Private security costs in e. J'lem double in a decade

Report released by Peace Now says government funding now exceeds NIS 54 million.

east jerusalem arabs security 248.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
east jerusalem arabs security 248.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Government funding allocated to a private security firm tasked with protecting Jewish residents in Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem has more than doubled over the last 10 years, and now exceeds NIS 54 million, according to a new report released by Peace Now. The report, which was based on information taken from the 2009-2010 Construction and Housing Ministry's budget, examines the ministry's expenditures on all settlement activity. The report details a steady rise in the costs for permanent guards at the homes of the more than 2,000 Jewish residents in the area, tight security escorts and in some places transportation. These services are provided by some 350 private guards at 66 different locations, in neighborhoods like the Old City's Muslim Quarter and Silwan. The latest figures show a NIS 7 million increase from last year, when security expenditures in east Jerusalem reached NIS 47.8 million, and an increase of NIS 14 million from 2007, when the budget was set at NIS 40 million. In 1999, the Construction and Housing Ministry's budget for security in the area was NIS 24.9 million. Peace Now also said that these budgets are often exceeded due to facts on the ground, as the government must secure Jewish families who move into new homes in eastern Jerusalem even if the budget hadn't originally provided for them. During a Knesset Finance Committee session in January 2008, the request of Treasury representatives for an additional NIS 15 million for these services was approved, and according to Ir Amim, the additional money was intended specifically for the protection of new Jewish residents in Abu Dis and "Choshen" - a building in the neighborhood of A-Tur near the Mount of Olives, which was inhabited by members of the Elad Organization in April 2006. While the Construction and Housing Ministry said that the 2009-2010 figures were based on salary raises for the security guards, members of Ir Amim and Peace Now both said that they suspected the jump in funding to be reflective of the expected increase in such guards, based on the rising number of residents in these areas. "I'm not surprised at all that the budget increased for security in east Jerusalem," said Hagit Ofran, a Peace Now employee who specializes in east Jerusalem. "The number of settlers in east Jerusalem is increasing, and whenever they decide to enter a new house in the area, the government is forced to finance it." But a statement from the Construction and Housing Ministry asserted that the budget increase was made after a recommendation from the Treasury, "based on social benefits relating the employees' tenders [with the ministry], along with an additional wage increase." A request to the ministry by The Jerusalem Post to clarify if the number of guards had indeed increased went unanswered on Tuesday. Ofran said while there was some truth in the ministry's explanation, it wasn't the full story. "I know that these guards are not paid very well, and it could very well be that the government approved a raise in their wages, but this doesn't discount the fact that the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem is expanding. And when it expands, they need security cameras [and] guards, and these things cost money." Several attempts to obtain a response from Modi'in Ezrahi, the security firm awarded with the government tender were rebuffed. A female employee who answered the phone there on Monday told the Post that their spokesperson "was only available in the morning." During a second attempt Tuesday morning, another employee told the Post that the company "does not have a spokesperson" and then offered a different phone number, which rang unanswered several times throughout the day. But the issue of private security guards in east Jerusalem also raised other questions among Israeli NGO workers - not only over the possible increase in such guards, but about the nature of their jobs there. "There is no doubt that the presence of these private security guards in this very sensitive area is adding to the tremendous complexity of the situation there," said Orly Noy of Ir Amim. "Additionally, there has been evidence that [these private security guards] have begun to adopt practices similar to a pseudo-police force - something they have no legal right to do. "The entire presence of private security companies in east Jerusalem was called into question in 1991 by then-attorney general Yosef Harish in a report he submitted to the government," Noy continued. "Again, in 2005, a similar report submitted to the government by Gen. (res.) Ori Orr, recommended that the Construction and Housing Ministry no longer fund these firms." Orr's recommendations were accepted by the government but then retracted two months later, a move Ofran of Peace Now said no one had ever explained. "No one asked about it back then, and there is certainly no one asking about it now," she said. Furthermore, the construction and housing minister at the time, Isaac Herzog, who had appointed Orr, was made tourism minister seven months later, after a government shake-up resulting from elections. "But Orr's report clearly recommended that the police take over the area in east Jerusalem," Ofran continued. "And it would have saved the government money - something like NIS 1 million - not the other way around."