Jerusalem’s ‘thin blue line’: An inside look at Israel’s police amidst recent violence

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, October 16, 2015

The first sirens outside Damascus Gate are from a Border Police SUV. Then come two police cars. Then come motorcycle units of the Yasam special patrol unit, ambulances and unmarked police cars. They rush past the light rail station at Damascus Gate and over the hill toward the scene of a terrorist attack that just took place near Ammunition Hill. Some haredim gather to look down the wide road toward the scene of the attack as police block traffic. Jerusalemites stand at the light rail and watched the procession go by, numb to the events. It is two in the afternoon, and the second terrorist attack of the day has just taken place.

The capital city has been at the center of a string of terror attacks over the past two weeks, almost all of them involving knife-wielding assailants from Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. It began on Saturday evening, October 3, when Bir Zeit law student and Islamic Jihad member Muhammad Halabi stabbed Rabbi Aharon Banita (Rabbi Aharon Bennett), who was walking with his wife, two-year-old son and baby along Hagai Street in the Old City. The street leads from the majestic stone Damascus Gate to the Western Wall and is a frequent conduit for Jewish worshipers and Christian tourists, as it intersects the Via Dolorosa. Rabbi Nehemia Lavi, a longtime resident of the Old City and an IDF reserve officer, went to the aid of Banita. The terrorist stabbed him and grabbed his gun before being shot by Border Police.

According to Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, at the time the attack was the most serious in years. “It began a new wave [of terror] and a new phase of the increased violence we have seen over the past week,” he says. The killing of the two rabbis was followed by Adele Bennett’s shocking description of being spat on and cursed as she ran, bleeding, for help. Israeli politicians promised to bring to justice those who refused to help.

By Monday, the area has been transformed from a scene of death to raucous protests as dozens of Jewish youths set up an area to mourn and demonstrate against the attacks. Young people in blue shirts hang a sign that says “Here were collaborators with murder,” and the Arab store owners accused of cheering the killing close their shops. On this day, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev pays a visit to the site of the attack before walking to the Kotel. Along the way, she passes dozens of the police who have been deployed throughout the Old City. She crosses the new metal detectors that have been installed.

New metal detectors on HaGai street (al-Wad), photo by Seth J. Frantzman

New metal detectors on HaGai street (al-Wad), photo by Seth J. Frantzman

Arab girls who have just left school ask older men who she is. “She’s an Israeli politician,” says one man. Regev, in good spirits, greets some of the Arab shopkeepers with ahlan wasahlan, but her wider message is clear: Israelis will not be intimidated in the Old City. Commentators have been quick to call the numerous stabbings the third intifada, although most Israeli media are calling it a “wave” of attacks. After the two rabbis were killed, an Arab man from Isawiya named Fadi Alwan stabbed a 15-year-old Jewish boy next to the light rail. He was shot by police, who have been under an incredible amount of scrutiny by international and local media. Alwan’s friends claimed he was just out for a jog after working the night shift at the Legacy Hotel, a claim that was picked up by many Palestinians and even Arab members of Knesset. “He’s a kid who loves working out,” a neighbor said of him. “He was executed by the police.”

But police who saw the video and knew who had been present are nonplussed. “It’s bullshit that [critics say the police] used deadly force quickly,” says one former officer who knows an officer who had been present. “You are trained that if they attack you, you shoot them in the center mass [of the body]. People say it’s brutal, but as a police officer, I’m not going to do some ninja move to stop them, just to make the yefeh nefesh [bleeding-heart Israelis] happy,” he explains. “I will neutralize that person, just like they did Fadi,” he says. “He ran at the cop with something in his hand.”

Rosenfeld rejects claims that deadly force wasn’t necessary in neutralizing Alwan. “He had a knife,” the police spokesman says. “He stabbed a boy and had the bloody knife on him. Policemen wearing caps identified themselves and they told him [to stop] many times. He ran back and forth, there are three videos of it. He had the opportunity [to stop]. They tried to spray him [with pepper spray].” Others who have served on the force agree with this assessment, arguing that some perpetrators are immune to pepper spray or Tasers. “If he has a knife and intent [to kill], then he gets neutralized,” says a former officer who now works in security.

After the killings on Saturday night, the city seemed to hold its breath. Special regulations were put in place banning Palestinian non-residents from the Old City. According to Rosenfeld, more than 3,500 police personnel, including Border Police, regular police, special units and Yasam riot police, were deployed throughout the Old City and its adjoining neighborhoods. “We have police every 50 to 100 meters, including Border Police and special units trained to give a fast response,” he says.

Border police search the bags of two Palestinians in Ras al Amud (Seth J. Frantzman)

Border police search the bags of two Palestinians in Ras al Amud (Seth J. Frantzman)

But the attacks continued.

On October 7, an Arab woman stabbed a Jewish civilian between Hagai Street and Lions’ Gate. The victim shot the attacker. On October 8, an Orthodox man was stabbed near the national police headquarters. On October 9, a 15-year-old yeshiva student was attacked on Shmuel Hanavi street. The next day, two men were stabbed at Damascus Gate, and several hours later, two border policemen were stabbed by a Palestinian, who was shot and killed. On Tuesday, two terrorists attacked passengers on a bus in East Talpiot, and there was a vehicular attack in Geula, resulting in the deaths of three Israelis. On Wednesday a man with a knife ran at police next to Damascus gate and a Palestinian stabbed a woman at the Central Bus Station. Thursday was quiet. On Friday a man disguised as a journalist attacked soldiers in Hebron.  IDF soldiers were called up to Jerusalem and special checkpoints put in place in East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Isawiya, A-Tor, Jebel Mukaber and Ras al Amud. Rosenfeld, who served in the elite Yamam anti-terror unit from 1995 to 2005, during the height of the second intifada, describes the past week as the heaviest police deployment in Jerusalem he has seen in eight years as spokesman.

MONDAY (OCTOBER 12) IS another hot day in the capital, some 29º. When I arrive at the Old City’s Kishle police station to meet Rosenfeld, the signs of security and the terrorist situation are everywhere. On the way, police stop Arabs outside the light rail station to check their papers. There are few tourists at the usually busy Jaffa Gate. A woman with a harp who often busks for change is nowhere to be found. A tour guide offering free tours is waxing poetic about Suleiman the Magnificent’s grand Old City walls – to the only two tourists he could find.

Micky Rosenfeld meets with a Yasam commander named Yaron Levy at Lion's Gate. (Seth J. Frantzman)

Micky Rosenfeld meets with a Yasam commander named Yaron Levy at Lion’s Gate. (Seth J. Frantzman)

The Kishle station is located just around the corner from Jaffa Gate, near the iconic Tower of David. The station itself bears evidence of the continuity of police work here. The Ottomans used the location as a military camp and prison. Even King Herod had a palace there; if he had police, he probably quartered them nearby. The police have installed metal detectors, looking incongruous against the stones of the city that were put in place in the 16th century and before. The metal detectors are the latest tool in the policemen’s kit against terror. Instead of frisking suspects who behave suspiciously, they can send them through the detectors.

But now they seemed more for show than for practical use, for no one was being sent through them. Since 2000, the police have also been installing a network of CCTV cameras throughout the Old City. With more than 320 of them, Rosenfeld said they planned to install 60 more. The interior of the command center looks like a cross between a TV studio and the bridge of the Enterprise on Star Trek, with 30 large screens organized in a half-circle, and numerous people monitoring them at computers below in a semicircular pit. “This is significant for those on the ground,” says Rosenfeld. “In the close alleyways and market area, those in command and intelligence can explain that a suspect is approaching and what he or she is wearing.”

He describes a well-integrated command under one officer who deals with the various layers of police and security. Since many of the units that are now deployed in Jerusalem have been mustered from throughout the country, this means they all have a command structure that can put them at the scene of violence effectively. While we watch the bank of screens, one of the female officers zooms in on two men in their 20s wearing black shirts and tight stone-washed jeans. She wants to see what they have in their pockets, what they are doing, whether they are behaving suspiciously. They aren’t, and the officer moves on.

Two other cameras show a commotion in Hagai Street, the site of the October 3 attack. Regev is on the move, her security detail of Shin Bet and Yasam personnel moves in concert; some 15 men around her keep people back. And the CCTV is watching from above, keeping her safe.

This article appeared on the cover of the International edition of The Jerusalem Post.

This article appeared on the cover of the International edition of The Jerusalem Post.

After the Kishle, we make our way to Lions’ Gate, where there was an attack in the morning. Lions’ Gate is a narrow entrance to the Old City, which sees frequent traffic by cars making their way to various churches and locations along the streets inside. It’s a center of Christian tourism and a major access way for Muslims who go to the Temple Mount from a gate just inside the Old City walls. There is a police post here, as well, and a dozen Yasam officers in their gray and dark-blue uniforms deployed outside. They are in full riot gear, with one man holding an imposing tear gas gun and bandoleers of metal gas canisters. His colleagues cradle M16s or side arms and helmets. It is quiet now, but two hours before a man emerged from the Muslim cemetery across the street. He was deemed suspicious and asked to stop by the unit stationed there. “He attempted to stab the policeman and the knife didn’t go through the protective vest of the officer,” Rosenfeld says. “The officers responded and he was shot and killed.” The perpetrator is named as 18-yearold Mustafa Hatib of Jebl Mukaber.

INSIDE THE gate, next to the police post, Yaron Levy, a hardened Yasam commander, is speaking with some of his men. Although trained to lead the Yoav unit, which works in the Negev and South, he has been deployed to Jerusalem for more than a year as part of an effort to bolster the city’s police. “It is very problematic the last few days, from every perspective,” Levy says. He describes the current violence as similar to what happened last year in Jerusalem after the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir in Beit Hanina. That incident set off a month of riots and vehicular attacks sometimes called the “Jerusalem Intifada.” He speaks of daily battles against stone throwers and rioters. Police face “constant threats,” he says, unlike his unit in the South. “People are always looking for a weak spot,” he explains. One of the issues police now face is that they are the main targets of many of the stabbings, and Rosenfeld is adamant that tourists and Israelis shouldn’t fear to come to Jerusalem. “We are going through a wave of attacks and the situation is tense,” he notes. “It is primarily lone-wolf perpetrators, and we have no intelligence [so far] of orders from organizations. The answer is having heightened security and hundreds of police who are trained to deal with it.”

From Lions’ Gate we drive east toward the Mount of Olives. The immense Jewish cemetery looms over us as we approach Ras al-Amud, an Arab neighborhood that overlooks the Old City. Several weeks ago in this neighborhood, below a towering minaret, a bus driver made a wrong turn and his bus was attack with Molotov cocktails. The Jewish community that lives here complains of constant firebomb attacks and the stoning of cars. “It’s quiet now,” Rosenfeld says, “but if we were here on a Friday, there would be police mounted on horses and in armor” deployed against stone throwers.

In Ras al-Amud, across from the mosque, three police officers watch the situation. One is a female regular officer in blue, while the others are from the Border Police. According to Rosenfeld, many of the patrols are like this so that one officer can protect the others and the regular police can apprehend a suspect or carry out a check. As two Arab boys off from school pass by, one of the Border Police stops them and asks to search their bags and see their identity cards. After a few minutes, they are sent on their way. The Arab shopkeepers across the way look on suspiciously. Over the past few days, Jerusalemites have been stocking up on pepper spray, and Mayor Nir Barkat has encouraged those with gun licenses to carry their weapons. “Anyone who is armed and has a weapon and [served in the] IDF and received the gun and license and is capable of responding if necessary,” Rosenfeld says. “The walking around or having more people armed is positive, and we saw last week that the 18-yearold [attacked on Hagai Street] drew his weapon. He was a civilian and effective, and this saved his life.” The police spokesman thinks that pepper spray can be used by civilians in self-defense, although there are few reports of civilians who have used pepper spray against terrorists. Others have found innovative methods to defend themselves – on Monday night, a man with nunchucks, or martial arts sticks, helped subdue a terrorist on a bus at the entrance to Jerusalem.DSC_9263

FOR THOSE on the front lines, these days have been especially violent, although at the same time they represent little departure from the usual problems of policing the world’s holiest and most contentious city. According to a private security officer who served in the police, Jerusalem is suffering a long-term problem. “The public should understand that there is a mini-intifada going on for a year; it isn’t normal to live under siege, and the government doesn’t do anything about it,” says the man, who has lived in the city for a decade. “Police and security services work hard for low pay in order to protect people.

And there has to be a solution. Not tactical laws, like arresting stone throwers; I mean walling off Isawiya and Jebl Mukaber, and making them part of the West Bank, or annexing them fully and instilling law and order. Either block them off or make them Israel,” he says. These statements dovetail with those of Barkat, who was quoted by the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv as saying that “if we need to impose a closure on Arab neighborhoods and villages around Jerusalem, we will.” The security officer argues that the hatred in Arab areas of Jerusalem is more extreme than last year. “I learned Arabic. I’ve been at roadblocks when they block off Al-Aksa Mosque, and have heard sermons by muftis saying we want Daesh [Islamic State] to come and kill Israelis and Americans,” he says.

He describes being at the scene of a stabbing last week in which he saw shopkeepers shouting “Kill the Jews” and “Allahu akbar.” “They were cheering,” he adds. Among his friends who still serve in the police force, “the feeling is that they all want to kill you.” The problem the police face is that there is no way to prevent stabbings. After the bulldozer attacks several years ago, they ordered that security guards be stationed at construction sites. After vehicular attacks, concrete blocks were placed at light rail stations. Nowadays, the concept is to be more alert, on the lookout in a 360-degree arc and with good situational awareness regarding all those passing each police post.

Yasam at Lion's Gate (Seth J. Frantzman)

Yasam at Lion’s Gate (Seth J. Frantzman)

But sources in the security establishment admit that there’s a question of when the wave of stabbings will turn to something worse. The feeling is that Israel is one major attack away from an operation in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Those who serve in the police say they are unfairly portrayed as thuggish by the media. They admit, however, that there is a need to maintain an image of being tough. “Ninety percent of your work is done for you, if those you deal with fear you,” the security man says.

But police feel their hands are tied.

They claim that the rules governing their conduct with stone throwers is stricter than those for the IDF in the West Bank. One describes going into clashes in Isawiya and having the “sky turn red” with Molotov cocktails. “The Arabs know the rules and they know you can’t shoot them once they’ve thrown the deadly weapon,” one says. “They throw them from behind walls and run; they use the media to hide. And police get wounded. People ask us to use pepper spray to detain assailants, but [rioters] immunize themselves against pepper spray. We don’t all have Tasers.” Some who have served in the police also describe a situation where Israelis don’t understand the constant violence and anger in east Jerusalem. “People don’t cross Route 1,” they argue, referring to the wide road running along much of the 1949 armistice line. Nightly rioting affects some neighborhoods.

A Jewish woman at the site of the stabbing on October 3. (Seth J. Frantzman)

A Jewish woman at the site of the stabbing on October 3. (Seth J. Frantzman)

Firecrackers are aimed at Jewish homes in the Old City. Cars are stoned, and you can’t drive through areas like Wadi Joz. The security man, who served for years in Jerusalem, says that eventually a solution will be found. “The public might forget about Jerusalem, except the Border Police who are all here,” he says. “But if you can’t live in Jerusalem, you can’t live safely [anywhere] in Israel. The media and the policy-makers won’t forget about it, and something must be done here.”

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