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ETZION MILITARY BASE, West Bank – More than 300 Palestinians showed up at an Israeli military base in the West Bank recently, hoping they could win the lifting of security bans that prevent them for entering Israel.
But they were also anxious.
Talking in small groups, they recounted past experiences where some had been asked to spy on their neighbors in exchange for a permit — a gut-wrenching choice. Permits mean freedom of movement and higher-paying jobs in Israel, but those suspected of being informers are shunned or attacked by their communities.
Those waiting outside the Etzion base had seized the offer of security ban reviews as a rare chance to access a secretive system. But they also feared the roving "clearance campaign," in which the military announces on Facebook which town is next, makes it more convenient for Israel's Shin Bet security service to gather information about them.
"They control the lives of the people, deciding who can come and who can go," said Majed Ghayada, 35, one of those at the gate who learned of his security block last fall when his permit request was rejected, without explanation.
Security bans are the hidden centerpiece of a permit system that Palestinians consider the ultimate tool of control in Israel's half-century-old military occupation.
The restrictions on Palestinians' movements are well known. But the impact of the permit system reverberates in numerous ways, directly or indirectly affecting the lives of nearly all the 4.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Having a permit can determine where Palestinians work or study, whether they can visit relatives or afford to get married, even whom they marry.
The system, mainly run by a military administration known by its acronym COGAT, has swelled into a sprawling bureaucracy with intricate categories and arcane rules, often opaque and confusing, according to interviews with those involved in and affected by the system. The result often confounds Palestinians' attempts to live a semblance of a normal life.
Israel portrays the permits as goodwill gestures and the system as crucial to shield against what it says are ongoing attempts by Palestinian militants to carry out attacks.
Hundreds of Israelis were killed in bombings and shootings over a decade ago, and Palestinian militants keep trying to carry out attacks in Israel, said retired Col. Grisha Yakubovich, a veteran of the Civil Administration, which is part of the COGAT system. "So you need to check everybody," he said.
Critics say the ultimate purpose is to entrench Palestinians' dependence. The system, they say, provides leverage to recruit informers, creates internal suspicions and keeps Palestinian political and business elites compliant through movement perks.
It also fuels corruption, they say. Many Palestinian laborers in Israel pay as much as a quarter of their salaries to Palestinian permit brokers. The brokers, in turn, are believed to share kickbacks with Israeli employers, fallout of a system in which the permit is issued to employers, not workers. There are also reports of bribery and favoritism among Palestinian officials who determine what names are submitted to obtain valued Israeli permits for businessmen.
As a sign of how central the system is to everyone's lives, the Arabic Facebook page of the head of COGAT, Gen. Yoav Mordechai, has more than 410,000 followers, most likely almost all of them Palestinians, watching for any announcements concerning the permit regime.
That would be almost a tenth of the entire Palestinian population — men and women, children and elderly — in the West Bank and Gaza.
Rights activists say the system is unique because of its sophistication and the large number of people it controls— 2.5 million in the West Bank and 2 million in Gaza.
Israel typically issues several hundred thousand entry permits a year for West Bankers, ranging from day passes to those valid for several months. After years of legal battles with Israeli rights groups, COGAT began making some rules public in a 65-page document on its website. It contains charts describing dozens of different permit types and quotas, carving out oddly narrow subsets like "burial society employees."
In Gaza, under blockade since a 2007 takeover by the militant Hamas, even the small number of permits for "exceptional" entry to Israel plummeted. Last year, fewer than 6,000 people a month left on average, roughly half the level of 2016, according to the Israeli rights group Gisha.
COGAT did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the permit system. But it has defended the shrinking permit numbers from Gaza, saying Hamas exploits travelers to smuggle money or weapons.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. For the first two decades of Israeli rule, Palestinians could drive to jobs in Israel or trade between the West Bank and Gaza.
Restrictions steadily grew from the 1990s, driven by violence linked to the first Palestinian uprising, but also as a by-product of talks on the creation of autonomous Palestinian zones.
Underpinning the permit system is the absence of a recognized border between Israel and the war-won territories. Israel never annexed the West Bank, even as it built settlements there. Israelis move freely in and out of the West Bank. But Israel argues that Palestinians don't have an inherent right of entry to pre-1967 Israel and east Jerusalem, their traditional political, cultural and commercial hub, or to travel between the West Bank and Gaza.
Mohammed Atta pulled up at a locked gate in Israel's separation barrier, his pickup truck loaded with peach and apple trees to deliver to a nursery on the other side, in what Israel calls the "seam zone."
The zone is part of the West Bank, but ended up on the "Israeli" side of the barrier, which for long stretches runs inside the West Bank rather than along the pre-1967 frontier, or Green Line.
Critics say that turned a defensive measure into a land grab. It also created a complex subset of the permit regime.
A 41-page Civil Administration manual details rules for Palestinians with homes, businesses, jobs or land in the seam zone, from which they can easily cross an invisible Green Line into Israel.
Even movements of sheep and goats are regulated. An animal enclosure outside the seam zone can't be more than 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from pastures in the zone. The frequency of herds crossing the barrier depends on the number of animals and size of the pasture.
"It's bureaucracy at its worst," said Hanna Barag, founder of Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli women who monitor checkpoints.
Atta, 61, works for a nursery with branches on both sides of the barrier.
His permit specifies which barrier gate he can use to enter the seam zone. His work schedule is dictated by its three daily openings, about an hour each.
On a recent day, two soldiers arrived a few minutes after the appointed time. Atta and others got through. But the soldiers closed after 45 minutes, and turned away an irritated motorist who gestured to his watch to show he should still be allowed through.
From Palestinians' view, decisions on permits seem arbitrary, often making it difficult to plan their lives.
For example, long-distance runner Nader al-Masri, who participated in dozens of international competitions, including the 2008 Olympics, shouldn't have a problem getting out of Gaza. Athletes are among the few theoretically eligible for Israeli exit permits, as are major traders and medical patients requiring life-saving treatment. Al-Masri said he's never engaged in politics.
Yet for three years, Israel would not approve his exit applications, without stating a reason.
Earlier this month, he finally got a permit along with his team of young runners aiming to attend a competition in Jordan. But their permits were issued too late and they only got there on the third day of the tournament.
Al-Masri was upset. Among the races his teams missed was the 1,500-meter run. The third-place winner, it turned out, finished well behind the personal best of one of the Gaza runners. "If we had participated, we would have gotten a medal for sure," he said.
STABILITY = PROSPERITY
"Stability is born from prosperity." It's a slogan Gen. Mordechai puts on some of his Facebook posts. A fluent Arabic speaker, he portrays himself as accessible and eager to improve Palestinians' economic situation.
But that slogan could also be flipped. Palestinians say their hope for prosperity — receiving a permit — depends on them preserving stability, staying compliant, avoiding any kind of trouble.
Yael Berda, a former Israeli lawyer involved in such cases, said she believes a key objective of the permit system is to enable the Shin Bet to recruit informers providing low-grade information.
Shin Bet agents use seemingly irrelevant snippets of information to create the impression of omnipotence, she said. She recalled how agents asked one of her clients about a needlepoint rendering of a Muslim shrine on display in his living room.
"At that moment, the person thinks their whole life is an open book, that he shouldn't hide anything," said Berda, who has written a book about the permit system.
In a statement to The Associated Press, the Shin Bet denied a hidden agenda, saying that security blocks are "solely derived from security considerations and the prevention of terrorism."
Tens of thousands of West Bankers are believed to have security bans on them. The Shin Bet refuses to specify how many. The cause of security blocks is often a mystery. Anyone who ever served prison time is almost certain to have one, but others who are banned were never in an Israeli prison.
Around 300 Palestinians showed up at the Etzion military base last week, handing their Israeli-issued ID cards to soldiers. Several younger men were called in for interviews, presumably with Shin Bet agents.
A 26-year-old emerged a while later, dejected. He said the agent told him that before lifting his ban — in place since a one-year prison term for a security offense in 2013 — they first had to "build a bridge of trust." The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of further repercussions, rejected what he believed was an attempt to recruit him.
Only a small number of people saw their bans lifted that day, according to those who showed up.
One of those rejected, 28-year-old Ibrahim Darie, said he had previously been asked by the Shin Bet to collaborate in exchange for a permit, but was not questioned this time.
Mohammed Thawabta, who owns a quarry, said he had been blocked at the beginning of the year after seven years of having his trader permit renewed without problems. The 39-year-old sells $1.7 million of cut stones a year, including to Israel.
By early afternoon, a soldier handed back Thawabta's ID, telling him the ban remains in place.
"I was so disappointed because I went there full of hope ... because I'm a businessman and I was never engaged in any problem with anyone," Thawabta later said by phone.
He needs the permit to deal with his Israeli customers, he said, adding that "nothing is in my hand."
Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed reporting.