Between 1994-2014, Israel’s security service was transformed, becoming one of the most extreme examples of privatised security in the world. In this blog, Shir Hever, author of The Privatization of Israeli Security, explores the deposing of private security guards in public spaces and how the private military-security-industrial complex could be coming to a shopping centre near you…
Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan, who is also the minister of public security in charge of the police, is promoting a reform to expand the authority of private security guards in public places such as in shopping centres and places of entertainment. According to his proposed reform, security guards will have the authority normally reserved only for police officers to demand identification from civilians in the area, to detain them and even to use force against them.
Let us put this reform in context:
Israel is a settler-colonial society, and security is therefore a paramount element in the political discourse. Public space is not truly public, if it cannot be used by the indigenous population to stage protest. Security arguments are crucial to preserving the façade of a liberal democracy over a system of ethnic hierarchy, as discriminatory policies are explained as “temporary” and “necessary.” Therefore, security was traditionally a highly nationalised project, and the Israeli military, police, prison system and various secret agencies are all considered highly-prized tools of the state institutions and the Zionist movement.
Privatisation of security was originally unthinkable in the Israeli context, but the neoliberal wave that swept the country since the early 1980s spread to the security sector in the mid-1990s. Palestinian violence succeeded in shaking the Israeli society to the core, and fear of Palestinian attacks was exploited by the Israeli right-wing to gather popularity, marking the begin of the meteoric political career of Binyamin Netanyahu. Unwilling to consider political compromise as a means to end the violence, Israeli officials stopped speaking about ‘peace’ and instead adopted the language of ‘conflict management.’ This made security a sisyphean and thankless job which soldiers and police were happy to see transferred to private security companies.
During the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000, Israeli businesses started hiring tens of thousands of security guards to create a sense of security for shoppers. Supermarkets, shopping malls, coffee shops and public transportation centres increased prices in order to hire armed security guards. In 2003, armed security guards outnumbered the Israeli combat soldiers for the first time.
Since 2005, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, started passing legislation to gradually increase the authority of private security guards, granting those guards a status increasingly closer to that of the police, despite the fact that private security guards are not trained to police standards. Erdan now proposes to narrow the distinction between police and security guards even further.
Who is Gilad Erdan?
The young and tough Israeli minister is among Prime Minister Netanyahu’s most loyal politicians, charged with leading the fight against the global boycott movement against Israel. Erdan’s political career depends on defining Palestinian political violence as the greatest threat to Israeli lives, and he was caught lying in an attempt to frame traffic accidents as intentional ‘terror attacks’ when he met President Donald Trump. Erdan spoke in London about his uncompromising position that Israel/Palestine belongs only to the Jewish people.
Now as Prime Minister Netanyahu is interrogated by the Israeli police on several corruption cases, Erdan’s situation is uncomfortable. Netanyahu demands that Erdan will support a law restricting the authority of the police to expose corruption, but Erdan announced that he will not undermine the status of the police. With his new initiative, however, Erdan is doing just that, promoting even further concessions to the private security companies in control of public space, thus making the police redundant.
Why would the minister of police undermine the monopoly of the police force?
The ‘conflict management’ approach turns the continual repression of Palestinian resistance into a profession. Without Palestinian resistance, the Israeli security sector will lose its reason to exist and its lucrative contracts. Without successfully repressing this resistance, the security sector loses its prestige and aura of “expertise.” Indeed, the Israeli security elite is in an urgent crisis because its main resource is in jeopardy: it’s ability to turn the occupation of the Palestinian territory into an economic resource. Erdan is among Israel’s populist politicians calling on Israelis to arm themselves and participate in producing security in the public space, regardless of their training or profession. As such, he is eroding the monopoly of Israel’s security elite on security ‘expertise.’ For many of Erdan’s voters, this elite is associated (and for good reason) with discriminatory policies towards Mizrahim, Jews originating from Arab and Muslim countries. The private security sector, which depends both on government contracts and on private customers, offers management positions for the members of the Israeli security elite, as well as employment opportunities for lower-class Israelis whose main qualification is their military service.
The Israeli security elite is mostly comprised of Ashkenazi Jews (originating from Europe and North America). Historically, this elite contributed to establishing the hierarchy in which Mizrahim are situated above Palestinians but below Ashkenazim. The populist trend of the current Israeli government is to offer a binary hierarchy between Jews and Palestinians. This means not only reducing the gap in status and prestige between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, but also further repressing and delegitimizing Palestinians in order to highlight the Jewish-Palestinian divide.
Senior members of the security elite, such as the commanders of the police force, are pushed out of their hegemonic position by acts of privatisation, such as Erdan is currently promoting. With fewer paths open to retired officers into the upper echelons of the civil service and the political elite, retired officers find solace in the private market. Here they can leverage their military or police experience by establishing or serving in management positions in arms companies, homeland security companies and of course – in security companies which are gradually invited to replace the police.
This acts as a pressure valve. The crisis of the Israeli security elite is not translated into a political crisis, because many of the ousted officers find solace (at least temporarily) in high-income jobs. The Israeli government continues to replace the three-level hierarchy with a binary hierarchy and to erode the professional prestige of the security elite, while pacifying the injured former officers with lucrative private sector contracts.
What is the expected result of such a reform?
Privatisation of security, and the encroachment by private companies into public space (such as the surveillance of public space by companies such as Google) is not an Israeli invention. Israeli security measures, however, are symbolically important in global politics. When Israeli security guards receive more power, pro-Israel right-wing politicians in Europe and North America are quick to demand that similar policies will be adopted in their countries as well. With the global rise of private security companies, the public space, which truly belongs to the public, becomes smaller and smaller.
The expansion of the authority of private security companies is translated directly into a transformation of public space. Private companies and rich individuals can hire private security companies and use them to create enclaves where they enact their own policies. Security guards are tasked with banning or removing suspicious individuals, but their employers may decide to define “suspicious” in a way that includes homeless people, people of low socioeconomic classes or protesters. It has already become a widespread phenomenon in Israel that protests by workers in their workplace or by students in universities are broken up by privately-hired security guards.
Considering the importance of the security sector to the Israeli economy and specifically to its exports, it is common to find Israeli companies or their subsidiaries providing security services in international sport events, in airports around the world, etc. Alternatively, Israeli security companies provide training for local security staff in companies from all over the world. The freedom of action and excessive authority which Israeli security guards enjoy is presented to international customers as a special advantage, and Israeli security experts often complain about what they call ‘naïve European civil liberties’ preventing racial profiling, invasive searches and interrogations, and the ‘preemptive’ use of force. It is this de-regulated violent force that appears set to become the future of security services.
Shir Hever is an economic researcher based at the Alternative Information Centre in Jerusalem. He is the author of The Privatisation of Israeli Security (Pluto, 2017) and The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation (Pluto, 2010).
The Privatisation of Israeli Security by Shir Hever is available to buy from Pluto Press.