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Bound in by red tape - Guardian, UK

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  • Zafar Khan
    Bound in by red tape Israeli bureaucracy seems designed to cow the Palestinian population into docility, but mostly has the opposite effect, writes Brian
    Message 1 of 1 , May 21, 2002
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      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
      interminably long.

      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
      the queue.

      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
      answered correctly.

      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
      me on.

      "Have a nice day," he said.


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