A visit to Tzahala, a tony district on the edge of Tel Aviv, where a canine unit and dozens of cameras have been brought in to fight crime. But at what price?
TZAHALA — During a patrol with the men of Kalbey Ashmoret, Nati Joseph says he knows every home and block in this northern enclave of Tel Aviv. The young former Israeli combat soldier explains how he can distinguish a local from a stranger.
“It is a prestigious neighborhood and we know how to recognize somebody who's not from here," says Joseph, who works as a patrol officer for Kalbey Ashmoret. "I can identify a stranger by his attitude and the way he acts. For example, the locals here have an unexplainable specificity in the way they walk.”
Kalbey Ashmoret, which translates as "Reservoir Dogs", offers 24/7 protection for the area of Tzahala, which had called them up after a rash of burglaries four years ago. The company, which says on its website it is “specialized in security with dogs,” is just one of many new security outfits that relies on personnel who served in combat units for the Israeli Defense Forces.
Kalbey Ashmoret says it has developed a unique model of a “safe city,” a secured urban space in which the presence of the guards shouldn't be felt by the inhabitants. Unlike other wealthy neighborhoods in Israel, in Tzahala there are neither security checks at the entrances nor fences surrounding it. The security is based on a combination of a profiling-identification technique designed to differentiate between outsiders and locals, relying on an intensive cooperation from the local residents.
“We do not stop every passer-by, only the ones who look suspicious,” explains Shahar Goldberg, founder of Kalbey Ashmoret and a graduate of the Oketz (Sting) Canine unit of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). “We know how to identify suspicious vehicles and intercept them.” Goldberg specifies that although the term "intercept" is borrowed from military parlance, here they do not shoot anybody.
Goldberg says that the suspects are usually construction workers with an Arabic or African appearance who they do not expect to see during night hours. “We approach them assertively and ask what they are looking for here, if they are working for someone," he says. "Those who have nothing to do here are simply not allowed to be here after the afternoon hours.”
Tzahala belongs to the municipal authority of Tel Aviv but is organized as a Housing Cooperative and overseen autonomously by the cooperative’s Committee. Though founded in the early 1950s, the passing years and the combination of private houses and closeness to the city made Tzahala a very upscale and expensive neighborhood.
Today there are 541 households in Tzahala which are relatively modest and solid compared to other luxurious areas. The montly operating cost of the security company is of around 60,000 shekels ($17,000), which is paid for from the rent charged by the Housing Cooperative, as well as the businesses in the local shopping center and the nearby country club.
Apart from the collective security, Kalbey Ashmoret also has 120 private clients in Tzahala, while other residents use other private security companies. Estimates are that virtually every house benefits from double security.
After a few visits here, you realize that beneath the sleepy surface, layers on top of layers of security have been constructed. At first, security tools and personnel were meant to protect the residents and their belongings — but it has evolved into a service aimed at sweeping out all those who “do not belong,” as they are referred to.
Cash, dogs and 1,000 eyes
No fewer than 150 security cameras are installed throughout the neighborhood. Most of them are visible to all and installed on fences or attached to the houses they surround. According to Goldberg, the visibility of cameras serves as a deterrence.
Countless bright yellow warning signs declare Tzahala is under 24/7 surveillance. The cameras document everything at any given moment. They are all controlled from the command central located near Tzahala's main shopping center.
If the guards monitoring see a suspicious car or person on the screens, they report it immediately to patrols on the streets. This is when, if necessary, the source of pride and uniqueness of the company come into play: the guard dogs.
The huge Belgian Shepherd dogs come from a special breeding farm in the Netherlands, where they've undergone prolonged training. The cost of such a dog, according to company officials, can reach up to 5,000 euros. After landing in Israel the dogs get some final training adapted to the terrain of Tzahala.
The district is also equipped with another type of security — maybe the most effective of all: the residents themselves. It appears that almost everybody knows the members of patrol units, who are treated with affection.
Avshalom Habani, the vice president of Kalbey Ashmoret, explains that “the moment the residents give you their trust, they become part of the security. They don’t hesitate to call and report any suspicious activity; they become a valuable information resource, because at the end of the day, all the guards and dogs and cameras will never replace 1,000 open eyes.”
Goldberg says that once would-be criminals understand the security level here, "they choose to try their luck somewhere else.”
The luxury neighborhood of Neve Rasko located just north of Tzahala has reported a significant increase in crime recently, and Goldberg says that he was contacted recently by some of their residents enquiring in security services.
The criminologist Dr. Arela Shadmy doubts that this system is the best solution for Israeli society. “The police are interested in having private security companies, especially in wealthy areas," she explains. "It’s good for them, because this way they don’t get complaints from these areas where wealthy, influential people tend to live.”
But such services risk undermining the work of law enforcement: “These guards aren’t trained policemen. They are just soldiers who recently got out of the army," says Shadmy. "They are trained to confront, and that’s what they do. They don’t know real police work.”
Perhaps no less important is the civil liberty issues that can arise, in a situation where the privatization of security leads to a privatization of our freedom. “Who knows” she says “maybe one day, we will be arrested by private police for the way we look, or what social background we come from.”