A journey into the dark heart of Israel’s permit regime

Trapped between the separation barrier and the Green Line, Palestinians living in the ‘Seam Zone’ are forced to reckon with a Kafkaesque permit regime that appears designed to do one thing and one thing only: make them give up and leave.

By Idan Landau, translated by Jordan Michaeli

A journey into the dark heart of Israel's permit regime
A Palestinian woman takes part in a demonstration against the Israeli army’s permit regime, Bidu, West Bank, August 30, 2009. (Photo: Activestills.org)


Israeli NGO Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual published “The Permit Regime” earlier this year, a report amazing in its discoveries and the level it details the parallel universe Israel has created in the “Seam Zone,” the area between the separation barrier and the Green Line. The bulk of the information in the report was collected from UN reports (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA) and the State of Israel’s responses to 76 Supreme Court petitions filed by Hamoked over the years. As expected, the report gained zero media coverage.

The following 25 stations, on the journey to the land of permits, were drawn from the report. Refreshment stations, scattered along the way, were taken from sources that will be named.


1. “The Seam Zone” – Territories of the West Bank that were de facto annexed to Israel by the separation wall. Today 7,500 Palestinians live in the Seam Zone, trapped between the wall and the Green Line. With the completion of the wall their number will increase to 30,000. Overall, the Seam Zone will expropriate 9.4 percent of the West Bank’s territory.

2. More than half of the land in the Seam Zone is private Palestinian land, expropriated from residents living east of the wall.

3. Palestinians must apply for special permits to enter the Seam Zone. Moreover, permanent residents of the villages in the Seam Zone must also apply for a permit that will allow them to live on lands that have been theirs since time immemorial. In contrast to the judicial principal according to which a person is entitled to be on any part of his land except for in exceptional circumstances, wherein the burden of proof lays on the authorities, in the Seam Zone, the situation is completely reversed: no person is entitled to be on their land except under exceptional circumstances, wherein the burden is on the person to justify his or her presence.

4. Correction: The burden of proof lays on the Palestinian, not on the person. The permit regime in the Seam Zone is operated on the basis of ethnicity. Israelis and tourists may move freely within and into the Seam Zone.


The state of Israel sees the permit regime as a regime of privilege… contrary to a rights-base regime, which obligates the state to avoid infringing individual rights and even to  actively work toward their realization. In a regime of privilege the sovereign can grant services to a certain population (or deny them) as part of an administrative decision that is the prerogative of the state. (Phantom Sovereign: The Bureaucracy of the Occupation in the West Bank, Yael Berda, Van Leer Institute and Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing, 2012, pg 89)


5. The “exceptional circumstances” that allow one’s presence within the Seam Zone are divided into 13 categories, resulting in 13 kinds of permits: a proof of permanent residency document, a permanent farmer permit, a temporary farmer permit, a business permit, an employment permit, a personal needs permit, an education worker permit, an international organization employee permit, a Palestinian Authority employee permit, an infrastructure worker permit, a medical personnel permit, a student permit and a minor child permit.

6. The words “permanent resident” and “permanent farmer” are deceiving: all permits in the Seam Zone are temporary. Most of them are granted for three months and the longest permit is granted for two years. As a Palestinian, your status in the Seam Zone is always temporary, even if you were born and have worked there your entire life. Additionally, Civil Administration inspectors are likely to follow you around and may add you to the “Suspected of losing connection to the Seam Zone” list – the code name for a transfer list used to revoke his residency.

7. A permit granted for one purpose may not be used for another. A person who received a farming permit in the Seam Zone cannot use it to travel to a family gathering; they must apply for a special “personal needs permit.” A person who received an “infrastructure worker” permit cannot use the same permit to conduct business, and so on and so forth. Moreover, the army does not handle more than one application per person at any given time. The result is that there’s no real possibility to live an organic, multi-dimensional life in the Seam Zone, only, at best, to divide it into a stream of events, disconnected from each other in time.


From the perspective of the colonial model, the merging of the security and civilian mechanisms is actually a desirable one, because it allows administrative flexibility and the manufacturing of exceptions on an ongoing, daily basis, thanks to the recurring states of security emergency – until even civilian considerations become reactive and operate in emergency mode. (Phantom Sovereign: The Bureaucracy of the Occupation in the West Bank, pg 90)


8. The army does not issue farming permits to joint owners of land. One owner will receive a permit, the other won’t. The only way for the other owners to access their land is by applying for a permit as a “temporary worker,” employed by the owner holding the permit. For this they must present a work contract. Palestinians are forced to sign work contracts with their parents, children and siblings.

9. The number of Palestinians holding permits is steadily decreasing, while the number of permits issued remains identical. The reason is that the time period for the permits are valid is becoming ever shorter. Between 2007 and 2010 the number of permits granted for two years decreased from 23 to 7 percent of all permits.


What characterizes the administrative flexibility of the permit regime is, in fact, that the squandering of resources and the frequent administrative friction involved in providing work permits brings about two results desired by the governmental system: creating a dependency of the population on the administrative system in order to preserve ample space for monitoring and control; and preventing the entry of Palestinians from the West Bank into Israel. (Phantom Sovereign: The Bureaucracy of the Occupation in the West Bank, pg 88)


10. As a result of the permits’ short validity, the difficulty of renewing them on time and delays faced at Israeli check points, farmlands in the Seam Zone are not regularly cultivated. Greenhouses have been taken down, crops such as citrus and almonds were abandoned, and for the most part, only olive trees, which provide less revenue, remain. Due to difficulties in reaching the land, the yields from olive harvest also decreased 60 percent, compared to yields on the eastern side of the fence. In short, the permit regime transformed the Seam Zone into an area of economic impoverishment.   

11. The circle of life and death of a ‘permit’: File an application at the Palestinian District Coordination and Liaison (DCO) Office → forward it to the Israeli DCO → permit is granted, outright procedural rejection or refusal → in case of refusal, file an appeal at the Israeli DCO → be summoned to a committee hearing → the permit is granted or it is refused → in case of refusal, appeal to the High Court of Justice.

12. There is potential for trouble at every step in the process. Many times, the same application will be filed again and again since the Israeli DCO claims that an application “was not transferred” to it. The length of the delay between the Palestinian DCO (which only acts as an intermediary) and the Israeli DCO is unknown. A Palestinian has no way of knowing the status of his or her application, whether it reached its destination, whether documents are missing, and so on. Applications are often rejected without informing the applicant. The delay is crucial, since those who don’t file an appeal within a set period of time after being rejected must wait another six months before filing a new appeal. Filing an appeal also involves a risk: the military does not issue written confirmations when receiving appeals, thus making it difficult to prove that an appeal was ever made. Even if you are summoned to appear in front a committee hearing following an appeal, there is no guarantee that the subpoena will arrive on time. Many Palestinians have missed their hearings simply because they were not informed of them. Of course, not appearing at a hearing is the equivalent of not submitting an appeal at all. The refusal is then automatically extended for six months.


In the Castle the telephone works beautifully of course, I’ve been told it’s going there all the time, that naturally speeds up the work a great deal. We can hear this continual telephoning in our telephones down here as a humming and singing, you must have heard it too. Now this humming and singing transmitted by our telephones is the only real and reliable thing you’ll hear, everything else is deceptive. There’s no fixed connexion with the Castle, no central exchange transmits our calls further. When anybody calls up the Castle from here the instruments in all the subordinate departments ring, or rather they would all ring if practically all the departments – I know it for a certainty – didn’t leave their receivers off. Now and then, however, a fatigued official may feel the need of a little distraction, especially in the evenings and at night and may hang the receiver on. Then we get an answer, but an answer of course that’s merely a practical joke. And that’s very understandable too. For who would take the responsibility of interrupting, in the middle of the night, the extremely important work up there that goes on furiously the whole time, with a message about his own little private troubles? (Franz Kafka, The Castle)


13. Thirty percent of all applications are rejected. Either the army denies the application was ever transferred to it, or the applicant, according to the army, didn’t “prove a need” to enter or be in the Seam Zone, or the army has security related information on the applicant. In any case – the rejection is not explained, or even handed down in writing.

14. The army requires applicants to present documents that already appear in its database (land ownership, payments of fees and so forth). Often the documents are kept at the Civil Administration’s office. A Palestinian resident is thus forced to make their way to the office (a procedure that is made difficult by travel limitations – the same limitations that the permit is meant to remove), make a copy of the sought-after document and take it to the Palestinian DCO, only for the latter to return the copy to the Civil Administration office.

15. In principle, there is no need for documents when renewing a permit. In practice, an application made once an old permit expires is labeled a “new request” and all of the documents must be attached to it.

16. The problem is, that for a long period of time the Israeli DCO refused to accept applications for permits before the old permit expired. That created lengthy interim periods between permits, during which entrance to the Seam Zone was denied (fields were neglected, family gatherings postponed). Two years ago the army agreed to accept applications for extension starting three weeks before a permit expires – an awfully short time in the DCO’s bureaucracy, in practice not allowing for consecutiveness in between permits.

17. Following a petition to the Supreme Court in April 2011 the army updated its orders and declared that permit applications for those living outside the Seam Zone will be decided upon within 14 days. An examination of 195 applications filed during the first half of 2012 revealed that the army kept to its own time frame in only 7 percent of the cases.


And now I come to a peculiar characteristic of our administrative apparatus. Along with its precision it’s extremely sensitive as well. When an affair has been weighed for a very long time, it may happen, even before the matter has been fully considered, that suddenly in a flash the decision comes in some unforeseen place, that, moreover, can’t be found any longer later on, a decision that settles the matter, if in most cases justly, yet all the same arbitrarily. It’s as if the administrative apparatus were unable any longer to bear the tension, the year-long irritation caused by the same affair – probably trivial in itself – and had hit upon the decision by itself, without the assistance of the officials. Of course a miracle didn’t happen and certainly it was some clerk who hit upon the solution or the unwritten decision, but in any case it couldn’t be discovered by us, at least by us here, or even by the Head Bureau, which clerk had decided in this case and on what grounds. The Control Officials only discovered that much later, but we will never learn it; besides by this time it would scarcely interest anybody. Now, as I said, it’s just these decisions that are generally excellent. The only annoying thing about them – it’s usually the case with such things – is that one learns too late about them and so in the meantime keeps on still passionately canvassing things that were decided long ago. (Franz Kafka, The Castle)


18. All application procedures, appeals and hearings are covered in a 60-page booklet, the Standing Orders for the Seam Zone (SO). Although the SO is meant for use by the Palestinian population, it is written in Hebrew and not Arabic and is formulated in an unclear legal language.

19. The Israeli DCOs are staffed not only by its clerks but also by Shin Bet officers. Palestinians who file an appeal find themselves in front of a Shin Bet agent who pressures them to become collaborators. Those who refuse can expect to receive their permit only after a processing time of many months, if at all. This dilemma dissuades many Palestinians from even trying to appeal a refusal: in the years 2007 – 2010, less than 3 percent of all rejected applicants were summoned to a hearing.

20. You filed an application, you were turned down, you filed an appeal and were summoned to the committee hearing – then what? Sometimes the committee decides to conduct an on-the-ground tour before coming to a decision. Six months can pass until the tour takes place – another six months of delays before granting a permit. According to the SO, a temporary three-month permit must be given to the applicant during that time (as if another kind of permit exists). In reality, such temporary permits are seldom granted. When they are granted, they are so temporary they must be often renewed. As a result, while waiting for a “non-temporary” permit (the length of which won’t be more than six months in most cases), one must handle constant extensions of short term permits.


When one cannot find the sovereign one also cannot appeal the sovereign’s decisions, learn his decision-making patterns and adapt to them or change them. Still, as this is a constant situation of emergency, sovereign power is present in nearly every decision, even if it cannot be pinpointed as responsible. The ruling mechanism prefers personal control over comprehensive policy, because the former can be changed at any time, without any need for a cumbersome, organized legal system of decision-making. (Phantom Sovereign: The Bureaucracy of the Occupation in the West Bank, pg 111)


21. Bureaucratic reasons have made residents of the Seam Zone ineligible for marriage. Those who marry Seam Zone residents are unable to obtain a permanent permit to be there (only a few receive a permanent residency permit, which is also, as previously mentioned, valid only for two years). A Seam Zone resident who moves in with a spouse out of the Seam Zone “loses their connection” to it, according to the army’s definition, and consequently loses their residency permit.

22. The loop: a couple from the Jenin area was married at the beginning of November 2009. The distance between their houses was less than one kilometer, but in between runs the separation wall. The man applied for a “new seam zone resident” document. His request was denied on the basis that “the applicant is not a permanent resident.”

23. In February 2004 in a reply to the High Court, the State Attorney declared that Palestinian farmers will be granted free entry to the Seam Zone through “passages open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” That was an empty promise. Dozens of gates are positioned along the Seam Zone border; only two of them are continuously open. It is no coincidence that they are the only two gates that also serve settlers.

24. Any permit, of any kind, after it was obtained by hard work – may be confiscated on the spot. An army officer standing at a checkpoint may decide the permit holder deviated from the conditions of the permit and confiscate it then and there. There is no judicial oversight of confiscation; often the person whose permit was confiscated does not receive a document attesting the confiscation and they are not told of the possibility of filling an appeal.

25. The Seam Zone was closed to Palestinian movement in 2002, when the permit regime was established. In April 2011 the Supreme Court rejected petitions against it and ruled it is a “temporary situation, resulting from a difficult, interim reality.” For over 10 years this situation hasn’t been temporary, although it’s the source of said difficult reality.


A few fundamental truths

Contrary to common belief, the permit regime in the West Bank wasn’t established as a response to a wave of Palestinian terror that started in 1994, but three years earlier in January 1991 (Hebrew). Severe restrictions on movement, which created a de facto separation between Palestinian populations, prepared the ground for the Oslo accords, which were based on the logic of separation. An investigation in 2011 revealed that the Civil Administration issues Palestinians 101 different kinds of entry permits to Israel.

The Seam Zone is a bureaucratic monster, illegal and immoral since day one. It’s the result of the Israeli desire for annexation and the decision to build the separation wall beyond the Green Line. The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled as follows on July 9, 2004, sections 141 and 163:

The fact remains that Israel has to face numerous indiscriminate and deadly acts of violence against its civilian population. It has the right, and indeed the duty, to respond in order to protect the life of its citizens. The measures taken are bound nonetheless to remain in conformity with applicable international law ... Israel is under an obligation to cease forthwith the works of construction of the wall being built in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem [and] to dismantle forthwith the structure therein situated.

The end goal of the permit regime in the Seam Zone, like the limitations on movement and construction in the Jordan Valley (Hebrew), is to gradually thin out the indigenous Palestinian population and to clear lands for the benefit of Israeli settlements. The method: revocation of permanent residency (forced transfer), prevention of agricultural and economic development, destruction of local communal and family structures, and turning day-to-day routines into bureaucratic nightmares that will eventually make them hate life and leave the area – a voluntary transfer to complete the forced transfer.


In this life it might easily happen, if he were not always on his guard, until one day or other, in spite of the amiability of the authorities and the scrupulous fulfillment of all his exaggeratedly light duties, he might – deceived by the apparent favor shown him – conduct himself so imprudently that he might get a fall; and the authorities, still ever mild and friendly, and as it were against their will but in the name of some public regulation unknown to him, might have to come and clear him out of the way. (Franz Kafka, The Castle)

This post was first published in Hebrew on Idan Landau’s blog.