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Why the divestment of G4S from Israel is a big deal

The G4S security company has announced plans to leave the Israeli market. This is a big deal.

In 2002, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) incorporated the activities of the largest multinational private security company to date, G4S1, in the management of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Since then, G4S has held 90 per cent of the shares in its Israeli subsidiary. The company is the second largest actor in the management of the occupation after the IDF and the biggest private security employer both in Israel and around the world (G4S website).

In 2006, G4S took charge officially of the management of Israeli checkpoints2. The services it provides include providing scanners in the “buffer zone” and at the Erez checkpoint on the northern edge of the Gaza Strip. The zone is located within the occupied territories between the Green Line – the 1949 armistice line between Israel as it was established in 1948 and the West Bank – and the so-called Separation Wall (Nieuwhof 2012). G4S also provides security services at the checkpoints at the entrances to Qalandia, Bethlehem and Irtah, all connected to the Israeli wall built since 20013.

The system of checkpoints connected to the wall is designed to limit and control the movement of Palestinians within the West Bank. G4Sʼs presence was an attempt by Israel to normalise the occupation. By doing so, it sought to create a sense of permanency to the occupation which disconnects its reality from Israeli society while entrenching it within Palestinian society. The fact that this normalisation has been challenged and brought to an end is a victory to be celebrated.

“Border checkpoints”

The use of the term “border checkpoints” is a fairly recent phenomenon in the history of the occupation and management of the Palestinian population. In 1970 and 1980, the entry of Palestinians into Israel was barely even controlled. This was a policy introduced in order to create Palestinians’ economic dependency on the Israeli market (Gordon 2008, p21). It was only in the early 1990s that the situation began to change.

In January 1991, the general permission given for Palestinians to enter Israel openly was removed, and the application of the ban became effective from March 1993, with the declaration of a state of unlimited siege (Ibid). This implied that any Palestinian wishing to enter Israel had to present a circulation permit that had to be issued by the IDF and could only be granted under special circumstances (Hevkin 2008, p5). This restriction was formalised by the establishment of checkpoints

along the roads linking the occupied Palestinian territories (OPTs) to Israel. Peace negotiations and the various agreements signed in the 1990s between Israel and the Palestinian leadership could not lead to a relaxation of this constraint; in fact, it became anything but relaxed.

In 1994, a “security fence” was built around the Gaza Strip; it was completed in January 1995. Under the pretence of security, the Israeli government decided to establish some degree of “separation” between the Israeli and Palestinian people (Gordon 2008, p32). To do so, dozens of crossing points were built in the buffer zone to control and monitor the movement of vehicles, goods and pedestrians between the West Bank or the Gaza Strip and Israel (Hevkin 2008, p6). However, due to the lack of physical separation, their effectiveness was limited.

It was only after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 that the Israeli government decided to build a physical barrier. The construction of the wall — the so-called “separation barrier” — was agreed by the Israeli government in 2002 and work began in 2003. The wall is the largest construction project envisaged by the State of Israel.

By the end of 2009, more than four hundred kilometres of the wall had been built. The “border checkpoints” became an integral part of this system of unilateral separation. However, insofar as these are the only legal border crossings of people and goods to and from the OPTs, these interfaces are an important meeting place for Palestinian and Israeli economic exchanges; simultaneously, they are a point of great tension between Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers.

In 2006, G4S took on the management of the main “border checkpoints” along the “separation barrier”. The company repackaged the checkpoints as “terminals” so as to give an impression of a normal, more modernised space (Mansbach 2009, p257). G4S supplies luggage scanning equipment and full body scanners in these “terminals”, as well as personnel. It manages the border crossing of Palestinian civilians on a daily basis. The integration of private companies in checkpoint management was precisely to create a more human face to what is essentially a military security device (Ibid, p256). According to an Israeli Ministry of Defence spokesperson on 26 December, 2006, “The process of transferring the operation of the border crossings into civilian hands is a humanitarian step that is meant to reduce the contact between the Palestinian population and the soldiers and, thus, to enable upgrading the checkpoints into formal crossing points.”

G4S in the OPTs

G4S manages checkpoints, which became “terminals” as soon as the company was contracted to operate them along the wall. G4S Israel points out on its website that part of its work includes “homeland security activities”. Mansbach (Ibid, p260) points out that the Israeli Ministry of Defence insists that “[the operation of the ‘terminals’] is a job for civilians and not for soldiers. And it is highly important that civilians do it, mainly because [at the ‘terminals’] there is contact with civilians, and not with someone who is an enemy. And second, there is a need to convert the crossing points into civilian crossing points because they are civilian crossing point, it is not a military crossing-point.”

There are interesting assumptions in this quote that can help shed light on the activities of G4S as a manager of terminals. Firstly, there is a clear indication that a Palestinian at a “terminal” is not like a Palestinian at a military checkpoint even though, in essence, these are two of the same physical aspects of the occupation’s infrastructure.

At a terminal, a Palestinian is a civilian who is going across a border in the same way that a Canadian, for example, might cross into the United States. A military checkpoint inside the OPTs deals with the “enemy”, who is also a Palestinian civilian. In other words, the identity of the Palestinian changes depending on the space — checkpoint or terminal — in which he or she is encountered, even though the person is the same (Gordon 2008a, p.22). On the peripheries of the OPTs, where the terminals are located, the Palestinian is a “civilian”, whereas the deeper you go into the OPTs, the more that the exception to this becomes more visible, with the military checkpoints staffed by Israeli soldiers.

Furthermore, the Minister of Defence assumes that there is a neutral relationship that has developed with the involvement of G4S. In other words, the Israeli government is attempting to depoliticise and demilitarise the manifestations of its military occupation. This brings us back to the idea of normalisation as a neo-liberal power tactic that assigns an economic vocabulary to an inherently political space. If politicisation speaks to the representation of institutional power as a space of conflict and problems, depoliticisation is meant to create a sense of normality; to represent power structures as natural or normal (Gordon 2008a, p.25). This is done by creating “terminals” in the OPTs that function and look like the ones you would find across the free world by having them operated by a company seen providing the same services in “normal” places such as air and sea ports. A regime can only emerge if it is able to create a sense of permanency about its activities. The inclusion of G4S does just that under the pretence of trying to create a human face for the occupation.

As such, the difference between a military checkpoint and a terminal becomes one based on the tensions found in the front of house and backstage. The inherent violence of a military checkpoint is obvious to the naked eye; a terminal managed by ostensibly civilian security guards in blue and white uniforms is, however, more subtle. A soldier at a military checkpoint looks ready for war while the security guard is armed lightly and has a commercial dress code (Who Profits, 2011). In other words, the new structure of the “terminals” creates a “sterile” environment in which no explicit violence can be seen by anyone who is not actually crossing the checking point itself (Mansbach 2009, p266). This brings us to a broader discussion about the perception of Palestinian civilians in light of the G4S operations.

The inclusion of a private security company, namely G4S, in the management of Israeli checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian territories is an attempt to normalise the structures of oppression induced by the Israeli security apparatus. Simply by being involved, such companies intensify the structures of control by insulating Israeli society further from the realities of the military occupation. Meanwhile, Palestinians continue to be subject to the agents of Israel’s security apparatus, either military or civilian. Creating a sense of normality in a space that is ruled by the laws of war and occupation has allowed the Israeli government to distance the bulk of its population from the conflict, while entrenching disadvantage in Palestinian society.

Although G4S did not cite the hard work of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign as the chief reason for it divesting from Israel, it is reasonable to suggest that BDS has exposed the company’s involvement in security activities which aid and abet Israel’s military occupation at the expense of the human and civil rights of the Palestinians. In terms of public relations, that is disastrous for such a large company. For that reason alone, its divestment is indeed a big deal.

End Notes

1. The British-Danish security conglomerate operates in more than 120 countries worldwide and employs an estimated 625,000 workers. A wide spectrum of services is provided through its activities in both the private and public sector. These include “operating private security personnel in cooperation with municipalities, governments and private businesses. Working at airports and seaports security or guarding of buildings, events, or delivering money to banks and ATMs machines” (Who Profits, 2011). In 2004, British Securicor and Danish Group 4 Falck merged together to form G4S, today worth more than $1 billion. Prior to these developments, in 2002, Group 4 Falck had purchased one of Israel’s biggest providers of security services: Hashmira.

2. The work of G4S is not limited to checkpoint management. Indeed, it also participated in prison and detention centres with both staff and technology. It has also managed incarceration facilities since 2002. However, it was in 2006 that it took on checkpoint management.

3. The ICJ ruled that “the construction of the wall and its associated regime, by contributing to the demographic changes mentioned […] above, contravene Article 49, paragraph 6, of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” The “associated regime” of the wall includes the checkpoints. One can argue that by providing and servicing security equipment for the checkpoints, G4S Israel is facilitating breaches of the Geneva Convention.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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