The sun had barely risen and Khairy Masoud, 57, was already in trouble. The father of eight had just passed through the Israeli military checkpoint separating his home in the disputed West Bank and Israel, where he’s worked in manual labor for more than 20 years. It was a chilly February morning and he was dressed in baggy pants and a sweater.
Masoud slouched as he eyed the armed Israeli guard who had just confiscated his work permit and identification card—his most important documents. His infraction: Masoud had been walking toward the large outdoor lot, where Palestinian workers wait for employers to pick them up, when a piece of tissue fell from his pocket, he said. Another Palestinian walking with him flicked a cigarette to the ground. The guard apprehended them for littering.
A decade ago this checkpoint, known as Sha’ar Efraim in Hebrew and al-Tayba in Arabic, was among the first to hire private security guards rather than deploy conscripted Israeli soldiers. The creeping privatization of security linked to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem often goes unnoticed, but critics say it is another way that Israel is cementing the status quo and reducing the chances of a Palestinian state and an end to decades of conflict.
Around Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Israeli private security guards are increasingly common, from tightly patrolled airport and government buildings to industrial zones and illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. They’re part of a lucrative industry that benefits from $200 million a year in government contracts. Today, there are more than 30 crossing points separating Israel and the Palestinian Territories; since the mid-2000s, about half of them have fully or partially outsourced security to Israeli companies. Authorities are currently planning to upgrade nine to 11 more checkpoints by 2019 at a cost of around $82 million, according to Baruch Spiegal, a retired Israeli brigadier general and senior Ministry of Defense adviser.
Israeli officials say the use of civilian guards rather than conscripted soldiers has improved professionalism and standardized conditions for the thousands of Palestinians who pass through each day. The Ministry of Defense does not directly employ guards, but does oversee training, salaries and working conditions. The arrangement between private contractors, Jerusalem or border police, the military, Crossing Points Authority and other security bodies differs by checkpoint.
Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip—territory that Palestinians claim for a future state—after the 1967 war. The 1994 Oslo accords instituted a semi-autonomous government, the Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank and Gaza, and deferred Jerusalem’s status to future—still stalled—negotiations. Today, the PA in the West Bank maintains close security coordination with the Israelis, which angers many Palestinians. For the last decade, the Islamist group Hamas has ruled Gaza, which is currently also under Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
While Israel started as a quasi-socialist state, since the 1980’s waves of privatization, particularly under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2000’s, have reshaped the country. After the bloody second intifada (Palestinian uprising) in the early 2000’s, the Israeli military began to build a disputed barrier between Israel and the West Bank to block militant attacks and set up permanent checkpoints throughout (some for Israelis or Palestinians only). Israeli authorities described them as “international-like terminals” and called them “crossings,” or ma’avar, instead of checkpoint, machsom, the Hebrew term that Palestinians now frequently use.
“It’s bad for young soldiers to have to deal with movements of people and cargo in an ongoing conflict,” Spiegal tells Newsweek of the shift to private guards. “And of course it was bad for the image of Israel.”
The extension of security roles to private civilians is also indicative of a shift in how Israelis relate to the occupation, argues Lior Volinz, an Israeli researcher on this phenomenon and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Amsterdam. “The Israeli authorities tried to obfuscate the military nature of the checkpoints by presenting them as professionalized,” Volinz tells Newsweek. “So if before you have regular run-of-the-mill, 19-year-old kids from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, and they have to go work at a checkpoint for say three months, those kinds of things trickle down to public opinion through their family and friends. Today you just think, ‘This guy, it’s his professional job,’ so they don’t listen to what goes on there anymore.”
Israeli academic Shira Havkin, who’s documented the trend for the Jerusalem-based Israeli Van Leer Institute, argues that despite the political framing of privatization as better than “big government,” it’s a way for the state to keep control while outsourcing responsibilities. Though Israeli authorities argue that using private contractors is more efficient, it ultimately costs the Defense Ministry more in wages than using conscripted soldiers. At the same time, Harkin says, contracting private firms creates jobs and increases the reach and profitability of the country’s security industry.
Israeli labor lawyer Eran Golan, however, says legally the work should be done by soldiers. He has criticized this arrangement for giving guards the “duties” of public officials but not the rights, such as unionization, and that it also obscures ultimate responsibility for what happens at checkpoints. Many of the guards are young and just out of mandatory military service, which is a prerequisite for the job: While Israel’s army is touted for mixing classes and backgrounds, private security work is often the best-paying jobs lower-class and immigrant Israelis can find immediately after the military, Golan says. “They don’t have a profession,” said Varda Zur, 78, of Machsom Watch, a group of primarily retired leftist Israeli women who monitor crossings. “They aren’t skilled in anything. Except for being a solider.”
Privatization can also be problematic for West Bank Palestinians, most of whom don’t speak Hebrew and don’t know who to complain to if they have an issue at a checkpoint, says Zur. Each morning at dawn, tens of thousands of Palestinians cross through checkpoints to work in construction, factories and other menial labor jobs in Israel. They wait in cramped, long lines for their permits and bodies to be inspected. As the day progresses, more Palestinians able to secure coveted permits come and go for hospital visits, work and school. It’s a precarious situation, with permits sometimes revoked and frequent delays that can lead to a lost work day. With official unemployment in the West Bank at 26 percent, people have no other option but to keep trying to cross over.
Checkpoints are sometimes a flashpoint for violence, particularly in the “knife or Jerusalem intifada,” in which Palestinians have been assaulting Israeli civilians and soldiers in “lone-wolf” attacks since 2015. (More than 200 Palestinians and over 40 Israelis have been killed in this wave of violence.)
Human Rights groups say the deaths of some Palestinian attackers have been avoidable or unjustified. In a rare and contentious case, an Israeli soldier named Elor Azaria was jailed for 18 months in February for intentionally killing a Palestinian attacker who had already been shot and injured after trying to stab a soldier at a checkpoint. Many in Israel objected to Azaria being charged at all because, in the words of several parliamentarians, he was “everyone’s son” conscripted into the army.
Another case last April, in which a private security guard at Qalandia checkpoint shot and killed two Palestinian siblings, one of whom had a knife, received far less attention in the press. (Civilian guards at Qalandia accompany soldiers checking cars and buses.) A police investigation determined the guard’s actions were justified; the family of the deceased argued otherwise. A government gag order initially withheld from news reports the fact that the guards at the checkpoint were hired by Modiin Ezrachi, the largest security contractor the Israeli government employs. (The Defense Ministry and Border Police declined to speak to Newsweek for this article and private contractor Modiin Ezrachi referred Newsweek to the Defense Ministry.)
Yet for Palestinians like Masoud, whether it’s private security contractors or Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoints, it’s still “all khara [shit].” Over the years, he’s watched the changes to Shaer Efraim as different security companies have won the contract. Conditions are now better than in 2014, when two Palestinian workers were crushed to death while waiting to cross. The soldiers treat Palestinians more “like animals” than the civilian guards, he said, but overall “there’s no difference.”
To him it is still all the “ihtilal,” the occupation.
The Pulitzer Center funded reporting for this article.