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.