‘The power we had was amazing’: Ex-Israeli government soldiers in the occupied territories | Palestinian territories

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When Joel Carmel went to do his military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), he didn’t expect it to mean sitting at a computer processing permits, typing in Palestinian ID numbers all daytime.

“Before going to the army, I considered myself a centrist, politically speaking. I knew a lot about the occupation and the combat aspect of things. But it was so boring, so bureaucratic… It wears you down,” the 29-year-old said.

“You don’t have the time or energy to think about Palestinians as people. It’s just numbers on a computer, and you click ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on their travel permit applications. »

The sprawling system of military rule created by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is a world many Israelis are discovering for the first time, after the publication of testimonies from veterans exposing the “regime of permit” which governs the Palestinian people and land.

While the 55-year-long occupation of the Palestinian territories is perhaps the best-documented conflict in modern history, the breadth and depth of bureaucratic power wielded by Israeli military bodies is less well understood.

Palestinian women wait to cross the Qalandia checkpoint. Photograph: Oded Balilty/AP

The unit of the Israeli Ministry of Defense known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat) deals largely with the issuance and processing of documents: approval of medical and work permits to enter Israel or travel abroad, control of import and export flows, infrastructure planning and allocation of natural resources.

Cogat’s activities have rarely been the subject of in-depth studies and are not subject to independent investigative mechanisms. Along with the direct use of violence, Palestinians and veterans say the military ruling body is part and parcel of a system of oppression.

“We were told in training that everything we do for the Palestinians is fundamentally generous, a favor. We haven’t questioned the big picture, like why there aren’t decent hospitals in the territories so people have to travel,” said Carmel, who first served in the office of Israeli-Palestinian military coordination in Gaza, then in the troubled city of Jenin in the northern West Bank.

“The army raids your house at 2 a.m., then at 8 a.m. you still have to queue for hours to get a permit for the most basic administrative tasks,” he said. “I think that’s something a lot of Israelis don’t realize. It’s not carrot and stick, it’s stick and stick. It’s the same thing.”

The testimonies of military conscripts who have served in the offices of Cogat over the past decade have for the first time been collected by break the silencean NGO set up by IDF veterans that for nearly 20 years has given demobilized soldiers the chance to tell their experiences in confidence – and gives the Israeli public an unvarnished understanding of what enforcing the occupation.

Verified testimonies from several dozen interviewees – including Carmel, who now works for the organization – have been collated into a new, booklet available for free titled Military Rule. It is accompanied by testimonies of residents of the blocked Gaza Strip collected by Gishaan NGO focused on freedom of movement for Palestinians.

While developing the project, Breaking the Silence investigators found that recurring themes began to emerge: the use of collective punishment, such as revoking an entire family’s travel permits; the vast network of Palestinian agents cooperating with the civil administration of Cogat, which governs parts of the West Bank; the considerable influence of the Israeli illegal settler movement on the decision-making processes of the civil administration; and arbitrary or baseless blockades of goods allowed in and out of Gaza.

“The level of power and control we had was amazing,” said a 25-year-old who served in 2020-2021 at Cogat headquarters near the Beit El settlement north of Ramallah.

“I found out that we were responsible for approving weapons permits for the Palestinian security forces, which is one of those details you don’t really think about until the pile of documents is gone. in front of you. It’s little realizations like this, every day, that really make you realize how big the occupation is.

“And we had access to so much information. I had no idea how deep and extensive the data collection was. Sometimes I got bored, so I typed in random Palestinian ID numbers and saw what happened. I could see everything about their lives: families, travel details, sometimes employers.

“I remember once my superior officer raised the screen to show me the file of one of the most senior Palestinian officials, just for fun. It was breathtaking.

Another common theme running through the testimonies is the consequences of surrendering autonomy to the armed forces, even in bureaucratic settings.

“I went to the military thinking, ‘I’m going to do my service and help change things for the better from within.’ But as soon as I arrived, I was part of the system,” said a 24-year-old woman who served at Cogat headquarters in 2017-18.

“Sometimes I had the choice of finishing the weekend early: my boss wouldn’t care if I did. Or, I could stay until 5 p.m. and continue to help the Palestinians who were waiting to give me their papers. My wants conflicted with their needs. I can’t put my finger on when or why, but my behavior started to change.

“I thought Breaking the Silence was for fighters only, but I went to an exhibit and saw there was a testimonial from a girl who also served in my unit.

“You just do what you’re told to do in the military, but you only see small fragments of the whole. It has been a long journey to understand what I did during my military service and what it meant.

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