Who Do Israeli Settlement 'Sheriffs' Report To? Even They're Not Sure

The shooting of a Palestinian in the West Bank settlement of Anatot raised questions on the 'problematic' scope of armed security coordinators' work, as one defense official put it. 'This system is often exploited for ideological interests,' attorney says

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The entrance of the West Bank settlement of Naale, last year.
The entrance of the West Bank settlement of Naale, last year.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

They walk around armed. They’re trained by the army. They’re allowed to detain Palestinians, and they have the authority to send out emergency response teams. In some sense, they’re the local sheriffs, the highest security authority in and around the settlements. But who has authority over the people responsible for day-to-day security in the West Bank? Not only by Palestinians or leftist activists who find fault in their mode of operation wonder about this question, but also the security coordinators themselves.

Although the local councils and not the Defense Ministry employs them, they are subordinate to the army in most of the West Bank, and to the Border Police in the Jerusalem area. This situation is often puzzling to them, they say. When there is a dispute, like the one that happened in Anatot in November, it’s unclear who they should turn to. In that incident, the local coordinator opened fire after a Palestinian shepherd came close to the settlement’s fence, killing one of his sheep. The coordinator was suspected of unlawfully firing a gun. Despite his claims (he first denied shooting, then said he fired in the air and that Bedouin were trying to damage the fence), the police confiscated his weapon and suspended him pending the investigation.

“This incident highlights the problematic nature of these coordinators,” says a senior defense official. “They aren’t soldiers or police officers, but they’re responsible for their settlement’s security, bearing arms and operating incident response teams. Sometimes it’s like the Wild West.”

It’s no wonder that even if the suspension were justified, the question remains as to who is in charge. “If the police see themselves as responsible, they should go through the appropriate process, says the man’s lawyer, Adi Keidar, who was appointed by right-wing NGO Honenu. “If he were a police officer, he’d have a disciplinary hearing, the fact that he doesn’t belong to any specific organization is being exploited.”

He told the Border Police that the suspension was unlawful precisely because of the complex manner of the coordinator’s employment. The Border Police maintained the suspension, as recommended by its Jerusalem District commander.

A source of friction

Perhaps “complex” is an understatement. These coordinators are civilians, usually residents of the settlements where they’re employed. They get these positions after a bidding process. The settlements pay them using Defense Ministry funds. The bids reveal that they have to take an army course within two years of getting the job. Thus, a coordinator can work for a whole year before taking this course. They are also required to undergo periodic training through the army, which also provides the weapons and vehicles. Working in the West Bank, a military ordinance grants them broad authority, including detaining and arresting people, conducting searches and seizing suspicious objects. They’re allowed since 2009 to operate within a so-called “guarded area” outside a settlement, often encompassing illegal outposts.

This activity can be a source of friction, as residents of the village of al-Janiya, in Area B, where Palestinians control everything except security, describe. In 2019, a villager filed a complaint against security coordinator Yaakov Elharar, with the help of the Yesh Din human rights group. The plaintiff said the coordinator entered the village and fired shots into the air and at another resident. He pulled another resident out of a barber shop and arrested him before handing him over to soldiers. When asked to explain, the coordinator pointed his gun at the villager.

An armed settler in the illegal outpost of Amona before it was evacuated, 2016.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The coordinator then told the soldiers to release the man. The case was closed, since no crime was committed. Yesh Din appealed, and the case is again under review. The commander of Central Command did not reply to a question submitted to him by Yesh Din. In response to a query by Haaretz, the army spokesman said an inquiry was held by the brigade commander, who found that the coordinator had acted in accordance with operational needs. Nevertheless, he was reprimanded due to some flaws in his conduct.

“They let these coordinators operate outside the settlements’ jurisdiction, and their interests are often totally one-sided,” says attorney Shlomi Zachariah. “They often abuse their authority.” Zachariah represented Yesh Din in a 2016 petition against the expansion of the coordinators’ authority, asking for it not to cover private Palestinian land. This petition was denied after the state said it would issue maps showing where coordinators could work. The court said that denying them access to private land was too restrictive, and that petitioners could object on an individual basis in concrete cases.

“Security coordinators are ‘sheriffs’ in these areas. Whereas soldiers change, they remain, and everyone toes their line,” says a frustrated Zachariah. “This whole system, where it’s unclear who is subordinate to whom, is a loophole often exploited to benefit ideological interests.”

Elharar says that coordinators try to remove what they consider to be threats to settlements. The army invetigates incidents when operational errors happen. “We’re not Falangist gangs, we’re driven by the desire to protect the settlement’s Jewish residents, not neighboring Palestinians. I’m not supposed to be neutral.”

He adds that getting directives from several agencies can lead to conflict. “We have three such agencies – the local council, the settlement and the army,” he says. “The extent of authority depends on the brigade commander. One can allow them to operate in more distant areas, but that can change when a new commander arrives.”

The entrance to the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Who's giving the orders?

There’s another detail worth noting regarding the al-Janiya incident, the repeated claim that the coordinator issued orders to soldiers. Speaking with Numerous soldiers talking to left-wing NGO Breaking the Silence have stressed over the years the problematic nature of the relations between the army and security coordinators. One soldier described a coordinator as “the settlement commander,” mediating between the area and the army. “He makes demands, not requests,” he said, such as sending out patrols and erecting roadblocks.

A military source told Haaretz that these circumstances on the ground often dictate these relations. The coordinator usually arrives first at the site of an incident. He knows the settlement best, and the way he describes an event impacts the way the army sees him. “You can’t ignore him,” says this source. “He’s plays an important role in the security there.”

This issue was exemplified last June in Yitzhar, where the coordinator shot a Palestinian armed with a knife, although he posed no immediate danger. The coordinator ignored the rules of engagement. Although he’d arrived on the scene after the army, he acted on his own. The army initially claimed he had arrived first. Then it said they’d arrived together, seeing the man wielding a knife before proceeding to arrest him. An investigation found no fault with the coordinator’s conduct.

The tense relations between these coordinators and Palestinians and leftist activists are not new. Human rights lawyer Eitay Mack has sent many letters of complaint to military commanders. The army absolves itself of any responsibility for coordinators’ conduct. In one case, Mack was told that a coordinator who had removed Palestinian shepherds was acting outside his jurisdiction, as a civilian, so that Mack should turn to the police with his complaint. This behavior repeated itself in other cases.

One security coordinator claims they operate alone, with no backing. “I was shot at once. If I’d been injured, the Defense Ministry or government would not have looked after me,” he says. “If a soldier does something, he has the army’s backing. If a coordinator does, he’s judged as a civilian. No one will protect him. You’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”

A committee of coordinators has been calling for a change to the complex employment model. They want the Defense Ministry to hire them directly. “Until 26 years ago, we had individual contracts with the ministry,” says the committee’s chairman. “I got an army weapon and training at an army facility, with a vehicle supplied by the Defense Ministry.” Now, local councils, the army or police can terminate a coordinator’s employment. “We can’t be everyone’s punching bag,” says the committee’s chairman.

The IDF spokesperson said in response to this story that security coordinators are not soldiers or army employees, but civilians given authority by a military commander. The spokesperson added: “The appropriate authorities handle every complaint received. If wrongdoing is established, administrative action is taken. If criminal activity is discovered, the matter is handed over to the police.”

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