Monday, 5:30 A.M., on the hill opposite the Palestinian village of Zabda, in the West Bank. Behind us lies the village of Barta’a. Between the two villages, in the heart of this enchanted landscape, we see towers, concrete walls, chain-link fences, metal gates and a leveled area whose glaring whiteness scars the terrain.

Monday, 5:30 A.M., on the hill opposite the Palestinian village of Zabda, in the West Bank. Behind us lies the village of Barta’a. Between the two villages, in the heart of this enchanted landscape, we see towers, concrete walls, chain-link fences, metal gates and a leveled area whose glaring whiteness scars the terrain. This is the Reihan checkpoint, located just five kilometers from the Green Line, near Jenin, in the northern West Bank.

Four months ago this checkpoint, through which hundreds of Palestinians pass every day, was "civilianized" and privatized. The Israel Defense Forces relinquished its operation to the Defense Ministry, which in turned contracted with a civilian security firm, called "Shin-Bet" (an acronym for "Shmira Uvitahon," Guarding and Security). One soldier remains at the Palestinian entrance to the complex, but the guards in the towers wear no uniforms.

The dozens of Palestinians who gather in the early morning hours at the metal turnstile at the checkpoint’s entrance have no opinion about privatization. But they have very definite opinions about the checkpoint’s privatization. Without exception, men and women, young and old, miss the soldiers. They say it quickly before entering the checkpoint, and explain why at greater length when they emerge, exhausted, after a wait ranging from 45 minutes to an hour and a half. "May God remove whoever brought them here," somebody says, summing up the widespread feeling toward the civilians who have replaced the soldiers.

It appears the Palestinians will have to get used to the new reality. The model of privatized, civilian-run checkpoints is the future, at least as far as the large checkpoints are concerned. Thus far, in addition to Reihan, four other checkpoints in the northern West Bank have been privatized. Soon, more will follow their lead in the center and southern part of the territories. Eliezer Rosenbaum, the deputy director general of the Public Security Ministry, promises that the civilianization of the checkpoints around Jerusalem will begin by mid-2008.

Worse than the IDF

The new system has a dual purpose, according to the relevant authorities in the Defense and Public Security Ministries: On the one hand, it is supposed to make the security checks more efficient, while at the same time, the procedure is meant to improve "the level of service to Palestinian citizens," to quote Rosenbaum. But there is another factor that they talk about less: According to the authorities, replacing soldiers with a contractor’s employees saves money and it absolves the government of any responsibility for them. That, too, is an economy.

"When the civilian company came, the prevailing assumption was that they would be better than the army," says Bassam Yehiye from the village of al-Araqa. "But in fact they are worse, and the situation deteriorates with each passing day." Yehiye is the only one prepared to give his name. Others are afraid that their entry permits will be canceled once they are identified.

The dozens of people I met as they emerged from the checkpoint spoke about long checks, about the indifference of the private company’s employees, and especially about inexplicable delays. "The soldiers would only hold back those they thought were suspicious," says Yehiye: "One here, one there. Now 90 percent of the men are detained for checks."

The checks themselves are humiliating, complain the Palestinians. "They put eight of us in one room, sometimes even up to 15," says Yehiye. "They force us to strip, in front of the others. That’s not acceptable in our religion." The security personnel confiscate the mobile phones of everyone inside the room, and the Palestinians are forced to wait half an hour, sometimes 45 minutes or even more than an hour. During that time, one of the regulars relates, "the checkers do nothing. They speak on their mobile phones and we wait." Sometimes, if someone makes trouble, says another, they stop the checks, close the gates, and anyone who is inside the checkpoint is stuck."

The worst complaints relate to "Room 3," a small sealed room where, according to the testimony of Yehiye and others, Palestinians are made to strip completely. A few weeks ago, a man passed out in this room. His friends said he was kept in there for two hours; the Shin-Bet company said he was only held for a few minutes. One way or the other, the incident intensified tensions at the checkpoint.

The treatment of the women is even more of a sensitive point. A few days ago, according to a report by the women of Machsom Watch ("machsom" is the Hebrew word for checkpoint), two women were told to strip in Room 3. The report stated that their transit permits were canceled after they refused to strip and instead returned home to the West Bank. The women I spoke to at the checkpoint, all of whom work as seamstresses in the eastern, Palestinian side of Barta’a, had heard the story. One of them, a young woman wrapped in a scarf, related that she, too, had been held in the room for two hours. She was told that if she did not remove her hijab, the security staff would call the police. She refused, but in the end they let her pass.

Neta Golan of Machsom Watch explains that some months ago, when it turned out that women were being held together with men, a demonstration was held at the checkpoint. Stones were thrown and soldiers from the nearby army base fired in the air. Golan relates that following the protest, the practice was suspended, but not before one of the company’s men threatened the Palestinians that if the demonstrations continued, their transit permits would be revoked.

Officials in the Defense Ministry deny the allegations. "There is no stripping, no exposure of body parts, it just doesn’t happen," said a senior source in the ministry. The same source added that the physical conditions at the checkpoint have been improved substantially – there are now shelters, drinking water and chemical toilets – and that the Palestinians are processed in a "polite and considerate" manner. The delays, according to the source, are a consequence of "an improvement in the security checking process, which possibly prevents Palestinians from doing things they did in the past – and the wise will understand the allusion."

In any event, even an additional check, and even the check in Room 3 (which, according to the senior source, is a rare occurrence) should not extend the time spent at the checkpoint by much. The Defense Ministry’s official response stated that "the person crossing spends no more than 15 minutes [in the checkpoint]. Those who require a more thorough security check may remain in the checkpoint for up to 30 minutes." That is not what I witnessed at Reihan last week. Most people only emerged after 45 minutes or more.

In my first conversation with the senior source in the Defense Ministry, he told me that the example of Reihan and the other four civilianized checkpoints was "not just successful, but very successful." In our second conversation, after I told him what I had seen at Reihan, he conceded that "it is possible that there are rare shortcomings," and added that "several personnel were dismissed" because of such shortcomings.

Just like Texas

The Tarqumiya checkpoint in the Hebron Hills will be privatized soon, on the basis of the Reihan model. Apparently other checkpoints in the Jerusalem area will follow, including those at Qalandiyah, Zeitim (al-Azariya), Shoafat and others. These are the most heavily used checkpoints in the West Bank. They are also the most complex to operate, because those who use them include tens of thousands of Palestinians who are citizens of Jerusalem and carry Israeli identity cards as well as West Bank Palestinians who need medical or other essential services that they can only get in East Jerusalem.

The Machsom Watch activists report that a few months ago, employees of the Modi’in Ezrachi security company joined the personnel at a number of checkpoints surrounding Jerusalem that are under police jurisdiction. Two weeks ago, half the teams that inspected vehicles at the Qalandiyah and a-Ram checkpoints were made up of security people from Modi’in Ezrachi.

Yehiel Levy, the deputy director of operations at Modi’in Ezrachi, says his men provide protection for the police and the border police at the checkpoints – a strange assertion in itself. But one of the company’s security personnel acknowledged that in fact their role is not limited to protection. "We check IDs when it’s necessary, like everyone else," he said.

Claire Oren, a Machsom Watch activist, explains that a while ago, the men of Modi’in Ezrachi were left to their own devices and ran the Sheikh Saad checkpoint, near Armon Hanatziv, on their own. Her impression is that the private security men are more apathetic than the border police. Very few of them speak Arabic and they are sometimes harsher in their treatment of the Palestinians. "If there’s a problem with border policemen or the police, there is someone to turn to," says another Machsom Watch activist, Tamar Fleishman. "One can approach the individual in charge of the checkpoint, or the Police Investigation Unit. The security operatives don’t even wear name tags. There is no one to talk to."

Rosenbaum says it has been decided to civilianize the checkpoints in the Jerusalem area following the Reihan model. "Ultimate authority will remain in the hands of the police or the Public Security Ministry," he says, "but a private company will be responsible for the day-to-day operation." Rosenbaum relates that he witnessed this kind of practice at the airport in Dallas and on the U.S.-Canadian border. These examples, he says, is his source of inspiration.

A crazy jungle

Haggai Alon, a former adviser to the defense minister on the fabric of Palestinian life, was involved in the discussions on the privatization of the checkpoints. This past June he raised several tough questions regarding the authority of the private security companies vis-a-vis that of the army and the police. "There is a real danger that private companies will operate under instructions for opening fire without supervision or authority," Alon says today. "Beneath the positive move of civilianizing the checkpoints lies a dangerous process of putting [national] security in private hands."

Rosenbaum says that the work that will determine these details has not yet been completed. For instance, it is not even certain whether the police or the Public Security Ministry will be the responsible authority. In any event, he reiterates, the goal is to "provide quick and efficient service. Civilians should deal with civilians." A source in the Defense Ministry says that beyond improving service, the civilianization of the checkpoints will permit security checkers to become professionals (unlike soldiers, who are often reassigned) and will allow for the introduction of sophisticated equipment. "There is also a financial saving," says Rosenbaum. The man at the ministry put it unequivocally: "I assume that the intention is not to create a [legal] employer-employee relationship with these thousands of workers."

The government apparently knows what it’s doing. "The private security market is a mad jungle," says attorney Doron Golan of the non-profit Kav La’Oved (Worker’s Hotline). Tens of thousands of young people earn a meager wage, and only a few of them receive the benefits determined by law. Only recently, as a result of a concerted effort by accountant general Yaron Zelekha and the activities of Kav La’Oved and MKs like Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich and Dov Khenin from Hadash, has the situation begun to improve.

Golan says that it is out of fear of Zelekha that Modi’in Ezrachi is now paying what it should. But many companies continue to violate the rights of their employees. Golan hopes that the government will continue monitoring workers’ rights in companies that win government contracts. He believes the privatization does not really save the government money. "Its purpose is to demonstrate that the public sector is small," he says.

The guards at the crossings get paid substantially more than guards do in general, says Modi’in Ezrachi’s deputy director Levy. And in fact the guards I met in Jerusalem seemed happy. "Everything’s great," said one, without giving his name. "You guard the country and you make a living." A good one? I asked. "It’s okay," he answered.