Documented Lives: Fear and the Uncertainties of Law during the Second Palestinian Intifada

By Kelly, Tobias | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Documented Lives: Fear and the Uncertainties of Law during the Second Palestinian Intifada


Kelly, Tobias, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


    Who are you, with whom I have to deal? (Jeremy Bentham 1843: 557).
      Write it down!
      I am an Arab
      And my ID number
      Is fifty thousand
      (Mahmoud Darwish 1995: 174).

The mini-bus in which we were travelling left the outskirts of Ramallah and the road ahead wound down through the dry terraced hills. Soon we came to a checkpoint, where five Israeli soldiers sat sleepily in the sun. One of the soldiers, barely out of his teens but with several days of stubble on his sun-burned face, signalled for the minibus to stop. Reluctantly, we all climbed out and waited to have our identity papers inspected. On showing my well-worn British passport I was waved quickly though. Hamdan, my companion who held a Venezuelan passport, was similarly allowed to pass. Everyone who held a Palestinian National Authority (PNA) identity card was made to wait. After half an hour or so, the soldier with the stubble allowed some of our companions through. The others were either turned back or held at the side of the road. Our numbers much depleted, we climbed back into the mini-bus and continued on our way.

As the mini-bus drove on, the way ahead flattened out onto the green valley floor near to the village of Bayt Hajjar, where Hamdan and I were both staying. However, before we entered the final stretch of road we were stopped at another Israeli military checkpoint. As before, all the passengers were told to climb out of the mini-bus and we were made to wait as our documents were checked. Once again I was let through with merely a glance at my passport. After thirty minutes most of my other companions were also allowed to pass and we sheltered from the fierce midday heat in the shade of an olive tree. Hamdan, however, was made to wait on the other side. The soldier who appeared to be in charge was demanding that Hamdan show his PNA identity card. Hamdan was visibly nervous. He told the soldier that he did not have a PNA identity card as he was a Venezuelan citizen. The young soldier seemed not to believe Hamdan and continued to demand his hawia (identity card) before he would let him pass. Eventually, I continued on with the others, leaving Hamdan at the side of the road. Later that evening I saw Hamdan again, looking tired and dusty. He told me that he had waited at the checkpoint for several hours but had not been let through. Finally, he had taken a bus going in the other direction and been dropped off around the corner. He had then walked the few kilometres back to his house, by-passing the checkpoint through the olive groves that covered the hills.

The Palestinian anthropologist Reema Hammami has recently written that checkpoints have become the 'public spaces' of the second intifada (2004; see also Bornstein 2002a; 2002b). For many Palestinians, it is at checkpoints, and more specifically in the processes through which identity documents are checked and verified, that the particular texture of life in the West Bank is produced. (1) The forms of legal identification that they hold are central to the life chances of many Palestinians, as it is these documents that help determine the ability of the holder to move around the West Bank and access rights and resources. (2) However, at the same time, the implications of holding identity documents are always partial and unstable, as the laws and regulations that give them meaning are often incoherent and the possibility of forgery is always immanent. The result is that even as people try to gain a measure of security through holding the right documents, these same documents also mean that their lives are shot through with fear and uncertainty. This article argues that identity documents penetrate into the lives of West Bank Palestinians, not as reifying abstractions, but as an unpredictable and unstable technique of governance, producing considerable anxiety for all those subject to their use. In this process, although identity documents create a separation between the legal and the physical person, these two aspects of personhood are brought back together as, through their fears, people come to embody the indeterminacies of the documents that they hold. …

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