The occupied territories are formally governed by the Israeli army acting through the military governors of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Those governors direct a complex bureaucracy, comprising the military and civil administrations and the coordinator of activities, who usually is a general. This ponderous apparatus keeps itself busy granting or denying permits needed for every conceivable purpose, from obtaining a birth certificate or a driving license to a permit to export agricultural produce or to study abroad.
The authority of these administrations is limited to Palestinian inhabitants of the territories: the Jewish settlers are not subject to it. But, as every Palestinian knows from daily experience, all this is no more than a facade. In reality, all decisions to grant or deny such permits are made by the Israeli secret police, the so-called Shabak.
In performing those government functions, Shabak’s power is absolute. Not only can it order the officials of the twin administrations to grant or deny any permit, but it also can arbitrarily annul the permits already granted. To harass the individuals concerned, and thus increase the pressures on them, such annulments frequently are preferred to an initial denial.
A case in point-one among thousands occurring daily-is described by Tom Segev in the daily Ha’aretz of Sept. 4, 1992. Haytham Amru, a young Palestinian from the vicinity of Hebron, had been granted a permit for a bridge-crossing into Jordan. On reaching the bridge, however, he was told that the permit already had expired. He applied for the second time, to undergo the same ordeal again.
Then, however, he was told to apply in person to “Captain Claude,” the local commander of Shabak. “Captain Claude” told him bluntly that he had no chance to obtain the requested permit unless he consented to become a collaborator. “There is no power in the world,” Segev comments, “that could force ‘Captain Claude’ to issue a permit he refuses to issue.”
Under such conditions, Lord Acton’s iron rule “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” applies. As corruption increases to the point of becoming absolute, however, efficiency decreases. In this respect, Shabak is the perfect example. Shabak officers, to put it bluntly, have become stupider as the years pass. This has been noticed by the nominal ruler of the territories, the Israeli army, which even has communicated this discovery to the Hebrew press.
Some examples of Shabak’s inefficiency in the territories were leaked to Aharon Klein, whose article “The Army Against Shabak” was printed in the Hadashot supplement of Sept. 25, 1992. American readers, routinely assured by the U.S. media that all branches of Israeli intelligence are superbly efficient, may be surprised to learn that the Israeli army, and a growing segment of the Israeli media, have a very different opinion.
“Army sources” told Klein that “Shabak has failed in its primary task in the territories,” namely in “preventing hostile activities,” or in capturing the culprits with all due speed. Moreover, that failure occurred despite the fact that since the beginning of the intifada, “Shabak has increased its personnel in the territories by several hundred percent,” Klein wrote.
“Apparently, this massive recruitment lowered the quality of Shabak’s performance, at least in the initial stages [of the intifada]. ” Klein reported, “The army officers opine that Shabak’s capabilities haven’t improved since then.”
However, “higher ranking army officers,” while agreeing with this assessment, told Klein that “poor performance of Shabak is attributable to factors existing long before the intifada, whose outbreak Shabak failed to foresee, with the effect that it found itself completely unprepared for the contingency. ‘The intifada caught the Shabak with its pants down, and Shabak hasn’t been able to button them up since,’ say these senior army officers.”
Another “senior army officer” told Klein that Shabak also failed to predict or even to recognize the rise of Palestinian guerrillas. “It took them a long time to understand the mood of the militants, and how it changed about two years ago. They are incapable of noticing changes. The effect is that it is up to us [the army] to do their job.”
The army apparently has decided that the failure of Shabak to supply accurate information about the Palestinian guerrillas has reached the point at which it can no longer be tolerated. A “senior army officer serving in the territories” told Klein that “I myself wouldn’t trust anything Shabak tells me.” He told Klein that during a large scale army operation “which took place at the beginning of this year in the northern part of the West Bank, all information we received in advance from Shabak turned out to be unreliable.” He claims that the operation succeeded only because the army had its own techniques of collecting information.
Insult Added to Injury
But the army officers are not only angry at Shabak. They also “feel insulted” by it. This is because Shabak, which has good “connections” with some correspondents of the Hebrew press, used them to misrepresent captures of some prominent guerrillas as due to its own exertions. The army sources insist that such claims are fabrications and that, in reality, all such successes have been due to army-initiated operations that did not rely on any Shabak information. The “army sources” also provided Klein with examples, such as during the “siege” of An Najah University in Nablus, where Shabak’s information turned out to be unreliable.
Needless to say, Klein’s information was promptly denied by both the army and by Shabak. By duly publishing both denials, Hadashot brought to light a curious difference between them. The army spokesman’s denial steers clear of a single word of rebuttal of Klein’s revelations. It merely deplores that Hadashot “published, in a detailed report, claims originating with some anonymous sources, which have never been made to any authorized quarter within the army,” and concludes with an assurance of the “close cooperation existing between the two.”
Shabak’s statement only accuses “the senior army officers” of “being inaccurate about facts,” and giving “free rein to their emotions.” The statement charges that “the senior army officers have no understanding of how a secret organization works” and calls upon them to “submit their complaints to an appropriate authority instead of a newspaper.”
Klein also quotes what his “army sources” say about “the collaborators’ complaints of having been abandoned by the Shabak.” Some of them have been allowed to live within Israel, while others have found shelter in the fortified camp of Fahima in the Jenin District. Klein quotes “A., a long-time collaborator from a large village south of Hebron, who complains that although he owns a pistol, he can’t be secure without spending 40,000 shekels ($15,200) per month to pay several bodyguards. At every meeting he has with any representatives of the [Israeli] authorities he accuses Shabak of abandoning the collaborators. “
Their uselessness as sources of information is obvious in the cases of wealthy collaborators who live either in heavily fortified houses or in even more heavily fortified compounds containing several families. Because of this, they can’t maintain social contact with the rest of the population of the territories. Their riches come from brazen bribery, which Shabak winks at and even encourages.
Shabak’s real task, which absorbs most of its time, is to administer the territories by way of approving or denying a multitude of permits, licenses and certifications. In most cases, the pertinent applications are not even considered by Shabak unless a collaborator certifies, in person or in writing, that the applicant can be trusted enough to have his request granted. Naturally, such certifications can be obtained only in exchange for juicy bribes.
Nothing indicates, by the way, that Rabin would even consider relieving the population of the territories from this particularly grievous form of oppression. Even under the “autonomy” proposed by Israel, the powers of Shabak are to remain essentially the same as they have been under occupation.
This description of Shabak’s role in the occupation would be incomplete without noting that increasing numbers of Israelis oppose the continuing rule over the territories in principle, as immoral and unjust. Exercised through the arbitrary power of an omnipotent secret police, this method of governing is crass and inefficient. Lord Acton’s dictum “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” applies absolutely to Shabak in the occupied territories.
(Dr. Israel Shahak, a Holocaust survivor and retired professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is chairman of the Israeli League of Human Civil Rights.)