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Israel´s growth industry: security guards

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shakes hands with security guard Michael Sarkisov, who stopped a suicide bomber from blowing up a Tel Aviv cafe last year. (Brian Hendler)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shakes hands with security guard Michael Sarkisov, who stopped a suicide bomber from blowing up a Tel Aviv cafe last year. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Aug. 13 (JTA) — In a stuffy, sweaty gym in Caesarea, 10 pairs of trainees face one another, their heads covered with protective helmets, their chests belted into white padded vests with red and blue dots. At the count of three, each pair begins circling, sparring and kicking, aiming for the opponent´s upper thighs or for the red and blue dots that delineate the opponent´s lungs and chest. The group is practicing krav maga, hand-to-hand combat, a form of fighting honed by the Israel Defense Forces and considered essential in identifying, battling and neutralizing suicide bombers. In the three years since the intifada began, security guards and personnel have become Israel´s fastest- growing industry. This country of some 6.5 million people has 100,000 security guards and 300 security companies, which have expanded their business by up to 30 percent during the last two years. "Guards can stop or stun a terrorist," said Jack Halpirin, CEO of Hashmira Ltd., Israel´s largest security manpower agency, with 8,000 guards on staff. "That´s a fact. Now we have this hudna and we don´t know where it will go. But there´s been no decrease in the demand for security guards." Israel is currently six weeks into the three-month hudna, or cease-fire, declared in late June by the main Palestinian terrorist groups. Despite the relative quiet of the last weeks, however, security is still at a premium in Israel. There are two kinds of guards: shomrim and me´avtichim. Shomrim, the average guards who may stand sentry at a bank, supermarket or mall, can be aged 20 to 60 and may or may not be armed, depending on the amount of training they´ve received. Me´avtichim, or security personnel, are more highly trained guards who must be 30 or younger and who typically come straight from the army´s combat units. The types of security guards being hired have changed with the times. At Hashmira, 85 percent of the firm´s 8,000 guards are younger than 40, and 90 percent carry ammunition. Before the intifada, around 60 percent were younger than 40 and only half were armed. These days, 30 percent of the firm´s guards are security personnel checking bags at entrances to public places, 60 percent are trained guards with ammunition and 20 percent are elite security personnel who have gone through a month´s training. "The difference in turnover between peaceful times and turbulent times is about 30 percent," said Yehiel Levy, a vice president at Modi´in Ezrachi, a private security firm that primarily supplies guards for the government. "If we needed 70 guards at a specific event during peaceful times, we would need 100 guards during times like these." Modi´in is a 40-year-old company that focuses on providing security in the public and government sector, primarily for Cabinet ministers, Knesset members and officials from the Defense and Foreign Ministries. With business up 30 percent, Modi´in´s revenue also has risen, to $5 million a month from $4 million. "Our work has always been based on need," Levy said. "We plan for the day when everything will be peaceful and we won´t need guards, but in our society it doesn´t seem likely." What has changed in the industry is the public´s level of appreciation and respect for security guards, as well as the interaction among the official security forces — including the police and the army — and the private companies that provide guards. "The public has started to understand and appreciate guards," Halpirin said. "They give more respect to the guy who´s checking the trunk of their car." At the Caesarea training center, the trainees are Israelis aged 22 to 31, primarily men, most of whom recently completed their compulsory army duty in combat units. Before they make it to the basic training course, they have to pass a psychological test that weeds out about half of the applicants. Those who pass spend 10 days in intense physical training for the job, spending hours sprinting, improving their hand-to-hand combat, practicing shooting and simulating possible disaster scenarios in the public transportation system. Ten percent of those who have passed the psychological test fail out at this stage. If they do pass the course, they sign an 11-month contract with the Transportation Ministry, which hires most of the country´s elite security guards for the Egged bus cooperative and the Railways Authority. If they´re working for Egged, they move from bus to bus, standing at bus stops and keeping an eye out for anyone or anything suspicious. They are easily identifiable by their light-gray uniforms and dark sunglasses. Being a transportation security guard requires constant vigilance, keen observation skills and an ability to remain on guard for 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Most of the guards can do it because that´s what they did in the army. Back then, they did it because they had to; now, most do it for the money. "This is what I know how to do best," said Elad Tannenbaum, a lean 22-year-old who spent a good chunk of his recent army service with 66 pounds of ammunition on his back, doing house-to-house combat and guard duty in Palestinian cities after the outbreak of the intifada. "My mom doesn´t like it, but what else can I do?" he said. Like many guards, Tannenbaum said he went into security mainly to make some money. Many Israelis who finish the army take a year off before college to travel the world, and they need to make money before their adventures. Tannenbaum wants to get started with his undergraduate studies at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the prestigious science and engineering university in Haifa. That kind of no-nonsense attitude is exactly what security firms are looking for in its guards. "My clients tell me what kind of fighting units they want their guards to have come from in the army," Halpirin said. "Seven guards died in the last year. We´re civilians, but we face down the terrorists."

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