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Bethlehem, occupied West Bank - Abuses of power committed by Israel's Civilian Security Coordinators (CSCs), civilian guards of the illegal settlements, continue to contribute to settlement expansion into Palestinian-owned land across the occupied West Bank, according to an Israeli rights group.
In following the behaviour of the CSC guards over a decade, rights group Yesh Din has come across reports of guards doling out death threats and chasing Palestinian farmers from their fields at gunpoint to prevent them from harvesting, among other violations.
"When these [violations] are done systematically over the years, Palestinian farmers understand that it's not useful to come to their own land located near what used to be settlement outskirts," said Eyal Hareuveni, a researcher at Yesh Din. "And when done repeatedly again and again for a few years, the Palestinian gives up."
The "unused" space is then allocated for settlement expansion, according to Yesh Din lawyer Michal Pasovsky.
"The minute these borders of the CSC [guarding zone] extend beyond municipality borders and Palestinians are afraid to go to their land, that gives the settlers an opportunity to build there," Pasovsky said.
When these [violations] are done systematically over the years, Palestinian farmers understand that it's not useful to come to their own land located near what used to be settlement outskirts.
Under Israeli military law, CSCs are settlers armed and trained by the military to protect their settlements on behalf of the army. While CSCs are given policing powers and work in coordination with army forces, they are appointed by fellow settlers and directly employed by settlements.
However, according to Yesh Din's chronology and analysis, the Israeli military's declared goal of employing CSCs to protect Israeli civilians conceals a more important function the CSCs serve: expanding Israel's borders.
"Not only do they [CSCs] harass these Palestinian farmers, but they also seek to expand the areas under their control and annex as much of that land as possible," Pasovsky told Al Jazeera.
According to Yesh Din, the concept of a CSC was initially conceived by Zionist forces during the British Mandate, through a doctrine of "regional defence" that relied on civilians in frontline communities to fight in support of armed forces in demarcating the borders of the future state.
The regional defence approach was formalised by Israeli law in 1961 and later applied in illegal settlements in the West Bank - four years after Israel illegally occupied the area - through a military order stipulating that CSCs take position in the 12 settlements that had been constructed by 1971.
The 1971 order loosely defined CSC powers for protecting settlements and remains in effect today. A number of military orders have been issued since, specifying their exact policing powers and guarding zones.
The doctrine was used again during the late 1970s in Supreme Court rulings that enabled theft of Palestinian land for settlements, as well as in military orders defining the role that CSCs would play in their protection, according to the Yesh Din report
The Israeli authorities have continued to reference the doctrine ever since to justify the use of CSCs in illegal
settlements, which now number more than 220 and are home to well over a half-million settlers.
The Ministry of Defence, which gives money to settlements to pay CSC salaries, was not able to provide the current number of CSCs, nor was the Israeli army.
Yesh Din, for its part, argues that a major conflict of interest arises when law enforcement powers are granted to individuals who hold special interests - in this case those who represent interests of the settlement enterprise.
"The granting of such sweeping powers to an interest group that openly and declaratively rejects the provisions of international law is indicative of the chaos that characterises the official Israeli attitude toward law enforcement in the West Bank," Hareuveni wrote in the Yesh Din report.
Simon Reynolds, a former legal advocate for the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, said that giving law enforcement powers to special interest groups by the Israeli military is part and parcel of the ongoing settlement expansion which is, and always has been, an Israeli national interest.
"Settlement expansion represents a strategic interest which has been consistently and publicly stated by the highest echelons of Israeli government, while the impunity enjoyed by CSCs and other settlers contributes to the continued erosion of Palestinian 'safe space'," Reynolds told Al Jazeera.
Yesh Din's documentation of violations carried out by CSCs - while fairly low in number - align with long-lived trends of settler violence leading to illegal expropriation of Palestinian land, in addition to near-daily demolition of Palestinian homes and structures, forced transfer, and implementation of military training zones on - or near - Palestinian land.
New outposts often created through such tactics are retroactively legalised, with nearly one third of outposts to be illegally established in the past two decades later okayed by the Israeli government.
The Israeli Knesset most recently passed a first reading of a bill that would retroactively legalise some 55 illegal outposts in the occupied West Bank, in what Peace Now said would constitute "grand land robbery" and "another step towards annexation".
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Yesh Din reported that Israeli military orders issued in 2009 defined the exact parameters of CSCs' guarding zones and designated - for the first time - the territorial borderlines of 35 unauthorised outposts, some of which were later legalised by the government. The 2009 orders also drew guarding zones around 40 outposts located outside settlement municipal boundaries.
Reynolds said CSC offences, as documented by Yesh Din, "enjoy the tacit acceptance of the government by way of a culture of impunity". This impunity is demonstrated by Yesh Din's failed efforts to hold CSCs accountable for abuses of power.
The rights group's spokesperson, Gilad Grossman, said that out of 16 cases of CSC violation in 2014 that the group brought to the police or military, none led to indictments. In five other cases, Palestinians chose not to file complaints either out of fear of negative repercussions from the Israeli authorities or the CSC, or lack of confidence in the Israeli justice system.
Pasovsky told Al Jazeera that the while CSCs work on behalf of the army inside of guarding zones, the military considers the guard a civilian as soon as they exit these zones, subject instead to investigation by Israeli police and border police, who systematically ignore infractions against Palestinians.
If the military does choose to investigate a CSC for offences, the "administrative investigation" allowed by military law is "problematic", Pasovsky said, fundamentally flawed in its ability to effectively investigate CSC violations because Palestinian complainants are excluded from the investigation process.
"If we [Yesh Din] come forth with our information, they're [the army] able to investigate it only with the security coordinator," Pasovsky said. Hareuveni told Al Jazeera that whenever Yesh Din has attempted to file complaints against CSC offences, the army "always pushes away from" holding the guard accountable, adding that there is no documentation showing that a CSC has ever been tried in a disciplinary manner by the army.
In response, the Israeli army said claims that the army turns a blind eye to CSC violations of the law were "unfounded".
"Whenever knowledge of a possible overstep of boundaries by a security coordinator reaches authorities, an inquiry is mounted, and when relevant, sanctions are levied, as part of the coordinator's employment contract," an Israeli army spokesperson told Al Jazeera in a written statement.
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The army added that the military commander - the direct supervisor of a CSC - "takes further proactive measures in order to ensure security coordinators act within the limits of their authority and in accordance to the law".
Hareuveni rejected military claims of oversight of CSCs, citing the army's role in facilitating nearly five decades of settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
"The army is part of this political system," Hareuveni told Al Jazeera. "It doesn't play any kind of independent professional role, as many Israelis want to see. It supports the settlements, it supports the illegal outposts ... it doesn't do anything meaningful about settlers' violence or anything about settlers taking by force Palestinian private land," Hareuveni said.
While Yesh Din acknowledges that impunity towards CSC violations is systematic, Pasovsky hopes that documenting their violations through complaint processes to the military will place pressure on CSCs to stop transgressions.
"They [CSCs] need to understand that there's someone watching, they cannot do whatever they want ... if they are being called into a military office to discuss their actions, this for us is very important," Pasovsky said.
Source: Al Jazeera