Monday, November 30, 2020

The occupation in sheep’s clothing: the creeping neoliberalist outsourcing of checkpoints to private security companies

By Ruth Regan - April 09, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [checkpoints] [Israeli border police]

For more than a decade, a quiet phenomenon has been taking place at the military checkpoints in the occupied territories, which control freedom of movement for Palestinians.

Between December 2005 and January 2016, the management of 14 checkpoints were transferred from the Israeli military to private security companies. This amounts to about half the checkpoints between Israel and Palestine being fully or partially outsourced, with more due to change over.
At these checkpoints, plain clothed, employed civilians check identification and make security decisions, rather than soldiers in uniform.
The first checkpoints to make the change were She’ar Efraim for the West Bank and Erez for the Gaza strip.
Some may perceive that a shift away from the hot-headed teenagers conducting their military service and stationed at checkpoints, replaced with more mature professionals conducting the job, would decrease the number of human rights violations Palestinians face at checkpoints.
In fact this was the very reasoning presented by the Knesset, who criticised the oftentimes arbitrary nature and lack of procedural clarity or professionalism of soldiers at checkpoints. Those spearheading the policy declared privatisation would “reduce the friction that exists today in crossings and […] improve the level of service without hindering the level of security checks.”
Hana Barag, member of Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli women documenting conduct at checkpoints, feels that there is little to no difference in violations between private and military ran checkpoints.
“One has to realise that today, after many years, physical violence is very rare at the checkpoints, extremely rare, if at all,” she said. Barag drew attention instead to the inherent violence of checkpoints, saying they “themselves are a violation of freedom of movement.”
“When the people get to the checkpoints they already have passes to cross, so you don’t see there the real violence, which is not a physical violence,” Barag said, adding that physical violence is far more frequently carried out by settlers than soldiers.
Barag also drew attention to the staff working the privatised checkpoints as “people with no other choice”; paid minimum wage, working difficult hours in what she called “terrible conditions”. “It’s not an attractive job from any point of view,” she said. She did not feel this in any way led to the workers taking out frustrations on those crossing the checkpoints, however.
Beyond the unsavoury nature of private companies profiting off the occupation, even though the Israeli state continue to insist is in place for defence purposes, the privatisation of checkpoints is problematic in other ways.
A WhoProfits report on private security companies in the West Bank outlined how although the private checkpoint staff are not directly employed by the Ministry of Defense, it is still them who contract out to the private companies and oversee staff training, going through a management body known as Crossing Points Authority.
“It seems that the Crossing Points Authority is trying to portray itself as a civil service provider,” the report stated. It pointed out that far from being accessible to individuals passing the checkpoints, all their online information is written exclusively in Hebrew.
Trained armed security guards are among those employed by the private security companies and checkpoint staff have the authority to delay a person, conduct body searches, search belongings, demand identification and even employ force to keep somebody detained until the police arrive.
The report compared how although internal investigative bodies handling incidents with armed guards are “not very effective”, at least “in principle, their existence is necessary and important”. By contrast, there are simply no equivalent “supervising mechanisms in place for private security guards”.
Barag has experienced this directly. “When they were army checkpoints we had an address where we could complain, here the complaint is a civil complaint and they don’t have to answer to us. They are very hostile usually,” she told Palestine Monitor.
Running as a private company rather than a public body, the security companies are under no legal obligation to publish records, not having to state for instance how many people they have detained.
“The difference between IDF soldiers and corporate warriors is that the latter operate within the gray areas of the law,” wrote academics Neve Gordon and Erez Tzfadia in an opinion piece for The Guardian back when the privatisation trend in Israel begun, something they warned was “leading to a corrosion of accountability.”
What’s more, these are not neutral, third-parties but may also have their own investment in the occupation. Modi'in Ezrachi is one such example of a private security company running checkpoints; it also provides security to settlements.
Increasing privatisation has been a marker of Netanyahu’s government. Barag sees privatising checkpoints as part of a move to monetise the entire system of occupation. “It will take time, but in the end it will happen.”
She explained that the change began with larger checkpoints first, ones with large numbers crossing. She noted that exceptions to the change include Bethlehem and Qalandia, which she described as more complicated due to their regular use by foreigners.
Privatising checkpoints can be seen to be further solidifying the state’s system of occupation, making a peaceful solution for Palestine an ever more distant dream. “It’s part of sustaining the status quo,” Israeli researcher Lior Volinz remarked to Newsweek on the phenomenon.
Whether privately or publicly manned, checkpoints continue to serve as a punitive physical embodiment of the occupation, at least disruptive, at worst fatal.

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