Military Government and Occupation

Another response for class…

11 min readFeb 20, 2024

Following Israel’s victory in the 1967 War and the emergence of its occupation over the West Bank and Gaza, the state began a process of detaching these territories from their Palestinian inhabitants through a series of orders and regulations enacted by the military commander. In the occupation’s first few years, the military commander altered the preexisting Jordanian and Egyptian legal systems which prevailed in the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, and revived parts of Ottoman and British mandatory codes. Israel notably made extensive use of the British Defense Emergency Regulations (DERs). These regulations consist of 147 statutes implemented by the British in Mandate Palestine in 1945. Some of the occupation’s most controversial legal mechanisms — administrative detention, political censorship and harsh restrictions on the freedom of movement — have their origin in Mandate-era DERs. Although this is the first time Israel would apply DERs to Palestinian noncitizens, the state did not just stumble upon this emergency legislation by chance after two decades. Less than a year before Israel began occupying the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians who remained within the state’s recognized borders following the Nakba were separated from the new Jewish majority and put under martial law based on DERs absorbed into Israeli law. Despite being granted citizenship, they were subjected to a system of permits, curfews and land dispossession which bears a striking resemblance to the ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

Although the 2005 disengagement from Gaza obscured the day-to-day relations between the occupied population and occupying authorities that can be seen so clearly in the West Bank, Israel still retains control over Gaza’s borders, population registry, imports and exports and operates a permit regime determining who can leave and enter the Strip. Israel’s ongoing bombardment and invasion of Gaza, though it certainly has changed the “status quo,” dragging its population into a state of mass displacement, famine and widespread disease with over 27,000 people killed, has also laid bare many aspects of Israeli rule. COGAT security checks are in large part responsible for the lagged and insufficient flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, thousands of Palestinian workers were detained by Israeli authorities for weeks without charge then sent back to the war torn enclave with their permits revoked — these stories demonstrate the state’s continued control over Palestinian Gazans’ consumption and freedom of movement.

That being said, Israel exercises social and political control over West Bank Palestinians in a more routine, mundane manner which involves daily contact with the occupying authority, akin to the military regime from 1948–1966. In the West Bank, dispossession is carried out under the guise of land law, Palestinians are jailed on political grounds as “security prisoners” and the military administers civilian affairs according to a tiered system of citizenship. In Gaza post-disengagement, Israel displaces Palestinians not with state land declarations, but through bombing, and collectively punishes the population without any pretense of criminal justice, opting instead for blockade and siege. The former means of control, which employ legal procedure to dispossess Palestinians of their land and suppress its political and economic independence, are the focus of this response.

Israeli land consolidation and prevention of Palestinian contiguity
State expropriation of Palestinian land has long been a central preoccupation of the state of Israel. This long-standing practice was built off of cabinet-issued emergency regulations and revived and re-interpreted Ottoman land law, advancing Jewish settlement when it runs up against the reality of an already existing population reliant on the land. After mass expelling Palestinian Arabs under cover of war in 1948, the fledgling state of Israel began to use legal means to further dispossess the remaining population and stifle the return of Palestinian refugees. The emergency regulations that Israel used to consolidate land under its control post-1948 and its reworking of the 1858 Ottoman Land Code to seize large swaths of land in the Negev and West Bank provided a legal justification for the creation of economically and socially isolated enclaves for Palestinians, which in turn laid the groundwork for Israel’s permit regime, enforced through DERs.

On May 15, 1948, a day after Israel declared its independence, the Provisional State Council, a temporary legislature before the election of the first Knesset, granted the cabinet sweeping powers to issue new emergency regulations separate from the DERs. For the purported sake of land cultivation, the cabinet used this power to promulgate an emergency regulation granting the agriculture minister the power to retroactively allocate “absentee” lands depopulated of their Arab inhabitants, to Jewish settlers who seized these lands during the war. A few months later, the state adjusted the “absentee” label to apply to individuals, rather than land itself, and transferred these individuals’ property to the Custodian of Absentees’ Property. An absentee thus describes any individual who left their place of residence and entered “enemy territory” between the day the Partition Plan was announced on November 29, 1947 and September 1, 1948 — shorthand for displaced Palestinians, regardless of whether or not they returned to live within Israel’s new borders.

In the south, the government forced the 13–14,000 remaining Palestinian Bedouin in Beersheba and its surrounding desert, who numbered some 100,000 before the war, into a 1.1 million dunam closed military zone called the siyaj, fence in Arabic. While Robinson notes its technical translation, she adds that Israel formally rendered the term in English as “reservation” or “reserves.” Like their northern counterparts, Palestinians in the siyaj lived under martial law until 1966, and were forbidden from entering or exiting the zone without a permit. Israel confiscated the remaining 90% of Bedouin ancestral lands and allocated it primarily to new Jewish settlements (39). As indicated in a 1956 letter from the Head of the Operations Directorate Settlement Branch to then-Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, Israeli officials created and continued to adjust the boundaries of the siyaj in order to break Palestinian contiguity, spearheading the founding of Jewish towns, termed “security settlements,” between enclaves. Similar to Palestinian opposition in the Galilee and Triangle to the state’s “War on Return,” Bedouin tribes grouped together and attempted to reclaim the rights to their lands through the Israeli justice system from the 1960s onward. Israel rarely recognizes these claims outright and diverges from its British and Ottoman predecessors by refusing to grant administrative authority to Bedouin tribes or even recognize plaintiffs’ documents proving land ownership.

Bedouin sheikhs in Be’er Sheva on the day of the oath of allegiance to Israel on November 19, 1948. (GPO)

In 1975, the government appointed a special body to examine Bedouin land claims, and then draft a report which would serve as the basis for government proposals regarding land ownership in the Negev. The Albeck Committee was named for its chairwoman, government legal official Plia Albeck, whose expansive definition of mawat land paved the way not just for registration of Bedouin tribal lands with the Israeli state, but for the construction of new settlements in the OPT (Kedar et al, 90). In the State Attorney’s office, she shaped the government’s legal perspective on land expropriation as a supposedly balanced expert, while simultaneously conducting land surveys to declare lands in the West Bank as state property.

Criminality under martial law, permit regime
By the end of 1952, the remaining Palestinian population within Israel’s new borders comprised 12% of the country. The army froze Arab movement upon conquering the Central Galilee, barring residents from leaving their towns and placing the entire population under nightly curfew. Martial law applied even to Arab residents of “mixed cities,” where their Jewish neighbors, by contrast, were free to travel as they wished (Robinson, 30–31).

While the Military Government forcibly relocated Bedouin Palestinians to the siyaj in the Negev, it split the Galilee region into 58 separate enclaves, severing Arab towns in the north from urban centers. Palestinian daily life in Israel became dependent upon military permits. The basis of these permits was one statute in the British DERs, №125, which allowed local governors to declare an area of the country closed to anyone without a permit (35). Opening a shop, harvesting one’s land, finding work on land administered by the Custodian of Absentee Property, visiting one’s family, were all dependent on whether the Military Government would grant the necessary permit (40). Israeli criminologist Alina Korn writes in her article on Arab crime under the Military Government that of all convictions made against Palestinian citizens of Israel from 1948–1967, 33% were for violations of the DERs. Out of these violations, 95% were for transgressing travel restrictions imposed by martial law. Criminality for Palestinian citizens of Israel was shaped in large part by the state’s imposition of the permit regime, and whether someone was granted a permit was dependent on both the shifting needs and demands of the Jewish labor market and the behavior of an individual and their family towards the state (171).

The Military Government worked hand-in-hand with the Ministry of Labor in accepting and rejecting permit requests from Palestinians. The overarching goal was to direct a steady influx of Arab workers into the Israeli economy where they were needed without threatening Jewish jobs. The army received information from the Ministry of Labor about the number of workers needed in different sectors, and provided the ministry with data on the number of permits issued, adjusting as it saw fit. Korn notes that in the summer months, when there was a reduced labor demand, the Military Government would block the departure of Arab workers to the Jewish sector (165). These restrictions caused skyrocketing unemployment in villages, as well as cities formerly connected to larger urban centers such as Nazareth and Acre, keeping the Arab labor force dependent on the Jewish one while Palestinian towns struggled to stay afloat.

Through the permit regime, the Military Government collected information on individuals and used this information against them in accepting and denying permit requests. The regime kept blacklists of the names of those who refused to work as informers for Shin Bet, and would withhold work and exit permits from these people until they complied with the authorities’ demands. It also controlled Palestinian political associations through the permit regime, punishing individuals affiliated with MAKI and using their dependence on permits to ensure the ruling Mapai party’s preeminence in the Arab sector (171).

In the OPT, Israel implemented a similar permit system, but regulated it in a more relaxed manner during the first two decades of its occupation. Rather than declaring each town a closed military zone and requiring individual permits for exit and entry, the state allowed Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to enter Israel. In 1972, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan made this policy official and announced a general exit permit from the OPT into Israel, granting Palestinians from the OPT the liberty to stay within the Green Line from 5AM to midnight, despite the fact that the West Bank and Gaza were closed military zones. This helped Israeli firms to exploit cheap Palestinian labor while the state kept the two populations legally separate, tightening its hold on the OPT. Although the army denied entry and exit to Palestinians who engaged in political or militant activity, Berda writes that closures before the First Intifada were specific to time and place, and only became so ritualized and ubiquitous starting in the early 1990s. Palestinian laborers in the meantime became dependent on the Israeli economy — by 1974, 32% of the Palestinian workforce was employed in Israel (Berda, 21). By contrast, in 1949, only 7% of Nazareth residents who had worked in Haifa before the 1948 War had permits to return to their jobs in the city, and in 1956 only 13% of Umm al-Fahm residents held permits at all (Berda, 38). This is perhaps indicative of the relatively harsher mobility restrictions placed on Palestinian citizens of Israel under martial law as compared to those during the first two decades of the occupation.

The framework of the Military Government, however, based on DERs and more broadly, the notion that freedom of movement is a privilege to be given and taken away, is the same framework that persists in the OPT today. Though Israeli authorities may not have curbed freedom of movement in the OPT as severely as the Military Government did at its outset, it always retained the ability to do so based on emergency regulations and the status of the West Bank and Gaza as closed military zones. In 1991, amid the First Intifada and in the wake of the First Gulf War, the general exit permit granted to Palestinians in the OPT was canceled, and the Civil Administration began to divide the West Bank into separate territorial cells and severely limit Palestinian movement between the OPT and Israel, Gaza and the West Bank and between different cities in the territories.

The influence of citizenship on organized resistance
In her book Citizen Strangers, Robinson focuses on the “paradoxical status” of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the first two decades of the state, as both citizens and colonial subjects. Palestinians in the position to resist Israel’s efforts to further reduce its Arab population in the first few years often appealed to the notion of liberal citizenship, challenging the state’s claims to democracy and rule of law. Christian clergy in the Galilee, for example, invoked the Israeli military’s written promise in Nazareth’s surrender agreement to “treat the residents of Nazareth like all other residents [of Israel]” in a petition to the army against its destruction of churches in depopulated locales and unauthorized church raids (Robinson, 79).

The Communist Party, MAKI, composed of both Israelis and Palestinian deputies and activists, published regular coverage of the army’s draconian sweeps and expulsions, backed by Israel’s emergency regulations, in its Arabic and Hebrew-language weeklies. In opposing the “War on Return,” MAKI’s Arabic-language paper Al-Ittihad often invoked the promise of equality in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and argued on the basis that the government’s campaign violated “the most fundamental rights enjoyed by all citizens of Israel” (Robinson, 80). Over the next few years, the Communist Party line, at least as articulated in al-Ittihad, would become more cynical towards the true intentions of the Israeli government. As opposed to Palestinian resistance in the OPT, Palestinian resistance in Israel over the first seven years of the state’s existence was oriented less around political independence and more around ensuring return and preventing further expulsion, which allowed for private and public appeals to Israeli authorities to function as a legitimate method of protest.

In the OPT, the paradoxical status of both citizen and colonial subject does not exist. Palestinians in the territories are subject to Israeli rule, however there is no pretense of Israeli citizenship, rendering rhetorical appeals to such notions useless. Although Palestinians under occupation are able to petition Israel’s Supreme Court, such efforts have rarely borne fruit as the Israeli legal system consistently sidelines international humanitarian law to uphold military conduct. Palestinian organized resistance in the OPT has thus been historically nationalist and unbound to the rhetoric of citizenship. In the first two decades following 1967, Jordan managed to retain an active role in internal West Bank affairs and leveraged its influence to suppress nationalist activity. As a result, Palestinian organizational frameworks found themselves pulled between two sovereign powers. The factions comprising the Palestinian National Front were forced by Israeli prohibitions on political activity to mobilize in a semi-clandestine manner with varying degrees of success. Common methods of resistance during the First Intifada such as general strikes, boycott of Israeli goods and noncooperation with the army were preceded by earlier PNF efforts to act out independence with the goal of achieving self-sufficiency from the deepening occupation (Pearlman, 97–103).

Regardless of these differences, Israeli authorities responded to Palestinian resistance in the OPT with the same tools used by the Military Government two decades before, attempting to fragment and contain the Palestinian population under its rule, though in the latter case, not as citizens. In the face of efforts to achieve independence from the occupation, the army expanded its points of contact with the Palestinian population. The military governor issued decrees forcing residents to obtain permits that had not previously been required. Azoulay and Ophir aptly claim that the army aimed “to quench the uprising more effectively by containing Israel’s subjects, rather than by excluding them” (78).

Likewise, the focus by Palestinian citizens of Israel on return and achieving civic equality, rather than political and economic independence did not mean that they enjoyed independence, or even autonomy under the Military Government. Palestinians living under martial law were boxed into closed military zones as Israel consolidated land depopulated of its Arab inhabitants. They faced heavy travel restrictions regulated, like in the OPT, by a convoluted permit regime which deteriorated Palestinian social and economic life while bolstering their dependence on the Israeli economy. On top of the Military Government’s repressive conduct, the expectations and obligations of citizenship served to contain Israel’s Arab population. Citizenship in practice meant that Palestinians were expected to embrace Israeli identity, celebrating its independence, accepting its sovereignty, while remaining second-class citizens.