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A more private occupation

This is an op-ed in today's Haaretz. 

Imagine Philippe Starck and Daniel Libeskind are commissioned to design an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank - imposing exterior, breezy interior, daring splashes of light and color. Sometimes it seems this is the image being promoted by the newly privatized and civilianized checkpoints and crossings popping up in the territories. When it comes to dress codes, the drab olive of military fatigues is decidedly passe, having been replaced by the crisp uniforms of private security contractors.

A half-dozen such terminals are operated by private companies - from Al-Jalama near Jenin, to Sha'ar Ephraim near Tul Karm, from Reihan to Tarqumiya. According to a recent Channel 10 news report, the Israel Defense Forces is planning to privatize all the checkpoints in the seam area. No more wasting soldiers' time. The IDF is selling the idea in win-win terms: better security for Israelis,better service for the Palestinians.

That we should still be exploring modalities for reinventing and improving the occupation, rather than ending it, after more than 40 years, is troubling enough in itself. But the decision by the state to outsource so basic a national security function with barely an eyebrow raised or question asked, will likely prove, in time, another example of how what we sow in the territories we later reap back home.

This phenomenon of a more private occupation complements a broader Israeli trend of outsourcing functions, including those of a sensitive nature, that were previously the state's purview. And the privatization of the military is a ubiquitous global affair. Private military firms (PMFs) now provide logistical, maintenance and consulting services, as well as actual combat duties, to contractors in more than 50 countries.

The world has accumulated a fair amount of experience in outsourcing military services and Israel would do well to take notice. The American presence in Iraq has become something of a laboratory for PMF-watchers. There, in addition to the traditional grunt jobs, private contractors have taken on core military functions, such as protecting important installations, escorting convoys, and even operating missile-defense systems. It was also PMF employees who were at the center of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal.

And then there is the case of Blackwater, dubbed by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, himself ex-military, "rent-an-army." Last September, Blackwater company guards shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad intersection. That episode finally cast a spotlight on the shadowy existence of one of the Iraq war's greatest beneficiaries. Blackwater barely existed 10 years ago, but, according to The Guardian, the politically well-connected company has been awarded over $750 million in government contracts since mid-2004, often in the form of non-competitive tenders.

There is no scandal of the Blackwater scale waiting to erupt in Israel, but the issues now being investigated in the U.S. regarding the uses and abuses of PMFs merit our attention. The obvious dilemmas begin with the question of how PMF contracting can coexist with the principle of the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In addition to crossings and checkpoints, private companies in the West Bank are patrolling the separation barrier and other security-sensitive spots (such as the tunnel on Route 60). They are deployed at Gaza's Erez crossing and apparently at the fuel depot in Nahal Oz. Their workers are outside the military chain of command and justice system, they are removed from governmental and legislative oversight, functioning in a legal twilight zone.

By definition, a private company does not operate on the basis of the public good - unlike its client, the state, it has different incentives, mainly profit. This can influence decisions on recruitment criteria, quality of equipment procured, investment in training, rotation of personnel, and more. PMFs also add another layer of bureaucracy and possible confusion to an already convoluted mix of Israeli state actors. The use of contractors has a distorting effect on the real costs of a particular security posture and policy. And, finally, civilians - unlike soldiers - can always walk off the job.

Machsom Watch (an NGO that actively monitors the goings-on at checkpoints) has reported an increase in tensions, reduced channels of communication, and a more explosive situation at the privately run terminals. Lose-lose: less security, worse service. The privatization of the occupation needs to be reconsidered.

All this is not an appeal for bringing back the boys (and girls) in green. The occupation and its checkpoints and terminals will not be benevolent, whether they are staffed by soldiers, private contractors or bagel-makers. That much should be clear by now. But we should be careful in our rush to privatize state security functions - whether in the context of occupation or when, finally, we have agreed-upon permanent borders and passages.

When the reality about PMFs in Iraq was just emerging, the Brookings Institution published a report on "Outsourcing War." This is its conclusion, which should be read in Jerusalem (and reread in Washington): "The U.S. military must take a step back and reconsider, from a national security perspective, just what roles and functions should be kept in government hands."


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Daniel Levy


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 11, 2008 12:21 PM.

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