Ramallah Diary
15 November 1995
"Car license plates: the road to apartheid"

One of the first things I noticed when I first visited this country was the variety of colours and symbols on car license plates. As I began to understand the system and see how it worked in practice, it has always remained with me as one of the most visual examples of the all-pervasive nature of the Israeli military occupation.

License plates for Israelis

The standard Israeli-issued licence plate for cars owned by Israeli citizens is yellow. This includes everyone with an ID card saying that they are an Israeli citizen, i.e. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. The yellow plates are also issued to Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, considered by Israel to be part of its territory and by Palestinians to be part of the West Bank.

The yellow licence plate does not show which area the owner of the car lives in or what race the owner is. "Of course!" you might say, "why would it?!" The answer to that is found below...

License plates for Palestinians

It all starts getting strange when you look at what happens in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The photo on the right shows a license plate for a Palestinian resident of the town of Ramallah. The symbol surrounded by a white rectangle on the left, that looks like an upside down "L", is the Hebrew letter "Reysh" or "R" for Ramallah. The license plate number appears on either a blue or green background.

Similarly, there are different Hebrew letters for Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron, etc. Gazan Palestinian's cars have white plates - no letter necessary - perhaps one reflection of the view of Gaza as an even more threatening region.

This system enables Israeli soldiers at checkpoints to be able to tell the origin of the car at a glance from 50 yards away, and if the car should be in the area they are currently checking if - say - there is a closure or curfew in operation. At regular checkpoints, is is not unusual to see people with yellow plated cars speeding past a long queue of waiting West Bank plated cars to get let through the checkpoint without delay.

The next photo on the right shows a license plate for a Palestinian living in the villages surrounding the town of Ramallah. The difference is that the "R" is bordered by an orange rectangle. This demonstrates the specificity possible when determining the origin of a car.

Surprisingly, Jewish settlers living in Bet El settlement near Ramallah do not get plates with an "R" on an orange background. They have yellow Israeli plates. In other words, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jews and Arabs have license plates that show their race.

This entry was described as "boring" in a December 1996 review by Net Magazine. Although, admittedly, this entry is not the sort of "riveting" account of torture that you will find in Palestinian Authority Diary, I would like to point out to reviewer Dorrit Tulane Walsh that were she to find herself with the 'wrong' kind of license plates at the wrong time on a bad day in Palestine, she could be literally 'riveted' to her seat by a hail of either M-16 or AK-47 bullets depending on who she has offended. Yawn, how passé.

NB: For a more recent diary entry that touches on post-redeployment changes in licence plates issued by the Palestinian Authority, check out Palestinian Police prepare their new cars. Above photos: © Yasser Darweesh. All available. (Order numbers: #686-35A/#686-34A/#686-33A)

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