities of Palestinian life. On the contrary, as the proclamations that restrictions will be lifted multiply, so do new restrictions on travel, worship and religion multiply. We found plentiful evidence that the new regulation in fact did not serve to enable Palestinians to reach the Temple Mount to pray, but to prevent them from doing so. (See our Letters to the Prime Minister, Appendix).

The order to present the “special permit for prayers” at the checkpoints is only one of dozens, perhaps hundreds of requirements, restrictions and regulations applied to the residents of the territories with the goal of severely limiting their freedom of movement. In the wake of the new Ramadan regulations we decided to see for ourselves how one may obtain the necessary permits. To learn firsthand how the Civil Administration functions, we observed activities at checkpoints and at the Etzion DCO.

THE CIVIL ADMINISTRATION

The Etzion DCO is one of eight Israeli liaison offices in the West Bank. They are part of the Civil Administration directed by Brigadier General Ilan Paz. The Civil Administration is under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense, and is operated by the State. Its task is to oversee civilian life in the West Bank. It serves as a kind of “Ministry of the Interior” and is responsible for the administrative needs of the civilian population. As an occupying force, Israel is responsible for the reasonable management of the daily life of the inhabitants. The government justifies the limitations on Palestinians’ freedom of movement as an essential instrument of security, but in fact it infringes on the rights of innocent citizens who are not involved in terror when it prevents them from entering Israeli territory in order to work, study, get health care, or—as in the case of the Ramadan permits -- to pray. Even more intolerable is the demand that Palestinians obtain permits to travel within the occupied territories. This demand is illegal and violates all international conventions; it brutally tramples basic human rights and serves no demonstrable security purpose.

Government policies such as closureinfo-icon, encirclementinfo-icon, checkpoints, roadblocks and “security” fences force every single resident of the West Bank into dependency on permits from the local DCO. The vast majority of the inhabitants is in no way connected to terrorist activities, and is interested only in leading a normal life, but the absolute dependence on travel permits has turned life into a nightmare. The Civil Administration determines whether one may leave home, visit one’s parents, go to work or to school, till one’s own fields which lie beyond the “security” fence, receive medical treatment, or give birth in a hospital (rather than at a checkpoint). These are matters of life and death, of physical and economic survival, for an entire population. We will therefore present an unadorned picture of the absolute disfunction of the Etzion DCO as we have personally witnessed it.

ETZION DCO, 9.11.2003, 23.11.‏2003

Population base: The DCO serves a population of 80,000 Palestinians from Bethlehem and the surrounding area, as we were informed by the Etzion Brigade Commander.

Location: The DCO is situated south of Bethlehem near the Gush Etzion checkpoint in an area thickly populated with Jewish settlements.

Access: Access to the DCO is via Highway 60, which is a restricted road, designated for the use of Israelis alone. Palestinians are generally prohibited from traveling on this road, except by means of public transportation in vehicles registered on a special list. During observation shifts staffed by MachsomWatchers, we saw that at times (and this during Ramadan prayers, no less) even travel by these authorized buses is stopped at the Etzion checkpoint. Passengers getting off the bus aren’t permitted to walk in the direction of the DCO. Those headed for the DCO who arrive from the direction of Jerusalem, are obliged to present passage permits at the checkpoints and the spontaneously-erected roadblocks along the way. So in order to get to the DCO to obtain a permit – one must already possess a permit (?!). When Bethlehem and its surroundings are under closure or encirclement, the inhabitants have no access to the DCO. A person who did not obtain a permit by the time the DCO closes for the day, must make his or her way home from the area, which is surrounded by settlements, at risk of being stopped at the checkpoints, or of encountering potentially threatening settlers.

Physical Plant: The DCO consists of two parts: the “offices” and a waiting room. In between the two, there is an indeterminate waiting area. DCO staffers work in the offices, a single-story prefab structure at the outer edge of the Etzion army base. The structure is part of the base, and flanks its entrance gate. An armed IDF soldier is posted on the rooftop. The service windows are set in the façade. Those applying for permits never enter the structure itself. The waiting area in front has an asbestos overhead cover, which hardly suffices for the waiting crowd, many of whom stand in the open between the sheltered area and the waiting room. The waiting room, which one enters from a door next to a lavatory, is a three-sided, windowless asbestos structure some twenty square meters large with fifty plastic chairs.

Service Windows: There are five windows at the front of the building. These five service counters are to serve a population of 80,000.

Staffing of the Service Windows: Of the five windows, two are reserved for the police for matters of traffic tickets and special driving and vehicle certificates. Of the three remaining counters, one is for submitting applications for magnetic cards, which are also received there. These cards, issued to those who pass a background security check, are a prerequisite for any other permit. There are only two other counters. Army regulations stipulate that one of these must be staffed by an officer, but the regulation is not carried out. At best, then, two active windows are open for permit applications, neither manned by an officer. At worst, there’s no one at either. At times a window will be closed for no apparent reason, and the soldier on duty will disappear for an indefinite period of time with no explanation. If people from the crowd cluster at the front of the queue, the staff immediately closes the service windows “until they learn how to behave.” (sic)

Hours of Operation: The windows open around 08:30 a.m. Some people arrive as early as 06:00 a.m. to get in line. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of people arrive in the course of the day, some of whom grow discouraged and leave, giving up in despair. As mentioned above, arbitrary, sometimes hour-long breaks in service occur throughout the day. The office officially closes at 17:30 p.m. (During our November 9th observation shift, the DCO closed by 17:15 p.m.)

Following a suicide bomb attack on the Tulkarm DCO in October, which resulted in injuries to a soldier manning the service window, Brigadier General Ilan Paz, IDF Civil Administration Commander, ordered that the windows at the service counters be refitted with bulletproof glass. (As of the writing of this report, the Ma’ale Adumim DCO was still closed to the public because renovations there had not been completed. That DCO likewise serves tens of thousands of Palestinians.) In the (renovated) Etzion DCO the windows don’t open at all; they’re hermetically sealed. A person stepping up to be served at the window is kept at a distance of some 60 centimeters by an iron bar blocking his or her approach; he or she must stretch their entire body to hand over or pick up paperwork through a narrow slot. The queue itself is also bordered by iron bars on both sides. The exchange of information with the soldier behind the window takes place via “intercom,” which requires pressing a button to talk and listen. This intercom is either defective or broken. The voices coming out of the speaker are distorted and unintelligible. As Hebrew speakers, we ourselves couldn’t understand a single word spoken by the soldiers behind the window. How could a Palestinian understand a soldier? And in Hebrew, at that?

Arabic Not Spoken by the Staff on Duty: Of the two soldiers staffing the counters, one could neither speak nor read Arabic. While we were there, one of the Palestinians who came to the window was told to take the document he had presented, and bring it back translated into Hebrew. The document in question came from a Palestinian employer, requesting a passage permit for an area within the West Bank, not into Israeli territory. “If the document won’t be in Hebrew, we won’t be able to take care of you,” the soldier on duty told him.

Exterior Illumination: At nightfall, 17:00 p.m., the front of the DCO is enveloped in darkness. The crowd in the waiting area stands in darkness. There is a strong spotlight on the roof, but all it does is illuminate the armed guard positioned there and his immediate surroundings.

MACHSOMWATCH OBSERVATION 12:15 – 16:00 P.M., 23.11.2003

(Note: most of the people waiting here are fasting for Ramadan, and aren’t smoking. Today is the day before the holiday of Eid al-Fitr that concludes the month of Ramadan.)

We arrived at the Etzion DCO at 12:15 p.m. There were seventy Palestinians waiting. Two counters were open: Window #1 for the magnetic-card permits, and Window #2 for passage permits. The Palestinians told us that “hundreds of people had arrived since the morning,” most of whom gave up in despair and left when they saw the waiting lines. We asked how many people had been taken care of up till now. We were told that from 08:30 a.m. until 12.15 .p.m., only nine people had been received at the counter for the passage permits. Applicant Number Ten was now standing leaning over the iron bar separating applicants from the window. Several people were clustered around Window #1.

12:25 – The [female] soldier at Window #1 closes the window because “the line wasn’t            orderly.” After the people step back a distance from the window she opens it again.            All the while the crowd is on edge; people are agitated, bursting with frustration            and strained nerves.
12:30 – Window #1 closes again. 
12:40 – Window #2 closes. (Again, as punishment for crowding.)
12:44 – Window #1 reopens after the people waiting there form a line. Window #2 remains
           closed.
13:15 – It’s been an hour since we arrived on this Watch shift; Window #2 is still closed.
           People mill around, frustrated and angry. Applicant Number Ten is still waiting
          for his turn. We phone Major Avi Shalev, Etzion DCO commander. The clerk who
           answers the phone tells us that he’s at lunch. After several minutes, we succeed in
           reaching Shalev and he takes care of the situation.
13:20 – Both windows are open, and an additional window is opened for passage permits.
           The queue begins to move.
13:50 – Window #2 calls Number 27.
14:15 – The second window that was opened (an hour ago) for passage permits, is now
           closed. It only reopens at 15:50, over and hour and a half later.
16:00 – The queue moves forward at a lazy pace. Some of those who have been waiting
           give up in despair and leave empty-handed. Some hurry to their homes to prepare
           to break the fast and get ready for the holiday.

WHY ARE THEY STANDING IN LINE? PERSONAL STORIES

A permit to accompany a kidney transplant patient who needs medical treatment in Israel "I am happy when I receive a permit for one week".

G.M. has a blue identity card (he’s a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem). His wife is from Bethlehem. As it is no longer possible to change one’s personal status on the basis of family unification, his wife is left with an identity card from the occupied territories. Contrary to her husband, she must get a permit from the Etzion DCO in order to enter Israeli territory, even though they reside within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem in Beit Hanina. G.M. has a kidney transplant, for which he received intensive treatments at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, since the operation could not be performed in the West Bank. (When G.M.'s brother was killed, his family donated his organs to Israeli patients.) G.M.’s general state of health is not good. With his transplanted kidney in danger of rejection, G.M. continues to require additional vital treatments. He has a letter signed by the doctor at Ichilov Hospital, which affirms that he must come in for weekly treatments. G.M. needs his wife with him when he undergoes these painful treatments, and thus he must go every week to the Etzion DCO in order to get a permit for her to enter Israel. When we met him, he was not feeling well. It was 13:50 p.m., and he was Number 64 in the line for passage permits. When we left, his turn had not yet arrived. He told us that the DCO issues permits for one week only. Once, when his wife was pregnant, he received a permit for one month. When he came back and asked for another monthly permit, they said, "We have an ordinance that permits are issued for one week only." If his wife were to come, she would need to present an entry permit to Israel at the checkpoints and numerous spontaneous army spot checks they are likely to come upon on the long road between northern Jerusalem and the Etzion checkpoint. For this reason, G.M. is forced to come by himself to request the permit for his wife. He consequently wastes day after day waiting for his turn at the service window. He has frequently waited for his turn to no avail until five thirty in the evening, closing time. In such a case, he must return on the following day. "I am happy when I get a permit for week," he told us when we parted.

“Instead of going to work, I am just standing here.” A passage permit within the occupied territories

During closures, N., a thirty-year old Palestinian, needs a passage permit from his residence near the settlement of Efrat to his place of work near Za'atra, a Palestinian town neighboring Bethlehem. This is not a question of an entrance permit into Israel. The distance is not great, but because there are settlements in Area C (between his home and his destination), he must pass through internal West Bank checkpoints and present a passage permit there. Even if he has a valid permit in hand, he may not get through. Very often orders received at roadblocks and checkpoints entirely forbid passage. Nevertheless, a valid permit is better than nothing. During the Ramadan holiday, and particularly during the of Eid al-Fitr holiday when the fast is broken, Moslems tend to visit each other to celebrate together, give gifts to the needy and have special family dinners. When we met him, N. was standing in line at the DCO instead of going to work or preparing for the holiday. He had already been at the DCO several times, and every time he was asked to produce another document. He showed us all of the documents he had been required to bring. He was very hopeful that this time he would receive the desired permit, which might make it easier for him to get to his place of work.

Here is his story: "Yesterday, I waited at the checkpoint in Za'atra on my way home from work from two in the afternoon until five in the evening. You know, it is Ramadan now, and we stop fasting at ten to five. We waited all day. I wanted to get home from Bethlehem. I asked the soldiers (to move things along), explaining that 'We don't have any time.' They didn't answer. Soldiers have the right to decide; they determine if you pass through the checkpoint or not. I am waiting here for my turn. I want a permit; maybe they will give me one, maybe not. There's about a one percent chance that I will get the permit."

We asked: "If you don't get the permit today, will you come back?" N.: "Yes. I will return all week long (if necessary). Don't we have children at home? We want to work, we want to live. Look, instead of going to work, I’m just standing here. All for a piece of paper." He gestured at the window and said: "I'm not against the government. I'm not against anyone. We want to get through the internal road blocks (within the West Bank, in our own territory) without permits". Then, with an expression of despair on his face, he added: "All of this won't help. This is ridiculous. You know, it is Ramadan now; people want to go visit their families. They don't want to go around the checkpoints and make trouble (on rough roundabout pathways)."

About an hour later, it was finally N.’s turn at the service window. He didn't get the permit he wanted, but was asked to bring more documents to justify his request. N. left the area in a state of discouragement and rage.

CONCLUSIONS

We have hundreds of similar testimonies and stories. The page cannot contain the shame and pain of the situation. All of the stories speak of humiliation and simple harassment, of the indescribable suffering of an entire population that wants to live its life with dignity and is unable to do so. The interrelated policies governing the operations of the checkpoints and the DCOs place Palestinian society in danger of total collapse. It is impossible to move, impossible to make a living, impossible to receive medical treatment – how can one live this way? It is clear to anyone standing at the Etzion DCO and observing the ongoings that the nightmare of endless queues and harassment, the unreasonable demands for more and more documents in order to receive a permit which is needed in order to receive yet another permit – this entire arrangement bears no connection whatsoever to the security of Israeli citizens. If anything, quite the contrary.

Where exactly is the Israeli government pushing these ordinary Palestinian residents, the very ones standing in line and attempting to obtain valid passage permits? When we stood and watched this unending wait (for only four hours), we were almost ready to explode. From the evidence we have collected, it is clear that the Etzion DCO is simply not functioning. Rather than serving the population for which it is responsible, it is causing them unnecessary harm and suffering which cannot be excused by "security considerations."

The DCO is physically structured and planned in a way that ensures its own dysfunction:

The DCO is not easily accessible to the people it is supposed to serve. Five service counters can not possibly serve the needs of a population of 80,000 people; much less can two service counters process the innumerable passage permits required by this number of people. The impossibility is in fact multiplied many times over since even the two service windows designated for the task are not consistently manned and the behavior of the soldiers is contemptuous and humiliating. As if all this were not enough, the soldiers speak no Arabic, they are constantly disappearing with no explanation, and there is no way to communicate with them properly.

On top of the collapsing organization of the civil administration, the government is burdening the Palestinian population with a mounting heap of bureaucratic obstacles: permits to pray during Ramadan, permits "to inhabit your own house" if you live right by the separation wall, permits to pass through the separation wall, permits to leave the ghettos and to enter them (the Kaplinsky orders of October), permits to travel within the West Bank between the settlements and so on and so forth. While more and more passage permits are demanded of the population, the entire structure of forms required in order to obtain such a permit has grown more impossible and baroque. An applicant must present a form from his employer, a form from his school, a special form for his car, a form from the hospital, and so forth. At the same time, arrests of “illegal entrants” are on the increase; the term refers not only to laborers caught in Israel, but to Palestinians traveling “illegally” within the West Bank

A similar picture to that of the Etzion DCO emerged from additional observations we made at the DCO in Beit El. We are continuing to follow this up, to protest and to report the actions of the civil administration in the West Bank.

In light of all this, there is no avoiding the conclusion that the Israeli government is purposely persecuting the Palestinian population by applying a policy of bureaucratic torment, while totally ignoring its responsibility to manage the lives of the residents of the occupied territories.

  • BARBARA SCHMUTZLER
  • TSILLI GOLDENBERG
  • YEHUDIT ELKANA
  • TAMAR GOLDSCHMIDT
  • RITA MENDES-FLOHR