Israeli bureaucracy a leash around Palestinians

October 07, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERICO, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK — JERICHO, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Khaled Ammar needed to renew his driver's license, which is no simple matter.

An Israeli can get a new license by mail. Mr. Ammar, a Palestinian, needed to visit scattered offices of the Israeli military government that rules the West Bank and Gaza Strip and has imposed an intentionally daunting bureaucracy on the Arab population.

Before getting in line for the license, Mr. Ammar needed the police to certify that he was not wanted for a crime. He needed one tax office to agree that he owed no property taxes and another to declare that all was in order with his income taxes.

The hitch came at the income tax office.

"The clerk said my father owned a store and owed some taxes," said Mr. Ammar, a 28-year-old journalist. "What's interesting is that my father never owned a store and he has been dead five years."

Mr. Ammar returned with his father's death certificate, but the Israeli clerk was unmoved. Mr. Ammar collared a friend of the family working in the office, marched him over to the clerk and had him explain that the father had been a civil servant, not a merchant. In any case, it was the son, not the father, needing the license.

The clerk would not budge, refusing each time to stamp and sign thenecessary form.

More than bureaucratic inefficiency was involved. For Israel, the offices of the military government are a powerful tool for controlling more than 1.7 million Palestinians and for compelling their dependence on Israeli institutions.

"This isn't just Third World bureaucracy," said Yizhar Beer, director of Betselem, an Israeli human rights group that has investigated complaints by Mr. Ammar and others. "This is part of a clear decision to kick the people. It's a way to strengthen the control of authorities."

Little in the occupied territories goes totally unregulated by the Civil Administration -- the official name of the bureaucracy, although it is actually directed by military officers -- which has survived every attempt by Palestinians to ignore it.

The Civil Administration has operated in dozens of well-guarded offices since 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, and little has ever seriously disturbed it.

Israeli governments have used the bureaucracy as a convenient leash, shortened whenever Palestinians resist and let out during times of relative calm.

A Palestinian's need for a license for service of almost any kind becomes an opportunity for Israel to reassert control, and the opportunity is rarely wasted.

Obtaining almost any license or permit -- in a society where little ,, can be done legally without formal permission of some kind -- has come to involve running a bureaucratic gantlet.

Palestinians need stamps of approval from as many as seven tax and police authorities for the simplest actions.

As Mr. Ammar discovered, each of those authorities can cite the flimsiest of grounds for exercising a veto, which itself is difficult to appeal.

To obtain a telephone means getting advance written approval from seven departments, none having to do with telephones. The same applies to registering a car, opening a business or adding on to a house. For each permit, an individual needs a complete separate set of approvals.

Betselem and other organizations have thick files documenting cases in which Palestinians have faced almost impossible demands from the bureaucracy.

The owner of a small grocery store in a refugee camp receives a tax bill for more than $100,000. The owner of a private car is taxed on the assumption that he is secretly operating a taxi and told to prove he is not. He is given no instructions on how to do so.

After days of fruitless talks with the income tax official, Mr. Ammar resorted to paying 200 shekels (a little less than $100) to a Palestinian known to collaborate with Israeli authorities. For that fee, the middleman promptly obtained the license.

"It's not only a problem of a driver's license," Mr. Ammar said. "If I want a copy of my birth certificate, or anything, I have to go through the same thing again."

Israeli citizens can point to bureaucratic horror stories of their own. Israel combines the industrial world's penchant for doing -- things by the book with Third World inefficiency, producing a nearly impenetrable jungle of long lines, obstinate clerks and seemingly arbitrary rules.

But in the occupied territories, the slow, inscrutable workings of government reflect something more.

Creating difficulties is part of a policy, as Elise Shazar, a spokeswoman for the Civil Administration, indirectly confirmed. The rules require "all this running around" to make sure Palestinians realize that Israel remains in control, she said.

"This is a way of assuring some contact day-to-day with the population," she said.

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