‘The power we had was astonishing’: ex-soldiers on Israel’s government in the occupied territories

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  August 1, 2022

Newly published military testimonies highlight the bureaucratic power of COGAT’s ‘permit regime’ over Palestinians.

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

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

“You don’t have time or energy to think of Palestinians as people. They are just numbers on a computer, and you click ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on their travel permit applications.”

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

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

The Israeli defence ministry unit known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) is largely concerned with issuing and processing paperwork: approving medical and work permits to enter Israel or travel abroad, controlling the flow of imports and exports, infrastructure planning and allocation of natural resources.

COGAT’s activities have rarely been studied in depth, and are not subject to independent investigative mechanisms. Along with the direct use of violence, Palestinians and veterans say the military governing body is an integral part of a system of oppression.

“We were told in training that everything we were doing for the Palestinians was basically generous, a favour. We didn’t question the bigger picture, like why there are no decent hospitals in the territories, so people have to travel,” said Carmel, who first served in the Gaza Israeli-Palestinian military coordination office, and then in the restive city of Jenin in the north of the West Bank.

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

Testimonies from military conscripts who served in COGAT offices during the past decade have for the first time been collected by Breaking The Silence, an NGO established by IDF veterans which for nearly 20 years has given discharged soldiers the opportunity to recount their experiences in confidence – and give the Israeli public an unvarnished understanding of what enforcing the occupation entails.

The verified accounts of several dozen interviewees – including Carmel, who now works for the organization – have been gathered in a new, freely available booklet titled Military Rule. It is accompanied by testimonies from residents of the blockaded Gaza Strip collected by Gisha, an NGO focusing on Palestinian freedom of movement.

While putting together the project, Breaking the Silence’s interviewers found that repeated themes began to emerge: the use of collective punishment, such as revoking an entire family’s travel permits; the extensive network of Palestinian agents cooperating with COGAT’s Civil Administration, which governs parts of the West Bank; the considerable influence of Israel’s illegal Jewish settler movement on the Civil Administration’s decision-making processes; and arbitrary or baseless blocks on goods allowed in and out of Gaza.

“The level of power and control we have was astonishing,” said a 25-year-old man who served in 2020-2021 at COGAT’s headquarters near the Beit El Jewish settlement north of Ramallah.

“I found out 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 stack of paperwork is front of you. It’s little realizations like that, every day, that makes the scale of the occupation really dawn on you.

“And we had access to so much information. I didn’t know how deep and wide-ranging the data collection is. Sometimes I was bored, so I’d type in random Palestinian ID numbers and see what came up. I could see everything about their lives: families, travel details, sometimes employers.

“I remember once my commanding officer pulled up the screen to show me the file of one of the highest-ranking Palestinian officials, just for fun. That was mind-blowing.”

Another common theme across the testimonies is the psychological impact of surrendering autonomy to the armed forces, even in bureaucratic settings.

“I went to the army thinking, ‘I’ll do my service and help change things for the better from the inside’. But as soon as I arrived I became part of the system,” said a 24-year-old woman who served at COGAT’s headquarters in 2017-2018.

“Sometimes I’d have the choice to finish early for the weekend: my superior would never mind if I did that. Or, I could stay until 5pm and actually continue helping the Palestinians waiting to give me their papers. My wants conflicted with their needs. I can’t put my finger on when or why, but my behaviour started changing.

“I thought Breaking the Silence was just for combatants, but I went to an exhibit and saw that there was testimony from a girl who also served in my unit.

“You just do what you’re told to do in the army, 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.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian