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Sheriffs of the land: Meet the settlers with military authority

The position of the Civilian Security Officer is unique to Israel: a settler who gives orders to IDF soldiers as if he is an officer, but is not actually held responsible under the military system. So, to whom is he accountable?

By Yesh Din, written by Yossi Gurvitz

I remember my first Ravshatz (Hebrew acronym for: Civilian Security Officers in Coordination with the IDF — CSO). It was in December of 1988, i.e. in the Bronze Age, and yours truly was three months out of basic training and found himself in a small and isolated settlement. The man who commanded us five soldiers, who were heroically trying to prevent the occupation of the settlement by the five Palestinian villages which surrounded it, was not precisely an officer. He was a settler, but he gave us orders as if he was an officer. He was a pleasant, polite man, who treated the Palestinian workers who came every morning to build the settlement with respect and sensitivity. He invited us to Shabbat dinner with his family. We had no complaints and in fact, he was more fit for duty than many of the officers I had the misfortune to serve under during my military service.

But not all of them are like him, and the position is problematic for several reasons. The CSO is authorized to use military force – but he’s not subject to the military system. An officer who exceeds his authority and gives an illegal order, or simply misuses his forces, has to explain himself to his superior officers, assuming they care.

To whom is a CSO accountable? This is where the chain of command gets fouled up: he is a civilian who is both in and out of the military system. Who will try him? Who will indict him? His pay comes from the local council, and as a result he (very rarely is a CSO a woman) considers himself, not unreasonably, to be working for it. After all, it signs his paycheck. In practice, the CSOs import the problematic model of U.S. sheriffs to the most troublesome (from a law enforcement point of view) region under Israeli control: law enforcement officers beholden to their communities, not to an external authority. It’s not by accident that the sheriffs of the southern U.S. came to symbolize segregation.

In some of the more confrontational settlements, some of the CSOs serve not only to defend the settlement, but often use their authority to extend areas occupied by the settlements and to abuse Palestinians. Sometimes they publicly embarrass the army, which then has to intervene. In September 2012, the CSO of Bat Ayin ordered the soldiers under his command to prevent non-Jewish Israeli citizens from entering the settlements – an illegal order. In response, the army capitulated to him (Hebrew) and ordered the soldiers to inform the CSO whenever such people enter the settlements, so they could be “escorted” while there. And then there is the troublesome fact, as discussed in the Knesset, that some 50 CSOs (Hebrew) have criminal records – a fact that the Defense Ministry did not deny.

All of this should be remembered when we discuss the following case. Less than two months ago, according to the complaints received by Yesh Din, a Palestinian, T., took his herd to pasture in Jordan Valley. Suddenly, the CSO of a nearby settlement, who was known to T., showed up with another security man. According to T.’s statement, the two pointed their guns at him, and the CSO started abusing him, ordering him to sit down and get up over and over again, as if T. was a green recruit facing a sadistic non-commissioned officer. When T. sat down as ordered, the CSO kicked him, saying T. did not sit down quickly enough. Shortly afterwards, according to the complaints, soldiers who took their orders from the CSO showed up, handcuffed T., and the CSO started dispersing his herd by throwing stones at it. The CSO told T. in Arabic – which most soldiers don’t speak – that the next time he sees him near his settlement, he will not tell the soldiers that T. is loitering; he will tell them he came in order to carry out a terror attack.

T. suffered some more abuse, particularly from soldiers, who were likely bored. He was beaten and the soldiers toyed with him by pretending to confiscate his ID card. But T. has no intention of going to the police: he is afraid that the CSO, who knows him, will visit him again and harm him.

And, of course, he is correct. Who will be there to protect him the next time the CSO drops for a visit? The CSO lives there and the military forces rotate in an out. Even if some officer does remember that the CSO was harassing T., and even if he was willing to challenge the CSO over it – and these are two big ifs, and such officers are rare indeed – then, in a few months, the officer will be posted somewhere else, and T. will still have to live with his vengeful sheriff. Better to keep your head down; that way you might keep it.

And that’s how, under the aegis of the IDF, terror is implemented.

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    1. Palestinan

      Who is an Israeli civilian ? Is it an IDF soldier ? An ex-soldier? A settler whose job is to terrorize his/her Palestinian neighbors ? A scientist who develops and invents weapons to kill Palestinians ? An employee who is working in a company that invests in occupation,settlements or the Israeli military–industrial complex?Maybe a Shin Bet agent ? The list goes on and on …but I cant recognize a “civilian” among these people !

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Are you arguing that there is no such thing as an Israeli civilian?

        How about a 6 year old Israeli girl or boy. Are they civilians? How about a 30 year old Haredi man that hasn’t done army service? Is he a civilian? How about a 50 year old Russian immigrant? Is he a civilian? How about a 30 year old Arab man? Is he a civilian?

        So, let’s try this again. Are you arguing that there is no such thing as an Israeli civilian?

        Also, according to international law ex-soldiers most certainly qualify as civilians as do most of the other categories you mention, but I thought it would be easier to give you such obvious examples of people that are civilians that you would be forced to give yes or no questions.

        Reply to Comment
        • Palestinan

          Did I claim there is no such an Israeli civilian? No

          Children are children.
          Do Haredi or new immigrants serve in any way the occupation ?
          Does that 30-year old Palestinian serve in the army ?

          Ex-criminals are hold accountable for their crimes.Which means the majority of your adult population are legitimate targets.

          Reply to Comment
          • “Ex-criminals are hold accountable for their crimes.Which means the majority of your adult population are legitimate targets.”

            This attitude gives rise to several questions, but the two most prominent for me are firstly how we even define ‘participation’ when a society is so deeply mired in injustice (is paying tax enough to qualify?) and secondly whether thousands of individual punishments are actually capable of bringing about justice, morally or practically. In countries where huge numbers of people have been implicated in a crime (e.g. apartheid South Africa, Rwanda during the genocide, etc.) it is simply not possible to mete out a specific punishment to each specific individual who participated. Would it be moral even if it were possible? Would it be just? I’d argue not, as there is a difference between justice and vengeance. Justice would involve the establishment an equal society and repairing what was broken, whereas vengeance through mass killings would only stunt that process and cause even more damage to everyone.

            The shape that justice should take in a society where so many people are implicated in a crime is a big question and there are several possibilities. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions were formed as one answer, and there are other possibilities. Have you ever read anything on transitional justice? It might be worth a look. Out of interest, how do you react to people who were involved directly in crimes against Palestinians, and are now sorry?

            “Children are children.”

            I once asked a good friend, an activist, why he hadn’t simply refused his service. He replied, “Maybe I didn’t have the guts for prison.” I got to know him while he was still in the army, and it put me in a weird position – to work with traumatised Palestinian kids and at the same time be friends with someone who was currently serving. He was unhappy and more than a little unwell mentally, in large part due to his army experiences. If he read your comments, he would actually agree with you that he was and is a legitimate target. But I would like to ask you to consider something else. Kids in Israel are groomed for the army from day one, and with the type of education that they get (which includes field trips to military bases and not a whole lot of opportunities to learn about Palestinian life), it really isn’t easy for them to swim against the current and refuse to serve. Children are children. You’re right. As such, they’re susceptible to peer pressure and worry over what people might think. That doesn’t melt the moment they hit the magical age of eighteen. I don’t deny the need to take personal responsibility. I am certainly not absolving conscript soldiers of that. I just think that it is important to remember that there is no moment when they metamorphose from child to monster to target. As someone under occupation, you’re totally within your rights to defend armed resistance against an occupying force, and as an outsider with full civil rights I can’t condemn you for that without being a complete hypocrite. But it might be useful to consider these things as well.

            Reply to Comment
          • Palestinan

            I wasnt implying that all ex-soldiers should be killed but they arent civilians.
            18-year-olds are no longer innocent children ,they have brains and can decide for themselves.Murderers brought up in violent families are held accountable for their crimes.
            Your friend chose his/her comfort over his/her conscience.
            Btw I dont live in Palestine ,but I can imagine how it feels to live under the rule of those criminals.

            Reply to Comment
          • In that case could you specify what you meant when you said that most adults are ‘legitimate targets’? Targets for what?

            I have little time for the idea of ‘childhood innocence’. It’s a mythical idea imposed by adults. Kids have consciences and brains and guts. But they’re also vulnerable and reliant on the adults around them for education, care, and guidance. Tsav rishon isn’t accompanied by any history lesson on Palestine or a class on what life looks like under occupation. The usual teenage ideas and concerns don’t evaporate overnight on the day the call-up arrives. Most of them will never have lived independently; they go straight from the authority of parents and teachers to the authority of military officers. It’s not so easy to separate an eighteen-year-old at a checkpoint from the kid he was last year. Obviously they’re doing something wrong and they need to take responsibility for that. But there is a difference between asking that of someone and being vindictive towards people.

            My friend’s army experience wasn’t fun. It wasn’t a question of choosing between conscience and comfort, but between two different types of discomfort and fear. Given the problems he developed in the army, and the ongoing consequences of those, prison would probably have been easier for him. But there’s no real way to know.

            He would be happier with your assessment of him than he is with mine, because he’s hard on himself now. I hope he can get to the point where he no longer sees himself in terms of that uniform. I have often tried to argue with him that people aren’t ossified by their past choices. Would you appreciate it if other people saw you only in terms of the bad things you once did, and never acknowledged the possibility that you could be anyone else?

            It is one thing to hold anti-occupation/anti-Zionist politics. It’s another to assume that everybody who is involved in the occupation must be the embodiment of all evil. It is a pretty difficult realisation to face, but you really don’t have to be a terrible person to do terrible things. A just resolution does need to take that into account.

            If you don’t mind answering, were you born in the Diaspora? Have you lived in Palestine at all?

            Reply to Comment
          • Niz

            The idea that there are no Israeli civilians is as dangerous as “the Arabs are all terrorists”. What qualifies an israeli to become a civilian? For example, if a palestinian holds a weapon to defend their houses, they are legitimate targets and could be shot instantly. However, how many Israelis hold weapons and serve in the army. Even if they are not serving they are on reserve duty. I am not a lawyer, but seriously, what is the legal status? If you are a settler with weapons, you are a criminal and could be shot in self defense? no?

            Reply to Comment
          • Leen

            A civilian, according to International Humanitarian law, is a person who is NOT a member of his or her country’s armed forces or other militias.
            Officials directly involved in the maiming of civilians are conducting offensive military operations and do not qualify as civilians.
            And civilians who are armed and partake in hostilities forgoe their ‘civilian’ status. And are considered ‘unlawful’ combatants.

            Reply to Comment
          • Leen

            I see where your point is coming from and to be honest one has to either chose one or the other.

            First, according to International Humanitarian law, any person who is not partaking in combat is not a target. That means a Hamas militant who is NOT engaged in combat should not be a target. Therefore any assassinations or targetting of individual Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc members while NOT in combat is a direct violation of International Humanitarian law.
            This also extends to Israeli reservists.

            However, if one says, no that person is a legitimate target because he still poses danger, then the same can be said for Israeli reservists.
            That means if people advocate for the assassination of Hamas members/militants and believe it is morally right while they are NOT engaged in hostilites, then using that logic Hamas militants are within their right to target any Israeli individual between the age of 18-45 (who are not Haredi and exempt from the army) since they still pose a danger as immediate soldiers or reservists, despite the fact that they are not engaged in hostilites at the moment.

            Reply to Comment
      • Y-Man

        i sympathize with your point of view, but let’s not get carried away boss. it’s pretty obvious who an Israeli civilian is and who an Israeli soldier/combatant is.

        Reply to Comment
        • aristeides

          Israel has armed the settlers and spoken of their presence in the WB as a strategic matter. Certainly an armed Israeli settler isn’t a civilian, in the sense of a noncombatant.

          But that really isn’t the question here. The question is chain of command, authority, responsibility. Armed settlers are a rogue force, and that’s the problem the article is pointing out.

          Reply to Comment
          • I wish armed settlers were a rouge force; there is almost no evidence to indicate the IDF sees them that way. Rather, settler belligerence is an active part of occupation control, curtailing prior residents’ mobility and livelihood. One trickle outcome is the fleeing of these residents, a slow motion expunging.

            There is no indication that the IDF is capable (or desirous) of of controling the settlers. By giving CSO’s local command over troops, the IDF affirms the formers’ attitude. There is no federal structure in Israel, so no position for independent oversight, save the judiciary. And the judiciary is part of the war council wanting silenced prior residents. How can this not lead to single State control under apartheid?

            Reply to Comment