Explainer: Civilian Defense Squads in Urban Settings

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In recent weeks, since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, some 800 new civilian defense squads have been set up throughout Israel. Each squad consists of local residents who serve as civilian operational reserve forces, available for rapid deployment to assist national security forces during security events and emergency situations.

In recent weeks, since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, some 800 new civilian defense squads (“kitot konnenut”) have been set up throughout Israel. Each squad consists of local residents who serve as civilian operational reserve forces, available for rapid deployment to assist national security forces during security events and emergency situations.

The civilian defense squads, which are under the responsibility of different security forces can be grouped into three main categories:

  • The first contains squads that are under the command of the IDF (known as ‘IDF Internal Security’), which operate in communities located near the bordar (up to 4 kilometers from the country’s borders).
  • The second consists of squads under the responsibility of the Border Police (a para-military division of the Israel Police), which operate in rural areas (rural communities and regional councils).

Because of their location in border and rural areas, both of these two types of squads hold broad powers for the defense of communities during emergency events.

  • The third category, which is the subject of this explainer, contains squads that are the responsibility of the Israel Police, which operate in urban areas (“urban civilian defense squads”) and which are being established currently in dozens of cities throughout Israel.

What are urban civilian defense squads?

The purpose of urban civilian defense squads is to provide reinforcements to the police during emergencies. In their current format, these teams—under the responsibility of the police—were first created a year ago. Prior to the outbreak of the war, the police operated four urban civilian defense squads in Israel. Following the events of October 7, the police announced their interest in setting up around 300 more such defense teams, and squads have since been established in dozens of cities, including in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities, including those with a majority Israeli-Arab population and a majority Haredi population. According to the police, the priority is to create defense teams in cities that are closer to the border, in cities with a majority of Jewish residents and a significant minority of Arab residents (‘mixed cities’), and in other high-risk areas.

Who are the members of urban civilian defense squads?

The members of urban civilian defense squads are citizens, both male and female, who join the police as civil guard volunteers in a special security track. Each team contains a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 20 members. The police assess applicants using several criteria, which include: age 21–64, and up to 68 in certain cases; exemption from IDF reserve duty; a clean bill of health; residency in the city in question; and successfully passing an information security procedure.

Another requirement for volunteering with an urban civilian defense squad is having served in an IDF combat role (minimum of 03 rifleman training). Though the reason for this requirement might seem obvious – proven past experience in using a rifle— it may prevent certain population groups, such as members of the Haredi society or certain members of the Israeli Arab society, which do not usually join the army —from volunteering in these teams. Thus, establishing defense squads in majority-Arab and majority-Haredi cities, as well as in mixed cities, presents a challenge. Another possible consequence of this requirement is under-representation of women in the defense squads, as fewer women than men serve in combat roles in the IDF, and thus the potential number of female volunteers is smaller.

During the process of setting up the defense squads, the police appoint a commander and deputy commander for each squad, with prior military or policing experience.

Are members of urban civilian defense teams allowed to act independently?

Urban civilian defense teams serve under the authority of the commander of the relevant local police station, and according to the police they operate within the framework of Israel Police command and control systems.

During normal, routine times, the volunteers serve in accordance with the orders of the station commander, which are issued to the team commander or deputy commander. Volunteers work in coordination with regular police forces, and are directed by an appointed police officer.

However, during emergencies, the defense squad members are directed by the squad commander or deputy commander, until the arrival of regular police forces on the scene. Accordingly, these volunteers are allowed to act independently and use their weapons in response to threats they identify, according to established police guidelines applicable to pre-defined scenarios.

What tasks are undertaken by members of urban civilian defense squads?

According to the police, the roles of urban civilian defense squads can be divided into two main situations: routine and emergency. In normal times, volunteers serve as reinforcements who participate in regular policing and security tasks, and take part in training to maintain their readiness. During emergencies—that is, in wartime or after natural disasters—these volunteers undertake various tasks, including acting as operational reserves in response to terrorist incidents, securing main traffic routes, carrying out patrols and searches in coordination with the police, and assisting with evacuations where necessary.

It should be emphasized that according to the police, urban civilian defense squads are not charged with carrying out patrols in cities on a regular basis.

What powers are held by members of urban civilian defense squads?

As noted, the members of urban civilian defense squads are police volunteers. According to police regulations, when a police volunteer operates in circumstances connected to protecting the safety of individuals and property from terrorist acts, then they have the same powers as regular police officers. That is, in such situations, they can take the same steps that police officers are empowered to take. The same is true when police volunteers act in the presence of a regular police officer in order to assist that officer. Therefore, for example, volunteers may make arrests in certain circumstances, and in order to do so, may use force and may enter private property and conduct a search. They are also entitled to confiscate property that may be used as evidence.

At the same time, police regulations impose several restrictions on volunteers engaged in operational activity. Among other things, they are forbidden from serving at events involving public disorder and demonstrations (even when regular police officers are present), from transporting prisoners, and from taking witness statements. Volunteers are permitted to pursue suspicious vehicles only under certain conditions, including authorization from the relevant duty officer.

What checks are carried out before volunteers are recruited?

Before the outbreak of the current war, volunteers for civilian defense squads  underwent security checks that took about 1-2 months to complete. However, in the context of efforts in recent weeks to rapidly establish defense squads throughout the country, these procedures have been shortened considerably, and are now being completed in less than a day. As part of this process (the “employment suitability procedure”), the police check whether any complaints have been made against applicants in the past, whether any cases have been opened against them, and whether there is any police intelligence about them. Similarly, checks are carried out with applicants’ relatives regarding any criminal incident that might disqualify the applicant.

In effect, the police assess whether applicants might pose a danger, using all the systems at its disposal, including its own internal systems as well as systems managed by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs, as the Ministry is obligated to notify the police automatically of any event reported to it that involves a threat to family members. However, it should be noted that if there is no information in police systems (cases, complaints, or intelligence) or in Ministry of Welfare systems indicating that the individual may present a risk, then the police will most likely authorize them to serve as a volunteer. The police do not maintain organized coordination with other bodies such as the National Insurance Institute or civil society organizations that work with victims of domestic violence, which may potentially result in volunteers serving with urban civilian defense squads and carrying a firearm who in fact present a threat to their own family members (if no police or welfare proceedings have ever been initiated against them).

In terms of volunteers’ mental health and suitability, applicants are required to complete a health statement and sign a waiver of confidentiality regarding their medical records. The police coordinate with the Ministry of Health to identify applicants whose mental health situation bars them from service. However, it is not clear which criteria are used to assess candidates’ mental welfare, nor what information is held in or is absent from the Ministry of Health systems used to approve volunteers’ suitability. For example, when individuals access psychiatric care from private doctors, these details will not appear in Health Ministry records.

It should be noted that if the police do bar an individual from serving in a defense squads due to their mental health, then the individual is entitled to appeal. The procedure for such an appeal includes an interview with a psychiatrist appointed by the Ministry of Health who works with the police.

What training do members of urban civilian defense squads undergo?

Before the outbreak of the war, volunteers in urban civilian defense teams underwent training comprising 29 instruction units, which included basic training for civil guard volunteers as well as weapons training involving theoretical certification and three practical training sessions. However, due to the current rapid recruitment of defense squad volunteers, training has been shortened to 7 instruction units, including a day of frontal training about police powers and a day of firearms training (it should be noted that volunteers are issued not with handguns but with short M16 rifles, which are normally used only by trained defense forces). In addition, the police have stated that they intend to distribute a special learning package to volunteers, which will involve them taking online tests about their role and their powers. Beyond this, it is not clear whether volunteers are given on-the-job supervision, which is an important tool for assimilating theoretical knowledge and implementing it in practice.

It should be noted that in the long term, the police are interested in addressing the gap created by this rapid recruitment process and providing thorough training for all members of civilian defense squads, including two days of initial training followed by a day of firearms training every six months.

In what circumstances are members of urban civilian defense teams allowed to carry the weapons issued to them?

According to police regulations, it is forbidden for volunteers in urban civilian defense squads to use the squads’ equipment outside of their appointed tasks in the team. However, according to the police, volunteers may carry their firearms at all times, so that they are in a state of readiness around the clock. Police regulations require that volunteers who do not carry their firearm with them and leave it at home must leave it in a hidden location that is inaccessible to others or in a safe, and must store magazines separately from the firearm itself. At the moment, however, the police says that home safes have not yet been issued to defense squads volunteers.

Is it permissible to operate a civilian defense squad that is not under police management, such as a local or neighborhood defense unit?

The power to maintain public order and ensure the security of individuals and property in the State of Israel belongs to the Israel Police. According to the concept of national security in Israel, private actors are not allowed to wield such authority without the express consent of the law. This is because the state has a monopoly on defense and on the organized use of force due to its sovereign status, and these powers are not shared with sectorial or private militias. Thus, with the exception of particular cases that are enshrined in law, such as regulated private security companies, the state will not permit any individuals or groups to establish armed militias. Clearly, then, the establishment of local or neighborhood defense units in Israel, to maintain public order and ensure the security of individuals and property while carrying private weapons, is forbidden.

Conclusion and recommendations

The widespread volunteering of civilians to protect Israel’s internal security is truly impressive. It would now seem that the new ranks of the civil guard are here to stay and will play a significant role in future police activity. At the same time, given the rapid pace of setting up these new urban civilian defense squads, and the broad range of tasks and powers of these teams at the current time, it is important that the police take several steps to address the lacunae regarding the recruitment and operation of defense squads. Otherwise, there is a real risk that public trust in defense squad volunteers, and consequently in the police itself, will be damaged.

In particular, we believe that the police must do all it can to ensure that it recruits only suitable and qualified volunteers. For example, because the police (and the Ministry of Health) do not have comprehensive information about candidates’ mental health, we recommend that the police explore the possibility of requiring volunteers to provide confirmation of their fitness to carry a firearm from a psychologist or a clinical, medical, rehabilitative, or employment specialist, as required of private security guards under the Firearms Law. In addition, we recommend that the police take action to address inequality in the recruitment of volunteers, and include groups that are otherwise marginalized from efforts to strengthen security and the sense of personal safety in Israel.

Similarly, given the much shorter training being given to volunteers, it is important that the police take steps to complete the training given to new volunteers as soon as possible, while they are already “on the job,” including improving volunteers’ firearms skills. In addition, as the State Comptroller has previously recommended, it is important that volunteers receive supervision to help them implement in practice what they have studied in theory. The police should also take steps as soon as possible to ensure that volunteers store their firearms securely, and until home safes can be installed, should ensure that volunteers act cautiously and responsibly when carrying weapons in public and when storing them at home.

Moreover, given the scale of recruitment carried out and the extent of activities being carried out by civilian defense squads in urban settings, the police must ensure that members of these squads operate solely within the bounds of their role and their powers, and it must deal appropriately with any deviations. At the same time, in order to nurture public trust in civilian defense squads, the police must actively and clearly publicize the roles and powers of volunteers, including details of the circumstances in which they are authorized to act independently of command and control procedures under the local police station commander. Instead of the current dichotomous division between two situations (regular and emergency), it might be worthwhile for the police to distinguish between volunteer roles and powers in three different situations: routine; routine-emergency (the situation in which we currently find ourselves, of an irregular routine lasting several months); and emergency (in cases of a concrete threat of a terror attack or security incident). Moreover, it is important that the police act as transparently as possible when examining and dealing with cases in which volunteers overstep their defined roles and powers.

Finally, given the mushrooming of unregulated private civilian security initiatives after the October 7 attack, it is important that the police issue a public statement emphasizing that any activity of civilian defense squads that is not under its aegis and supervision is unauthorized. Similarly, it is vital that the police act to prevent any activity by non-regulated civilian defense organizations. As explained above, any citizen wishing to contribute to the security and safety of their place of residence are invited to apply to their local police-run civilian defense squad.