RAMALLAH, WEST BANK -- More than two months ago, Abdullah, an 18-year-old Palestinian student from the West Bank village of Kubeiba, initiated an effort to obtain a travel permit from Israeli military authorities so he could begin university studies in Turkey. His brother Mohammed, 22, agreed to help him.
One morning recently, Mohammed trudged up to the wire-topped cinderblock wall that surrounds the headquarters of Israel's civil administration here with a sheaf of dog-eared papers in his hand and a look of resignation. Abdullah still had not been permitted to leave, and Mohammed was beginning to wonder if he ever would.
For weeks, the two brothers had doggedly haunted the fortified quarters of Israel's bureaucratic machine in the occupied territories, waiting for hours in line and making dozens of repeat visits. Following standard procedure, they had obtained clearance stamps for Abdullah from regional and local tax authorities, the police, the military, the civil administration and the courts. For 27 days, they had waited for the Shin Bet, Israel's secret police, to give its clearance. Drawing on the family's savings, they had paid about $160 in fees.
Finally, after accepting a demand that he commit himself to stay out of the country for at least three years, Abdullah got his travel permit. And yet three times in the next two weeks, he was turned away by Israeli soldiers when he attempted to cross from the West Bank into Jordan. In the latest incident, the soldiers told Abdullah that his identity card, though valid, was "too old" and must be exchanged.
And so Mohammed was taking another day off from work to help his brother obtain yet another piece of official paper, a task that required visits to several offices for more official stamps.
What distinguishes this story of bureaucratic woe -- routine for the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip -- from most others around the world is that it results from a deliberate policy by Israel's military administration. As part of their effort to crush the intifada, or Arab uprising against Israeli rule in the occupied territories, authorities launched a sweeping administrative offensive early in 1988 designed to force Palestinian acceptance of Israeli rule by subjecting the most simple activities of daily life to a tortuous bureaucratic trial.
Thirty months later, as both the violence of the intifada and its claim on public attention wane, the bureacratic war grinds relentlessly on, despite recent "liberalizations," inflicting mundane but painful punishment on tens of thousands of Palestinians and deepening their sense of frustration and despair. "This was always the heart of the conflict, beyond the stone-throwing and the soldiers," said Jonathan Kuttab, a prominent Palestinian lawyer. "And in this battle of daily life, nothing really has changed."
For Palestinians, the war of daily life means that activities as simple as registering for a driver's education course, or obtaining a birth certificate, can require weeks of formalities at more than a half-dozen government offices, including regional and local tax audits. More ambitious aims, such as a visit to relatives in neighboring Jordan or the registration of a new shop, can take months, and can involve fees mounting into hundreds of dollars.
Many Palestinians charge that the difficulties in running this paper gantlet are compounded by vindictive and even corrupt treatment by Israel's employees in the territories. According to court cases and records compiled by lawyers and human rights groups, Palestinians seeking routine clearance frequently have been confronted with such abuses as arbitrary assessment of tax "penalties" by clerks.
The Palestinians' weapons on this front -- commercial strikes, boycott of Israeli products, sporadic attempts to evade taxes -- have proven relatively ineffective in causing discomfort to Israelis, and Palestinian hopes of breaking Israel's administrative stranglehold have all but disappeared.
"It's a total system, and the only way to break it is to have total disobedience," Kuttab said. "And I'm not sure the Palestinians are ready for that, or what the Israelis would do when it happens."
Israeli officials say they are gradually easing their bureaucratic squeeze. Since June, when veteran right-wing politician Moshe Arens took over as defense minister under a new government, authorities have extended the validity of some permits and made it easier for Palestinians to obtain others.
At the beginning of the uprising, said Gen. Freddy Zak, deputy coordinator of the civil administration in the territories, "we were forced to set up this system, knowing it was a bureaucracy, because the Palestinians were carrying out a civil revolt and otherwise we would have had nothing in tax payments. Now, in the last three or four months we are doing our best to ease the process, to cut the bureaucracy, and we hope to continue with this policy."
But lawyers and human rights groups say the basic system, designed to be repressive, remains fundamentally unchanged. "It has gotten a little easier," said Bassem Eid, a caseworker for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. "But there is still a kind of collective punishment against average people in almost every aspect of their lives."
At its core, the military's system boils down to a single, one-page application form, generically titled: "Judea and Samaria Area Civil Administration Application for Permission."
Since early 1988, Palestinians must complete the form in order to carry out any of 23 categories of activity, ranging from a car registration to a plan for a new factory.
The form, which costs $5, must be filled out for people of any age: it is needed to register babies, enroll in school, marry, register for a profession, open a shop, operate a car, get a telephone, travel abroad, receive a pension or buy a burial plot, among other things.
Filling out the form requires obtaining approval stamps from seven widely scattered offices. Clerks from the income tax, value-added tax, municipal tax, police, courts, military government and civil administration must all add their stamps to it. At each office, Palestinian applicants must prove they have no outstanding obligations, usually after waiting hours in line or coming back on different days.
A West Bank Arab who neglects even one tax payment or one summons from the secret police finds himself unable to carry out almost any aspect of life.
Even those Palestinians who have no will to rebel against Israel and scrupulously fulfill their tax and other obligations must trek from office to office obtaining proof of good behavior many times a year, simply to keep their cars on the road and their businesses open. In the process, their advocates charge, they are often subjected to willful humiliations or arbitrary and illegal punishments.
Sometimes the harassment is petty. For example, Abdel Aziz, 18, of Ramallah, needed to get the seven stamps on the standard form last month so he could enroll in a driver's education class. When he went to the income tax office, however, an Israeli clerk refused to issue him a stamp, claiming that the personal identification number Aziz wrote on the form was not the same as that on his identity card.
Although Aziz pointed out that the two numbers were the same, he said, the clerk forced him to return on three different days before issuing the stamp. "The real problem was that he recognized me, and thought I was active in the intifada," Aziz said. "So he was trying to punish me."
B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, has documented cases in which tax clerks allegedly made illegal demands that applicants meet the tax obligations of relatives before being cleared themselves. B'Tselem alleged that income tax office clerks have arbitrarily demanded payments of up to $500 in exchange for stamps of approval.
B'Tselem said it has documented other cases in which bribes, or agreement to become a police informer, allegedly were demanded of Palestinians seeking to travel abroad.
Zak, the deputy Israeli coordinator, conceded that some of the alleged abuses had occurred. "We know that there were some cases," he said. "We are fighting against the problems. But you must compare these few cases with the number of people to whom we are providing services. By that standard it's insignificant."
Kuttab, who has brought many complaints about the abuses to court, said such incidents are an integral part of the system.
"The whole point of the process is to grind people down, to break their resistance and to force them to realize that whatever they do, the system has power over them and can deny them their rights," he said. "They leave people only two options: total resistance or total submission."