Preferred Citation: Ron, James. Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2003 2003.

Policing the Ghetto


In 1988, tensions between formal rules and actual practices were a recurring theme in the Israeli military, much as they would be in any large bureaucratic organization. Generally speaking, formal rules are often generated for reasons other than pure efficiency, and workers often chafe at restrictive and seemingly illogical regulations. More often than not, workers decouple practices from regulations, generating tacit working norms that grant them greater flexibility and autonomy.[63] To avoid triggering management offensives against hidden practices, workers hide their practices and respect certain key limits.

When responding to critics, Israel's representatives often highlighted the army's formal regulations, dwelling on "managerial" rules rather than actual practices. For example, they noted that army violence was

governed by reasonable, police-style regulations, compliance with which was enforced by legal experts and Internal Affairs investigators. As one legal officer argued, the army's "Rules of Engagement in Judea, Samaria [West Bank] and Gaza are in accordance with Israeli criminal law, with the rulings of the Supreme Court, and have been approved by the IDF Advocate General and the Attorney General's Office."[64] Closer examination undermines the image of a disciplined organization, as soldiers routinely violated military regulations, treating Palestinians as they pleased. Low-level troopers fashioned their own tacit practices, and these were quite distinct from formal blueprints. As one trooper noted in a newspaper interview,

Every battalion works out its own set of norms.… Every battalion commander is the sovereign of the area [under his command]. Every company commander is the mukhtar [traditional headman] of a village or two, and every soldier manning a roadblock is a little god. He decides what to do: who will be allowed through and who won't be. Try to understand that every person there has considerable leeway when it comes to making decisions.

The best description I can find for what's going on there is total chaos.

… There are simply no [rules] governing the implementation of orders, behavioral norms, and methods of punishment.[65]

His chaotic vision dovetails with the stories I heard in my own interviews with Israeli veterans. Individual units rotated frequently, and each new batch of troopers brought their own particular forms of repression. Some were relaxed disciplinarians, while others would deal harshly with perceived infractions. This inconsistency was reproduced up and down the hierarchy. Each unit would be responsible for staffing dozens of patrols and checkpoints, each of which was commanded by someone else. Viewed from up close, it seemed that individual soldiers, noncommissioned officers, and junior commanders enjoyed enormous autonomy to deal as they pleased with Palestinians. Israeli ethnic policing was not only harsh, but was also inconsistent.

The image of chaos is also deceptive, however, just as it would be were one so immersed in the "trees" of the informal shop-floor regime that one missed the "forest" of the capitalist economy. Informal practices and hidden innovations, after all, do not necessarily imply lack of structure. Workers can be autonomous at one level while remaining within broad managerial parameters at another. This was clearly the case for the Israeli military, where soldiers developed hidden practices but also remained within certain boundaries. Troopers devised unique tortures for Palestinians they encountered, but dared not go too far lest they trigger an inquiry.

These boundaries were so deeply ingrained as to be virtually invisible, however, and most media attention was focused on the leeway soldiers enjoyed within ghetto-imposed boundaries.

Policing the Ghetto

Preferred Citation: Ron, James. Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2003 2003.