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he checkpoints in the West Bank, particularly during the second Intifada (2000-2007), have been well-known for their arbitrariness and for the atmosphere of uncertainty they have constantly produced among the Palestinian population. Thus, for example, when Tobias Kelly asked his Palestinian interlocutors about the reason for a particular checkpoint, "they would just laugh at me, telling me that it was biddun sabab (without reason) and that I should stop trying to find an explanation beyond the whims of the soldiers" (Kelly, 2006: 102). The military checkpoints' system has been built patch over patch, and the territory was divided between many commandments in different levels, with no central control or guiding hand. The question why a particular checkpoint was built and why did the soldiers let someone through or alternatively detained them for half a day, could indeed be seen as a waste of time.
In Living Emergency, Yael Berda's mission is, nevertheless, to decipher the reason. Not the reason for a single act or a specific checkpoint, but rather the raison d'etre of the entire permit regime in the Occupied West Bank.
Berda, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Hebrew University, based the book on her experience as a human rights lawyer representing more than two hundred Palestinian clients in their attempt to obtain movement permits, or to struggle against their arbitrary cancellation. As a Jewish-Israeli attorney, Berda's position gave her access to documents, institutional knowledge, and personal encounters with key figures in the permit regime. The book is thus a combination of first-hand stories, detailed documentation, dozens of interviews, and analysis.
Berda argues that the permit regime in the West Bank is a sophisticated apparatus aimed at the racial management of movement in a settler colonial context. As such, the permit regime serves as a means of controlling and monitoring the Palestinian population through security classifications. The book's relevance is not limited to Israel/Palestine, however, since "the management of Palestinian population in Israel has served as a laboratory for policies and technologies restricting mobility, particularly to police social inequalities" (9). Deciphering the Israeli system of control in the West Bank is thus important for understanding contemporary technologies of control, varying from urban policing to "the global war on terror."
The book traces the history of the bureaucracy of the occupation, especially in the second Intifada, when "Palestinians were no longer viewed as a 'hostile population' but as a 'dangerous enemy population'" (32). In just a few years, more than quarter of a million Palestinians were classified as a security threat, a status that prevented them from receiving entry permits to work in Israel or in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Berda analyses the permit regime as based on three interrelated components: space, race, and documents. Together, the three tools shape the contemporary stage of the occupation, in which emergency laws (inherited from the British colonial mandate and reshaped by Israeli military decrees); classification of the population (based on ethnicity, kinships, daily activities, and place of living); and spatial management of closures and channeling (with hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks, bypass roads, and more) create an all-encompassing control on the daily lives and activities of the Palestinian population.
Living Emergency is full of testimonies to what seems by the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank as an arbitrary system, whose decisions are always unpredictable, and whose real decision-makers are never accessible. There is a growing buffer between applicants and decision makers: Palestinians should submit their requests to the Palestinian side of the District Coordination Offices (DCOs), which has no authority apart of forwarding the paperwork to the Israeli side—also serving as no more than a 'pipe' to the Shin Bet (General Security Services), which is the ultimate authority deciding on their acceptance. Based on interviews and documents, Berda's conclusion is that the Shin Bet has turned into a ghost sovereign, the only one who has the alleged expertise in dividing friends and foes, thus holding unassailable power regarding the Palestinian freedom of movement. Unlike modern Weberian-like bureaucracy, there isn't a way of knowing how to prepare a successful application for a permit, and the decisions seem as arbitrary as a toss of a coin. In Berda's analysis, however, this seemingly arbitrariness is actually an "effective inefficiency," (107) a situation in which the system's inefficiency (long lines, unclear opening hours, inability to understand who's responsible for what, etc.) is not a byproduct of a messy incompetence, but rather a means to an end. The ends, says Berda, are Palestinian dependency on the administrative system and a deliberate creation of uncertainty, suspicion and disorientation as a way of weakening the Palestinian society in front of the occupation apparatuses.
The "effective inefficiency" and the lack of available information makes any case a unique one, denying any ability to know in advance whether an application would be successful or not. Thus, although the permit regime applied to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, "each person had to fight and cope with the classification alone" (51). The prevented person never knows the origin of the criminalizing information, nor the chain of deductions that led the Shin Bet to deny him of a movement permit. Many times, the restriction is born out of an anonymous complaint by the person's employer. Thus, labor conflict, being part of a workers' union, or the mere wish to avoid paying one's salary, might lead to a false claim in being a "security threat." In other times, the ban is based on one's kinship, place of origin, or other rather obscure things that turn in the given bureaucratic regime into an irrefutable allegation. "Uncertainty regarding the causes of the restriction," writes Berda, "turned it into a force majeure, an act of fate, or an incurable administrative disease" (53).
The dependency on work in Israel sends people to beg for lifting their restriction. A Palestinian interviewee describes a two-year attempt to convince the Shin Bet that he's not a security threat:
I would come to the DCO to speak with the Shin Bet […] ten times a month, for two years. It's like a job. You come in the morning, you give your ID to the guard at the door, he tells you to wait, and at four or five in the afternoon he gives it back to you and says, 'go home; they don't want to talk to you.' So you come on a different day […] Nothing I can do but come here; I need a permit; I need to work (61).
Reading dozens of such testimonies makes clear why a success in obtaining a permit creates a climate of suspicion. Every Palestinian is familiar with the Shin Bet's key sentence—"help us, and we might help you." The arbitrary blacklisting, the lack of clear reasons or procedures, and the inherent dependency of the Palestinians on working in Israel, make the restriction of movement an efficient tool in recruiting informants, putting any Palestinian on the verge of two built-in suspicions: as a terrorist or as a traitor. Beyond the direct damages made by the movement restrictions, "[t]he classification had a significant chilling effect on people's lives, choices, and participation in society" (114).
The book concentrates on one component of the now 51-year-old occupation of the West Bank: the bureaucratic regime applied towards men wishing to work in Israel or in the West Bank's Jewish settlements. It is a relatively limited group: circa 60,000 authorized workers, and nearly a quarter of a million of "prevented persons" – out of 2.5 million Palestinian inhabitants in the West Bank. However, Berda's analysis manages to crystallize the role of the deliberate production of uncertainty in the lives of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, a place where "no rule seems to be implemented twice in the same way" (Rijke and Minca, 2018: 35).
Living Emergency has wider implications if one takes the discussion further towards general issues of political theory regarding the connection between surveillance, citizenship, and violence. For example, having in mind Arendt's (1979) Origins of Totalitarianism—arguing that separation, fear, and lack of participation in the public sphere are necessary conditions for the creation and maintenance of totalitarian regimes—it seems that Berda's arguments expose the extent of the politicide (Kimmerling, 2006) implemented towards the Palestinian society by means of bureaucracy. In the same vein, following Foucault (1977), we tend to understand systems of surveillance as being at the same time apparatuses of care and subjectification. But then, just what subject is created in a system that has no "right behavior," a system in which the failure is apriorily guaranteed?
Yael Berda has written an important book regarding contemporary institutional violence, politics of uncertainty, and the decline of transparency and decency when it comes to what states conceive (or produce) as "dangerous populations." With the "global war on terror" and what is seems today as a global "authoritarian turn" (cf. Murakami Wood, 2017), Living Emergency is a critical intervention in the world, going far beyond Israel/Palestine.