Very Active Defence

Peter Lagerquist

Israel has the highest concentration of security guards in the world: approximately one for every hundred Jewish citizens (only South Africa comes close). Hundreds of small and medium-sized firms crowd the market, and the largest companies, Hashmira and Modi’in Ezrachi, employ thousands of people. Almost all these firms are run by former members of Israel’s military and security agencies.

The Government began to subsidise private security for settlers in the recently occupied West Bank and Gaza in the 1970s. Ariel Sharon supported the policy and funnelled funds through the Israeli Ministry of Housing, of which he was then head. At the time, Chaim Oron, a Knesset representative for the leftist Meretz Party, opposed the initiative. ‘It was a way to give money to settlers under the heading of security,’ he says. ‘First they allocated $2.5 million, then $11 million, then $20 million.’ Today nearly every settlement in the West Bank employs private guards, although the numbers involved are unclear. Yehudit Tayar, a spokeswoman for Yesha, the umbrella organisation of settlement groups, says that most use their own funds to hire guards to supplement those the state pays for. In Ma’ale Adumin, a settlement near Jerusalem, residents pay a municipal fee to cover the cost. Eitan Knafo, who lives there and works for Modi’in Ezrachi, is unwilling to say how many of their guards work in the Territories, but admits that the company employs around a thousand in the Jerusalem area, out of a total of four thousand in Israel and the Occupied Territories as a whole. According to a spokesman for the Israeli Civil Administration, there are only a few hundred registered guards, yet Hashmira says that it alone employs hundreds in the Occupied Territories.

Private security guards are less conspicuous than those employed directly by the state and that, Knafo argues, is very much part of their appeal. ‘I think it’s more convenient not to send any soldiers. It’s better to use someone who wears civilian clothes.’ The difference may be lost on Jerusalem’s Arab residents. In the mid-1990s, UN observers reported that private guards had been involved in seizing Arab houses in East Jerusalem. Knafo insists that his company operates strictly within the law. ‘As far as I know all the houses were legally bought. Maybe it has a smell, but it was by the law.’

Daniel Seideman, an Israeli lawyer, agrees but puts it differently: these security firms, he says, operate in ‘a completely unregulated environment’. He doesn’t think the guards are ideologically motivated, but Oron doesn’t find that reassuring. ‘We know settlers are one of the main causes of tension in the Territories,’ he says. ‘In this tough situation, you can’t distinguish between self-defence, active defence and very active defence.’ The role of private security has been raised in the Knesset, but few Israelis share Oron’s worries, and the press remains largely uncritical of Government policy on the Intifada, let alone of the role played by private guards in the policy’s enforcement. Since the outbreak of the Intifada, demand for Hashmira and Modi’in Ezrachi’s services has increased by between 20 and 30 per cent: much of this can be accounted for by institutions and businesses within Israel, but Tayar reports that every settlement now runs its own security patrol, which liaises with Israeli military commanders. These patrols operate along the roads of the West Bank and often enter Palestinian villages and towns.

Settlers have killed, shot and injured scores of Palestinians and been responsible for countless attacks on Arab property. Neta Golan, an Israeli human rights observer who used to be based in the Palestinian village of Hares, notes that jeeps marked ‘Security’ have been involved in settler attacks on the village – which may explain why the IDF refused to take responsibility for the fatal shooting of three villagers in the early months of the Intifada. Golan stresses the difficulty of distinguishing between settlers and the Army, let alone between private guards and volunteers. Settlers often wear Army uniforms and private guards often don’t wear anything to distinguish them. ‘It is hard to know who’s doing what,’ complains Taisir Khalid, director of the Land Defence Committee, an NGO that monitors settler activity. ‘The Israeli authorities are the only ones in a position to know. You can ask them, but whether they will tell you is another matter.’

The recycling of military expertise has long been vital to the success of the Israeli security industry, but the line between the military and private enterprise has been blurred still further since the outbreak of the Intifada. Knafo says that the additional training offered by his company usually lasts only two or three days. ‘They already have a security perception from the Army. We just have to adjust the kind of thinking to the kind of weapon.’ A Hashmira newsletter written by the present-day company president, Yigal Shermister, uses the language of colonial counterinsurgency:

In normal times, the Security Division deals primarily with guarding property and persons. Suddenly, without any advance warning, they were required to carry out missions similar to those usually performed by the police and the border police. We had to recruit high quality personnel and, in a very short time, train them to use long-range weapons for facing . . . an enemy population equipped with firearms. The forces’ work today includes patrols in settlements, along perimeter fences, and at settlement entrances, along with the operation of on-call units.

There is scant concern for the Palestinian civilian population here, little awareness that the settlements may themselves be the cause of tension. Kadish Shermister, the former chairman of Hashmira (he died last month), knew that his company had thrived thanks to the Israeli state’s expansion. ‘After Independence, when the Arabs started to be active, to shoot, rob etc, we had to bring in more guards,’ he said. ‘As the Israeli state grew bigger, we grew bigger: after every war we expanded more.’ In order to remain credible the company had to be willing to extend its services anywhere, regardless of the risks.

But not to everyone. The company newsletter mentions extensive deployments in Galilee, home to the majority of Israel’s Arabs. During the first months of the uprising, Arabs in Galilee demonstrated to show solidarity with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, and to protest against their own marginalisation in Israeli society. They were met by Jewish mobs and by the Israeli police, who on 1 October 2000 shot and killed 13 protesters. I asked Shermister if his company did much work for this community. ‘The Arabs?’ he replied in astonishment. ‘No, we are against the Arabs.’

Many Israeli companies are now hoping to gain access to bigger markets by exporting their expertise. The Greek Government is planning to spend $600 million on security for the 2004 Olympics and Modi’in Ezrachi and Hashmira are both bidding for the contract. One of the other Israeli companies trying to secure this contract is Israeli Military Industries, the state-owned supplier of weapons to the country’s Armed Forces – safety and security now account for 60 per cent of IMI’s exports (a decade-long slump in the global arms market forced the company to diversify). Though tenders have not yet been issued, the Israeli firms are considered strong contenders.

This export push coincides with growing concerns in the EU about its commercial links with Israel. Efforts are being made to stop exports to Europe of produce from the settlements – which, according to the EU, are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, as are any activities that support their continued existence. Disapproval of Israel’s counterinsurgency tactics has resulted in moves to review military exports to Israel that could be used in the Occupied Territories. Germany and the UK have already limited some arms sales.

Meanwhile, according to Israeli human rights groups, 34 new outposts, with a population of around twenty thousand, have been established in the Occupied Territories since Ariel Sharon’s election.