A Day in the Life of an Israeli Border Guard
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because good borders make good neighbors.
By Matthew Stein
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Motti Sherby, Head of Security
Lamed Hey Border Crossing, Israel
I’m always moving around. As the head of the shift for security, I manage our security guards, and when there’s a problem, I’m the first one to give it attention. I also run our 3:30 a.m. protocol meeting, where we review any terror incidents or new intelligence from the last shift.
We also spend time preparing hypothetical scenarios. For example, what happens if there are two simultaneous attackers at the crossing? Or what to do with a suspicious object. We try to be as creative as possible.
At 4 a.m. the doors for the pedestrian crossing are open, and by 8:30 a.m. the majority of the 3,000 Palestinians who cross daily have passed through. The line can take up to 15 minutes and works well. It’s already a routine, so the Palestinians know what to do. Problems can occur when someone doesn’t want to show their ID or have their bags checked. When fights do break out, it’s often between Palestinians; either someone is trying to cut the line or it’s the result of a feud that started at home. If we shout, they usually break it up fairly quickly. We also have pepper spray, if necessary.
The Palestinians see Israeli soldiers in uniform as an occupation force, so we wear civilian uniforms to lower the tension. It also helps when you explain yourself and speak “at the height of the eyes.”
If a Palestinian crosses by vehicle, their car is checked as well. Even an Israeli driver who comes into contact or works with Palestinians will probably have to be searched. If your car is parked in a Palestinian village, there are many ways something dangerous can be put inside without you knowing.
The threats we face are always the same. Just because there are no terrorist attacks like there were during the Intifada in 2001 doesn’t mean we’ll change the way we operate. The main concerns are weapons and explosives that could have been manufactured in a Palestinian city where Israel doesn’t have a steady security presence. A few months ago we caught some people with pistols in their car, but this crossing is usually calm.
Before I joined the army, I studied Torah for two years. Then, after enlisting in an army combat unit for three years, I came to work here. I was interested because the pay is pretty good, it’s just a 50-minute drive from my home in Beer-Sheva and it’s fulfilling; I feel like I’m contributing to the security of a proper Israel. The job also forces you to use your head and think creatively. Once we had a truck driver who wouldn’t allow us to inspect his toolbox. Instead of going head-to-head, I told him he could stay here as long as he wanted and when he was ready to be checked he could just call me. After 15 minutes, he agreed to be inspected.
In order to work at the border, I needed to take an additional course for a few weeks. There we did a lot of Krav Maga — a form of martial arts developed by the Israeli army — and spent time at the firing range and studying protocol. After that, you’re sent to a specific crossing, where you become someone’s shadow for a week. On the last day, they become your shadow to make sure you’re doing everything correctly.
When I started working here three years ago, the army ran the crossing. Now it’s done through a private company that works under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense. It’s part of an attempt by the Israeli government to civilize the border crossing. The Palestinians see Israeli soldiers in uniform as an occupation force, so we wear civilian uniforms to lower the tension. It also helps when you explain yourself and speak “at the height of the eyes” — as we say here — and not in a condescending way. Twice a year we have sessions dedicated to this issue. We’re reminded that although there are 3,000 people a day who pass through, you have to address each one as if they’re the only person you’ll see that day.
At the same time, it can be uncomfortable going through the check and enforcing security. It’s not a natural interaction for humans. But it’s proving itself. I wouldn’t want to lower the security. Any change really needs to be measured. It’s not anything I could see happening in the next few years.
Right now, I work here between 60 to 90 hours a month and the rest of the time I study Middle Eastern studies and management at Ben Gurion University. I’m also learning Arabic because it helps with the job. After my studies I want to continue working in security, but not necessarily at the border. Security is a big business in Israel.
- Matthew Stein, OZY Author Contact Matthew Stein