A scuffle has broken out among the Palestinian workers waiting to pass the sprawling Israeli checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The men, who have waited patiently outside the terminal for much of the night, are tired, and afraid of arriving late at work on nearby Israeli building sites. Now, one of them is trying to push ahead of the queue, sparking an angry response from the men behind.

Until recently, the armed guards sent in to restore order would have been members of the Israeli army or police forces. But the young man heading towards the tumult with his assault rifle is unmistakeably civilian: his hair is – even by the famously casual standards of the Israeli army – long and wild; under his bullet-proof vest, he wears no uniform but a simple green sweater.

His presence at this sensitive checkpoint – one of the biggest and most important in the occupied West Bank – is part of a trend that has caused fierce controversy in Iraq, and which has now reached Israel.

Here, too, jobs that were once the exclusive domain of the armed forces are increasingly farmed out to private security contractors. It is a shift that has attracted only little public scrutiny in a country that otherwise takes a close interest in military affairs – and remains deeply attached to its armed forces.

The Israeli government says the change benefits everyone. Palestinian civilians, it claims, receive better, more professional treatment from the more experienced private contractors than from jumpy 19-year-old conscripted soldiers. “The idea is to make the checkpoints civilian,” says Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the ministry of defence.

“The Palestinians will meet civilians not soldiers. Nobody likes security checks. But what we are trying to do is to make it easier on the one side and, on the other side, not to skip security needs.”

Israel’s ministry of defence started using private security companies at checkpoints more than two years ago but their presence has become visible only very recently. According to Mr Dror, all 30 crossings through which Palestinians can enter Israel now use private security contractors, and at least one has been handed over completely to private companies. For the time being, the role of private security contractors will be confined to what Israel identifies as border posts with the West Bank.

The government refuses to say how many private workers man the checkpoints, or how much it spends on their salaries. But Mr Dror says there are “several hundred” private guards employed – a number that is certain to rise sharply. “By the end of the year all the people will be civilians,” he says.

For private security companies such as Modiin Ezrahi, which claims to be Israel’s biggest, the policy means good business. Yehiel Levy, vice-president, says Israel’s “army and police are giving more and more jobs that soldiers and policemen used to do to civilians”.

Modiin Ezrahi started manning checkpoints only last year – today it has about 200 of its guards stationed at sites around Jerusalem.

But the trend towards privatising Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank (and on the border to Gaza) has drawn sharp criticism from Israeli human rights groups such as B’Tselem and Machsom Watch, as well as from some analysts. The United Nations, meanwhile, has reported a significant increase in “difficulties” at checkpoints since the changes were implemented.

Hanna Barag, an activist with Machsom Watch, an Israeli group that monitors checkpoints, describes the security guards as “Rambos” who behave no differently from the soldiers.

Standing outside the Bethlehem checkpoint, she scoffs at the idea the guards are more “civilian”. The guards, she says, carry guns and wear bullet-proof vests; ­Palestinians meet them at fortified checkpoints and in situations that have little to do with civilian life.

Daniel Levy, a Middle East expert at the New America Foundation in Washington and a former adviser to Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, raises another concern. He argues that the use of private guards further entrenches the Israeli occupation by making the strain of patrolling the movements of 2.5m Palestinians seem more manageable.

“It creates a sense that the occupation is not as much of a burden as it was. But all that is happening is that the burden is being shifted around,” Mr Levy says.

To Ms Barag the privatisation is part of a broader policy aimed at disconnecting the Israeli population from the reality of occupation. “It separates [the occupation] from Israeli society” Unlike the young and impressionable soldiers, she says, “these guys don’t go home and tell their mothers about what they are doing”.

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