Bound in by red tape - Guardian, UK
- Bound in by red tape
Israeli bureaucracy seems designed to cow the
Palestinian population into docility, but mostly has
the opposite effect, writes Brian Whitaker
Monday May 20, 2002
CRACK! A noise like a distant rifle shot echoed around
the stone walls of Arab east Jerusalem.
I had spent the evening working on a story about the
latest suicide bombing in Netanya and had gone to bed
wondering if the Israeli forces would strike back
overnight and - if so - where.
Halfway between sleep and wakefulness, I was not sure
at first if I had imagined the sound. But then there
was another, and another. I went downstairs to the
hotel reception. The woman on night duty was hunched
over her computer, reading the latest news on the
"Did you hear a noise outside?" I asked. "No," she
said, and turned back to the internet.
I decided to take a look around and soon found the
source of the commotion. It was a lot closer than I
had thought, but it was not gunfire.
In the next street there is a grim, fortress-like
building with security cameras, floodlights, iron bars
on all the windows and a 7ft-high revolving cage for a
It is what the Israelis call the "population
administration" office - the place where Palestinians
from east Jerusalem go to get birth certificates,
renew their identity cards and collect all the other
bureaucratic necessities. Needless to say, when the
office opens in the morning the queues are
The noise I had heard came from a dozen or so
Palestinian youths in front of the building who were
smashing up wooden planks. Since they would be queuing
all night and the weather was chilly, they were making
a fire in the street to keep warm.
The intriguing twist to this tale is that the youths
were not themselves in need of new ID cards or any
other paperwork. They queue for a living.
Other Palestinians who want to avoid the wait and can
afford the privilege, pay them to stay up all night
outside the office and reserve a place at the front of
By seven in the morning, other little enterprises
swing into action outside the office. Three men with
clunky typewriters arrive and set up tables on the
opposite pavement. They already have stacks of
application forms, which they fill in for people and
save time by making sure the questions have been
This sort of thing is part of the normal, daily grind
for Palestinians. Foreigners may hear about it and
read about it, but that is not the same as actually
experiencing it. Sometimes I get a feeling that the
real purpose of Israeli occupation is to turn the West
Bank into a theme park where tourists will flock from
around the world to discover what life was like in the
old Soviet Union.
In Blairite Britain we have gone to the opposite
extreme. All branches of government are now required,
on pain of punishment, to deliver service with a
smile. Even the social security offices try to lay on
a friendly ambiance and government employees spend
millions of hours on performance reviews, quality
control and efficiency measurement.
But the whole point about Israeli bureaucracy, at
least where Palestinians are concerned, is that it is
designed to be inefficient, with the rules changing
frequently, so that nobody can ever be quite sure
where they stand. That way, the Israelis show who is
The theory, I suppose, is that eventually this will
produce a cowed, docile population who are willing to
do whatever they are told. But a lot of the time it
just makes them more angry.
On the short drive between Jerusalem and Ramallah -
previously a 20-minute journey - there are at present
two Israeli checkpoints to be crossed. The main one is
at Qalandiya, a remote spot in the countryside with an
array of high metal fences, floodlights and waist-high
concrete blocks resembling Lego bricks.
Nowadays it is a noisy place because apart from the
revving of lorry engines in the queue there's often a
crane adjusting the floodlights or a bulldozer
rearranging the Lego bricks.
The only real function that Qalandiya has, so far as I
can see, is to waste people's time. The soldiers look
at people's identity papers but they do not check the
names against a "wanted" list. They search some bags,
rather cursorily, but not most of them.
I have passed through eight times in the last five
days with a computer case over my shoulder and nobody
has ever asked to look inside. For all they knew, I
was carrying a kilogramme or two of Semtex. Possibly
they let me through because I am a pale-faced
blue-eyed foreigner, but it seems to be the same for
the vast majority of Palestinians who make the
As at the population administration office in
Jerusalem, long queues create business opportunities.
At busy times, Palestinians set up stalls selling
snacks, drinks and cigarettes from dubious sources.
There is nothing more surreal than the sight of an ice
cream trolley, topped with a gaily painted sunshade
plying its wares among the coils of razor wire.
It is always difficult to judge to the nearest hour
how long the crossing will take, so if you have an
appointment in Ramallah you either take a chance on
arriving an hour late or set off early, with the
possibility of having to hang around in the town for
an hour before the meeting.
Nobody attempts to take a vehicle through the crossing
unless it is absolutely essential. The quickest and
surest way is to get a minibus or taxi to the
checkpoint, walk through, then catch another minibus
or taxi into Ramallah.
Last week, when Yasser Arafat gave a major speech in
Ramallah, lots of foreign TV crews drove their
equipment through the checkpoint. They got into
Ramallah without too much trouble, but getting their
urgent film back to Jerusalem was another matter. Some
were convinced that the Israelis delayed them
Crossing on foot, people are channelled into queues
between the concrete Lego bricks. There is one queue
for men and another for women - or "girls" as some of
the Israeli soldiers address them in Arabic.
At the front of the queue is a dusty patch of no man's
land and, on the opposite side, piles of sandbags with
two or three soldiers behind them checking documents.
The men's queue is almost always several times longer
than the women's queue, and sometimes there are shouts
from one or other queue that it is not getting a fair
One morning, with extraordinarily long queues, and in
a heavy shower of rain, one of the two Israeli
soldiers on duty disappeared from his sandbags -
apparently to go to the toilet. That left just one
soldier checking the documents. There were protests
from the crowd and, for several minutes, all checking
of documents stopped.
Often, such small incidents lead to arguments among
the queuing Palestinians. Some are in a hurry and just
want to get the whole tedious process over as quickly
as possible, while others insist on their rights even
if by doing so they add to the delays.
That, in microcosm, is the nub of the Palestinians'
wider dilemma. They know the intifada is not working
but disagree on the reasons: too much militancy say
some, too little say the others.
Sooner or later at Qalandiya, you get to the front of
the queue. Then, one at a time, you step into no man's
land and head for the sandbags, watched by soldiers on
high ground at the side.
I have timed the walk and it takes, on average, 20-25
seconds. Many Palestinians try to speed this up a bit
by starting their walk just before the previous person
moves on from the sandbags.
"Go! Go!" people from behind urge the person at the
head of the queue. But the timing is an art. Set off
too early and you can be sure that the person ahead of
you will be kept an extra long time at the sandbags,
leaving you stranded in the middle.
Set off too late or walk too slowly and the people in
the queue will complain that you are delaying them.
Hurry towards the sandbags and the soldiers may get
Yesterday, returning from Ramallah, I was in the queue
behind a Palestinian boy with a large sports bag.
Halfway across no man's land, the soldiers told him to
put it on the ground and open it. The boy did so and
it did not explode. The soldier beckoned him to move
forward again, took a quick peek inside, then sent him
on his way.
Usually, no words are exchanged in these encounters
with the military. You hand over your papers, they
flick through them and hand them back. It is much
worse if they speak.
One day, the soldier who greeted me from behind the
sandbags was an overweight man with dark glasses - so
dark that you could not look him in the eye.
"Good morning," he said, affecting an American drawl.
"How are you today?" That is the dreadful moment when
you are tempted to say something rude, but you know
that he has the power and - if he wants to - he can
keep you there for hours.
"I'm fine," I replied meekly, "but rather delayed".
A smirk flickered behind the sunglasses and he waved
"Have a nice day," he said.
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