Scenes from a terror attack

The first news about the stabbing spree on the Tel Aviv bus Wednesday morning came in like it always does – in a short message on WhatsApp, trailed by a barrage of follow up questions and replies, sending my phone into seizures.

A Border Patrol officer stands next to the bus where Wednesday's stabbing attack began in Tel Aviv. (Ben Hartman)

A Border Patrol officer stands next to the bus where Wednesday’s stabbing attack began in Tel Aviv. (Ben Hartman)

Just like that, one moment you’re feeding your infant daughter breakfast and the next you’re taking pictures of blood puddles and paramedics, an avalanche of information piling up around you.

Somehow nobody was killed in Wednesday’s attack, but the details were grisly nonetheless – a middle-aged bus driver stabbed repeatedly in the upper body, fighting for his life as his bus swerved down one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. The attacker, a 23-year-old Palestinian from Tul Karm continued to chase and attack passengers after they fled onto the sidewalk, including one woman stabbed in the back in a moment caught on film and aired on every Israeli news site.

Within a matter of minutes it was over, and at least a dozen people were hurt, including 4 seriously. The attacker was “neutralized” according to police, shot in the leg and under arrest, taken for medical treatment and the first of probably a series of interrogations.

The scene bore most of the hallmarks of the last three terror attacks in Tel Aviv.

The junction was roped off by police tape, and photographers wandered in and out, taking pictures until they were forced out by Border Patrolmen. In each case the photographers continued to take pictures, acting surprised and confused, and then retreated like visitors at the Western Wall – facing the scene, not turning their backs, taking pictures as they shuffle away.

Most of the Tel Aviv District Police commanders came to the scene, and gave a series of interviews to the press. The district’s head spokesperson, (Hila, one of the nicest and most professional and helpful in the entire police force) asked photographers to get a pic of District Chief Bentzi Sau at the scene, taking charge of things. After all, a new National Police Chief will be selected soon, and pictures like that can’t hurt.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich also made an appearance, like in terror attacks past. Last time he did this he got heckled by a few bystanders at the site of the stabbing attack at the Hagana Train station (which left a 19-year-old IDF soldier dead). The handful of protesters called on him to resign in the face of a wave of “lone wolf” terror attacks, but they didn’t stay too long. On Wednesday Aharonovich wasn’t booed, and he repeated his call for Israel to take action against shabahim – Palestinian laborers illegally in Israel, like the man who committed Wednesday’s attack.

Typically after a terror attack (or a mafia car bomb or drive-by) crime reporters from the big stations (with the big money) will go to the kiosks and mechanics garages in the area and try to get their hands on surveillance footage of the attack. They’ll pay good money if they need to, and later their outlet will broadcast the video “which came into the hands of our reporter”.

In each case there’s at least one hero of the day, and he/she is swarmed upon relentlessly. On Wednesday it was the officers from an Israel Prison Service “Nachson” unit, which is responsible for transporting inmates from prison to court appearances and back, among other tasks. In a stroke of great luck for anyone in central Tel Aviv at the time, the prison guards were driving in a paddy wagon (“posta” in Hebrew) behind the bus on their way to the Tel Aviv courthouse when the attack occurred. They managed to chase the man down, shoot and wound him, and place him under arrest. It was then time for their moment in the spotlight, a rare and welcome moment for the IPS, probably the bottom rung on the law enforcement ladder in Israel, and an organization plagued by scandal in recent years. (Google “Prisoner X”, “Samuel Sheinbein”, “Dudu Topaz” or just “Israel Prison Service scandal”)

Whenever the TV reporters are doing their stand-ups one can find a highly common and extremely annoying species of bystander – the type which loves to stand behind the reporter, looking directly into the camera. They’ll often be on their phone, calling family or friends, telling them to switch on the TV and do it quick. They come from all walks of life and all ages, and frequent all neighborhoods. It must be said, for all their jaded machismo, Israelis may be some of the world’s most fervent crime scene selfie takers.

Tel Aviv’s attack didn’t have any bystanders chanting “death to the Arabs”, and only one man who lingered around yelling stuff into the camera from behind reporters. His target was the Israel Prison Services guards and while they were being interviewed he yelled out several times “why did you fire in the air first? Shoot to kill! This country is so stupid!”

It may sound cliché, but one remarkable feature is the way it all returns to normal so quickly. The ZAKA volunteers always manage to clean up most of the blood within an hour or so, maybe a little longer, and the streets are cleared and the traffic back at its normal flow in about the same amount of time. The police tend to leave their crime scene tape on the sidewalks along with plastic gloves and forensic stickers (they say “Israel Police” and have a ruler of sorts to place next to blood spots), but other than that, most of the carnage is cleaned up and washed away at a pace that seems almost defiant.

There’s also the randomness, the sudden, blinding speed with which the day is turned upside down. There’s the way lives are lost or horribly traumatized all because of an accident of timing. The way people are sliced, shot, stabbed, blown up and brutalized in all types of ways because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The way a sense of safety can be lost so easily for so many people, who have no control over the dangers they face.

All these thoughts go through the mind on days like this, once you have a second to take it all in and before it’s pushed aside for the next tragedy.

Also, when it’s time to leave, like after every other terror attack in Tel Aviv the last couple of years I’ll go home the way I get most places – on the bus, just like the people I wrote about earlier, and at no point will that feel strange.

Police vs politicians on the Temple Mount

(This post was originally published in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine on December 4th, 2014)

One gets the impression as of late that if left up to the top command of the Israel Police and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the entire Temple Mount would be sealed off to all visitors, left to gather dust atop the Old City.

The Temple Mount. (Wikipedia Commons)

The Temple Mount. (Berthold Werner – Wikipedia Commons)

That’s not possible, of course, as it would entail a radical change in the status quo, and banning access to one of Islam’s holiest sites would only inflame tensions further. Still, this past week, Israel Police commissioner Yohanan Danino blew away whatever illusions were left about how his agency feels about recent visits by right-wing MKs to the Mount, finally saying out loud what police have said behind closed doors and in off-the-record comments to journalists throughout Israel’s recent tensions.

On Tuesday, Danino sparked the ire of many on the Right when he said, “Anyone who wants to change the status quo on the Temple Mount should not be allowed up there,” leveling criticism at what he called an “extreme right-wing agenda to change the status quo” there.

His comments recall ones made earlier in November by Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who said that while the status quo will remain unchanged, they will ban visits by inciters of any faith – including MKs. Late last week, following criticism by MK Moshe Feiglin – whom he called out by name; and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein – who said Danino is “not suited” to give advice on issues related to the Temple Mount; Israel’s top cop doubled down, repeating his feelings about those MKs he believes are playing with fire on the Mount.

On the one hand, Feiglin and Edelstein are right; the responsibility for policy is with lawmakers, and it is up to police only to enforce the law. To police commanders like Danino, though, the issue of the Temple Mount isn’t only about what is within the confines of the law, but also who is responsible. After all, one could argue that the status quo shouldn’t be a suicide pact and that they shouldn’t ensure these visits continue, no matter the cost in public security.

In recent police efforts to stop the violence, they’ve been grasping at straws, proposing all types of plans and enacting policies – the end result of which we have no way of knowing at this point. Earlier in November, Aharonovitch lifted some of the regulations on firearm ownership, a move whose details are unclear and has the potential to create further public security problems down the road if the number of Israeli gun owners increases. They’ve proposed expanding the use of administrative detention, the holding of terror suspects without charge or trial, much like they did a year ago when Israeli mafiosos were killing each other repeatedly in public in Israeli cities.

In a sense, their grappling with the “lone wolf” terror attacks and the riots in Jerusalem and elsewhere is similar to their war on organized crime. At the peak of the mob wars last year, when a bomb exploded inside a car belonging to a Tel Aviv prosecutor (no one was harmed), Aharonovitch came to the scene and called for the use of administrative detention in the fight against organized crime. It was part of a package of measures that he and police commanders proposed, along with increased wire-tapping, looser restrictions on search and seizure, and sealing evidence in trials so they don’t have to reveal police informants in court. The message was clear: We have every intention of defeating organized crime, we just don’t have the tools or the law on our side. Also, as with the current wave of violence, no matter how much police are able to calm things down, it only takes one violent incident to inflame tensions across the Arab sector and the West Bank – just like sometimes you only need to miss one car bomb for the Israeli underworld to again go up in flames.

We see a similar voice coming out of national police headquarters in Jerusalem these days, in regard to what some are calling the third intifada. As opposed to organized crime, in this case they believe they have a single address to focus on, a single tinderbox that is kicking everything off – The Temple Mount. Police, like the Palestinians on the street, have been very clear about what they perceive as the cause of the violence.

They both say it’s al-Aksa Mosque, with their feeling being that Israelis coming after the mosque and looking to change the status quo are the reason behind the violence. The symmetry between the police and the Palestinians in this assessment is hard to miss.

Still, for Knesset Speaker Edelstein, it’s the law, the status quo and the politics that matter most. The Temple Mount may be the greatest example of a case where police are forced to deal with the fallout of political calculations of Israeli politicians, ones that don’t seem to take into account the warnings or suggestions of police – the very people responsible for picking up the pieces.

There’s a dual role played by police in the recent violence: They, along with the IDF, are part of the propaganda images that circulate across the Arab and Muslim world, especially of police storming the Temple Mount. At the same time as they are being used as symbols of oppression in the recent round of violence, they are also the body most committed to stopping it, the ones with the greatest interest in changing the right-wing policies and gestures by politicians who they feel are pouring gasoline on the fire.

In the recent bloodshed, two police officers have been killed – both of them Druse – one a Border Police officer, one a traffic cop. Both were killed at the scene of Palestinian terror attacks in Israel’s capital, and in the case of Zidan Saif, after rushing to the scene to face two terrorists on a killing spree. Cops like them are heroes of the Israeli people when they fall in the line of duty, when they put their lives on the line and never go home again. When their commanders – like Danino – speak up, however, they are to be seen and not heard, and by no means must they comment on what they think is driving the security situation they themselves must deal with.

At the end of the day, despite their warnings, police will continue to rush in to stop the riots at the Temple Mount, east Jerusalem, the Old City and beyond, with the full knowledge that their ability to control the situation is not entirely in their hands.