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Two weeks ago, I happened to be at a large settlement where I used a camera to document a property offense committed by one of the residents against land belonging to another person, a Palestinian. An argument broke out between me and the settlement resident. He tried to prevent me from taking the pictures, saying this was his private property, while I claimed there was no legal barrier to my continuing.

Had a conflict of this kind taken place within the Green Line, one of us would probably have called the police. But since the conflict broke out on a settlement, the settler used his mobile phone to call the settlement's security officer. Two minutes later, a jeep drove up from which a private armed guard emerged.

The guard demanded that I show him my identity card. I responded by demanding to see his, saying that as far as I knew, he was merely an impostor. After a while, he pulled out a piece of paper showing that he worked for a private security firm. He then took revenge on me for refusing to show my papers by shutting the settlement's gate so that I couldn't leave until the police arrived to set me free.

Over the past 20 years, with the encouragement of the army, a civilian force armed with some 1,600 guns has arisen in the territories. In the United States, such a force is called a militia. In the Palestinian Authority, it is known as an organization's military wing. In Israel, we use the terms "ravshatz" (the settlement security officer, from the acronym for rakaz bitahon shotef tzahali, or coordinator of security with the army ), and "kitot konanut," the settlements' rapid-response units.

The army is the main promoter of this enterprise: It trains and arms the units' personnel and supervises their activities. Attached to every Israel Defense Forces brigade is an officer whose duty is to supervise and coordinate with the settlement security officers. The latter get their salaries from the local authorities, but training is paid for by the IDF Home Front Command.

This practice is worrisome in two regards. First, this is a private police force to all intents and purposes. A settlement security officer is theoretically subject to the army's commands, but since he gets his salary from the settlement and is usually a veteran resident of the settlement, in reality, he takes orders from the settlement's leadership. And since these settlement officers are veterans who know the area well, they de facto turn into the bosses of the soldiers who rotate through the area.

Settlement security officers provide security for activities such as taking over Palestinian lands and water sources. Sometimes they also illegally bar entry to the settlement. During the 10-month freeze on settlement construction that began in November 2009, some of these officers participated in blocking the entry of Civil Administration inspectors - sometimes by using their vehicles, paid for by the state, and sometimes by organizing demonstrations. And they always act in a one-sided fashion, against the Palestinians. They do not deal with criminal or nationalist offenses by the settlers.

The second worrisome aspect of this practice is the privatization of the army. A state is supposed to ensure that it has a monopoly over military and police powers. If the state feels it is justified to settle civilians in hostile territory, it should send the army to protect them. The settlement security officers and rapid-response units are usurping powers that should belong solely to the army, and replacing combat soldiers.

An examination of two prominent cases of terrorism in the settlements shows that privatization doesn't always work well. The army's investigation into a shocking terrorist attack in Itamar in 2011 shows that this system harms the settlers' security: A breach of the security fence was noticed by those on duty in the settlement's defense headquarters, and a patrolman from a private security firm (supervised by the settlement security officer ) was sent to the area to check it out, but he found nothing suspicious, and no soldiers were summoned to the scene.

The investigation found that the patrolman didn't have fixed instructions, the army didn't insist that the settlement security officer follow professional standards, and the security officer didn't insist that the patrolman do the same. The result was that terrorists broke through the electronic fence, murdered adults and children, stole two guns, left via the fence, burned their clothes and hid the weapons, and no one noticed anything.

In the other case, in November 2002, an attack on a walkway used by Jewish worshipers in Hebron killed Kiryat Arba's security officer and two members of its rapid-response unit. The settlers point to this unfortunate event as an example of how they share the army's fate and fight shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers, but an analysis of the event shows something different.

An Islamic Jihad cell lay in ambush along the route that night and attacked a Border Police patrol, killing all its members. The commander of the army's Hebron Brigade then led a counterattack, but he was shot and killed, and the army's chain of command fell apart. Thus for many long minutes, the settlement security officer took command, fighting courageously alongside members of his rapid-response unit until they were killed.

Is this a normal situation - for civilians to be killed in battle because the Israel Defense Forces failed?