In Silwan, a neighbourhood at the heart of rising tensions in occupied East Jerusalem, private security guards are contracted by Israel to protect Jewish settlers through cooperation with police and military forces, residents say.
“These guards do the policemen’s jobs here,” Ahmad Qaraeen, who lives in the Silwan neighbourhood of Wadi Hilweh, told Al Jazeera. “They need to arrest us? It’s easy for them. They need to close our streets? It’s easy for them too… We feel that these gun guards are the settlers’ army.”
In the 1990s, following an increase in suicide attacks by Palestinians in Jerusalem, the Israeli government stationed private guards at schools, restaurants, commercial complexes, and government and municipal buildings in the city. Since then, private security has become a massive industry across Israel. The government also relies on independent contractors to bolster security apparatuses in the occupied territories, including privatised checkpoints.
The budget for security services in East Jerusalem has grown from NIS 7m ($1.81m) in 1991 to NIS 76m ($19.69m), according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). Haaretz recently reported that the amount of government funds allocated to security for settlers in East Jerusalem had reached NIS 100m ($26m) in 2014 alone, in the wake of recent violence.
In places such as the Wadi Hilweh neighbourhood of Silwan, the legal role of private security personnel has become a significant grey area, due to illegal and discriminatory practises by guards who effectively supplant police, said the ACRI’s Ronit Sela.
Outsourcing security helps Israel abdicate social and moral responsibility for violations it authorises, according to analyst Neve Gorden: “From a political perspective, outsourcing is beneficial because even if the abuses are exposed, they are frequently presented to the public as having been perpetrated by someone else.”
Wadi Hilweh residents say they experience the effects of this impunity on a regular basis.
“We don’t know who they are,” Qaraeen said. “If they come to arrest or shoot someone, sometimes they even wear masks.” Unlike government forces, private guards also have no official uniform or identification badge.
“I am more scared by the private guards than police,” Qaraeen said. “The police we can stop in some places because of the law, but these gun guards, no.”
It's a psychological jail here… Children can't play in the streets without fear of running in the path of a guard… Before 1991, we didn't see guards here. We saw policemen maybe once a week. But now, we see policemen every day, and guards every moment of every day.
For more than two decades, most private security guards in occupied East Jerusalem have been contracted by the Ministry of Housing and Construction through an Israeli company, Modiin Ezrachi.
In 1991, Modiin Ezrachi security personnel came to Silwan alongside settlers, who moved there with the assistance of the Ir David Foundation (Elad), a non-profit group that facilitates the purchase and takeover of Palestinian homes in the Old City and occupied East Jerusalem in an effort to increase Jewish settlement. The number of guards continues to grow, with a recent increase accompanying the takeover of 25 apartments by Elad in September.
Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld told Al Jazeera that the role of security guards in Silwan is to ensure the protection of local homes, noting Jewish residents are regularly confronted by rocks and petrol bombs. Guards are given the same authority as police and work in close cooperation with them, he added.
Private security personnel reportedly perform routine training exercises through the streets of Wadi Hilweh during the night, often using live ammunition. They also handle road closures for the passage of settlers and stop Palestinians for identity checks and pat-downs.
Modiin Ezrachi did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment about the company’s activities in East Jerusalem.
Qaraeen says these security services have enabled settlers to mistreat Palestinians. In 2009, he said, he came out of his house to find one settler pointing an M16 at his youngest son and a second beating his other son with a baseball bat. He approached to ask what his sons had done wrong, saying the matter should be handled by police instead.
“He said, ‘No, I can finish everything here.’ Suddenly he shot me here [the thigh] and I fell down. People started shouting, and [then] he shot a boy, 13 years old, for nothing – he was riding a bicycle,” Qaraeen sid, noting clashes ensued. While security cameras captured everything, police said they were not working at the time – but footage from the same cameras was later used to charge youth involved in the clashes, Qaraeen said.
“[The gun guards] can cut the footage to show the police only what they want,” he said.
While Modiin Ezrachi did not respond to Al Jazeera’s interview request, ACRI confirmed the company operates many surveillance cameras in East Jerusalem, and Rosenfeld said private security and police work in tandem during major incidents and public disturbances.
The settler who shot Qaraeen was released from jail after 24 hours without charge.
In October of 2011, ACRI petitioned the High Court to end the deployment of private security guards contracted by the Ministry of Housing, on the grounds that Israeli police had abdicated their role as the primary authority in charge of protecting all residents, and that the guards had a decidedly negative impact on how Palestinian residents were able to conduct their daily lives.
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The Supreme Court ruled in January 2014 to uphold government funding for private security for Jewish residences in East Jerusalem, arguing that security companies are limited to “static defence of residential homes”, did not resemble the role of policing, and were legally and professionally subordinate to police.
Without the assistance of private guards and cooperation with police, settlers in occupied East Jerusalem would not be successful in their attempts to take over Palestinian neighbourhoods, said Aviv Tatarsky of the Israeli human rights organisation Ir Amin.
Tatarsky says settlers in East Jerusalem have capitalised on increases in violence in order to further their ideological aims.
“The narrative is not that these settlements are problematic and a cause of violence,” Tatarsky said, “but instead that these are completely normal residences… It is not just the idea of ‘we should use policing to protect ourselves,’ but also that ‘we will take advantage of the fact that there is Palestinian violence, in order to bring more security into the neighbourhood.'”
For Wadi Hilweh residents, the presence of private security has become another form of settlement itself.
“It’s a psychological jail here… Children can’t play in the streets without fear of running in the path of a guard… Before 1991, we didn’t see guards here. We saw policemen maybe once a week,” Qaraeen said. “But now, we see policemen every day, and guards every moment of every day.”