Friday, June 06, 2008

Israeli civilians to man checkpoints

Huwwara checkpoint , viewed from its southern side. No passengers.Photographer: Tal Haran

(FT-June 6, 2008)

A scuffle has broken out among the Palestinian workers waiting to pass the sprawling Israeli checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The men, who have waited patiently outside the terminal for much of the night, are tired, and afraid of arriving late at work on nearby Israeli building sites. Now, one of them is trying to push ahead of the queue, sparking an angry response from the men behind.

Until recently, the armed guards sent in to restore order would have been members of the Israeli army or police forces. But the young man heading towards the tumult with his assault rifle is unmistakeably civilian: his hair is – even by the famously casual standards of the Israeli army – long and wild; under his bullet-proof vest, he wears no uniform but a simple green sweater.

His presence at this sensitive checkpoint – one of the biggest and most important in the occupied West Bank – is part of a trend that has caused fierce controversy in Iraq, and which has now reached Israel.

Here, too, jobs that were once the exclusive domain of the armed forces are increasingly farmed out to private security contractors. It is a shift that has attracted only little public scrutiny in a country that otherwise takes a close interest in military affairs – and remains deeply attached to its armed forces.

The Israeli government says the change benefits everyone. Palestinian civilians, it claims, receive better, more professional treatment from the more experienced private contractors than from jumpy 19-year-old conscripted soldiers. “The idea is to make the checkpoints civilian,” says Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the ministry of defence.

“The Palestinians will meet civilians not soldiers. Nobody likes security checks. But what we are trying to do is to make it easier on the one side and, on the other side, not to skip security needs.”

Israel’s ministry of defence started using private security companies at checkpoints more than two years ago but their presence has become visible only very recently. According to Mr Dror, all 30 crossings through which Palestinians can enter Israel now use private security contractors, and at least one has been handed over completely to private companies. For the time being, the role of private security contractors will be confined to what Israel identifies as border posts with the West Bank.

The government refuses to say how many private workers man the checkpoints, or how much it spends on their salaries. But Mr Dror says there are “several hundred” private guards employed – a number that is certain to rise sharply. “By the end of the year all the people will be civilians,” he says.

For private security companies such as Modiin Ezrahi, which claims to be Israel’s biggest, the policy means good business. Yehiel Levy, vice-president, says Israel’s “army and police are giving more and more jobs that soldiers and policemen used to do to civilians”.

Modiin Ezrahi started manning checkpoints only last year – today it has about 200 of its guards stationed at sites around Jerusalem.

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