The Sheriffs

Photo: Activestills | Graphics: Lahav halevy

The office of the RAVSHATZ is peculiar to Israel, a very problematic combination of a settler representative with military authority, which is often abused

I remember my first RAVSHATZ (Hebrew acronym: Civilian Security Coordinator). It was in December of 1988, i.e. in the Bronze Age, and yours truly was three months out of basic training and found himself in a small and isolated settlement. The man who commanded us five soldiers, who were heroically trying to prevent the occupation of the settlement by the five Palestinian villages which surrounded it was not precisely an officer. He was a settler, but he gave us orders as if he was an officer. He was a pleasant, polite man, who treated the Palestinian workers who came every morning to build the settlement with respect and sensitivity. He invited us to Shabbat dinner with his family. We had no complaints and in fact, he was more fit for duty than many of the officers I had the misfortune to serve under during my military service.

But not all of them are like him, and the office is problematic for several reasons. The RAVSHATZ is authorized to use military forces – but he’s not subject to the military system. An officer who exceeds his authority and gives an illegal order, or simply misuses his forces, will have to explain himself to his superior officers, assuming they care.

To whom does a RAVSHATZ have to give an account to? This is where the chain of command gets fouled up: he is a civilian who is both in and out of the military system. Who will try him? Who will indict him? His pay comes from the local council, and as a result he (very rarely is a RAVSHATZ  a woman) considers himself, not unreasonably, to be working for it. After all, it signs his paycheck. In practice, the RAVSHATZ im import to the most troublesome, from law enforcement point of view, region under Israeli control the problematic model of the US sheriffs: law enforcement officers beholden to their communities, not to external authority. It’s not by accident that the sheriffs of the Southern US became the crudest symbol of the period of racial segregation there.

In some of the more confrontational settlements, some of the RAVSHATZ im serve not merely to defend the settlement, but often use their authority to extend the zone of occupation, and to abuse Palestinians. Sometimes they publicly embarrass the army, which then has to intervene. In September 2012, the RAVSHATZ of Bat Ayin ordered the soldiers under his command to prevent non-Jewish Israeli citizens from entering the settlements, an illegal order. In response, the army capitulated to him (Hebrew) and ordered the soldiers to inform the RAVSHATZ whenever such people enter the settlements, so they could be “escorted” while there. And then there is the troublesome fact, as discussed in the Knesset, that some 50 RAVSHATZim (Hebrew) have a criminal record – a fact that the Ministry of Defense did not deny.

All of this should be remembered when we discuss the following case. Less than two months ago, according to the complaints received by Yesh Din, a Palestinian, T., took his herd to pasture in Jordan Valley. Suddenly, the RAVSHATZ of a nearby settlement, who was known to T., showed up with another security man. According to T.’s statement, the two pointed their guns at him, and the RAVSHATZ started abusing him, ordering him time and time again to sit down and get up, as if T. was a green recruit facing a sadistic NCO. When T. sat down as ordered, the RAVSHATZ kicked him, saying T. did not sit down quick enough. Shortly afterwards, according to the complaints, soldiers who took their orders from the RAVSHATZ  showed up, handcuffed T., and the RAVSHATZ  started dispersing his herd by throwing stones at it. T. told the RAVSHATZ  in Arabic – most soldiers don’t speak it – that if he sees him near his settlement one more time, then the next time he will not tell the soldiers he was loitering; he will tell them he came in order to carry out a terror attack.

T. suffered some more abuse, particularly from soldiers, who were likely bored. He was beaten and the soldiers toyed with him by pretending to confiscate his ID card. But T. has no intention of going to the police: he is afraid that the RAVSHATZ, who knows him, will visit him again and harm him.

And, of course, he is correct. Who will be there to protect him the next time the RAVSHATZ drops for a visit? The RAVSHATZ lives there and the military forces rotate. Even if some officer will remember that the RAVSHATZ  was harassing T., and even if he was willing to challenge the RAVSHATZ  over it – and these are two big “if”s, and such officers are rare indeed – then, in a few months, the officer will be posted somewhere else, and T. will still have to live with his vengeful sheriff. Better to keep your head down; this way you may keep it.

And that’s how, under the aegis of the IDF, terror is implemented.

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