One step forward for police, two steps back

(This post originally appeared as a column in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine on February 26th, 2015)

Congratulations are in order for Gila Gaziel, who became the highest-ranking woman in the Israel Police on Sunday, when she was made the latest female assistant-chief – the second-highest rank in the force.

Gila Gaziel in a ceremony celebrating her appointment to assistant-chief.. (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

Gila Gaziel in a ceremony celebrating her appointment to assistant-chief.. (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

A non-threatening pat on the back is also in order for the Israel Police, for making the promotion – as long, of course, as it avoids being tarnished by yet another sex scandal involving police officers that breaks before you finish reading this sentence.

That’s about how it’s gone for the Israel Police over the past couple of months – sex scandal after sex scandal, and one “[temporarily] unnamed senior police officer” after another accused of sexual misconduct against female subordinates.

With his police force the subject of public ridicule and disdain (at least, more than they were already), National Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino vowed late last month to appoint more women to senior police ranks, and said the day might not be far off when there is a female police commissioner.

Until that day comes – assuming it does – the highest-ranking female cop we have is Gaziel. The 54-year-old mother of three and resident of Modi’in- Maccabim-Re’ut has a master’s in education and has spent 27 years with the police, working almost entirely in the organization’s Manpower Branch.

Her resumé reads somewhat similarly to that of Maj.-Gen. Orna Barbivai, who in 2011 became the highest-ranked female officer ever in the IDF, when she was appointed to head the Manpower Branch.

The impact Gaziel’s appointment will have on her subordinates and the police as a whole remains to be seen, but it would be over-optimistic to expect a single appointment to provide even a temporary solution to the crisis facing the force.

As important as the Manpower Branch is to the police as an organization, it is far from being a marquee position in the public eye. Officers holding the rank of assistant-chief are typically district chiefs or division heads. A major appointment would be to see a female head of, say, the Tel Aviv District; any of the branches within Lahav 433, the elite unit often called (in the Israeli media) “The Israeli FBI”; or the police’s Investigations and Intelligence Branch.

The latter role is about as prominent you can get without being chief of police, but what about seeing a female officer in charge of the Central District – the largest in Israel, and home to some of Israel’s most crime-ridden cities? The district is also home to Ramle and Lod, where most of the highly publicized honor killings have happened in recent years. Seeing a woman tackling this crucial and high-profile police position could be a major move.

But is seeing a woman in charge of a district or branch really what it takes? Arguably, female appointments could have more of an impact lower down the food chain, if just in the right places.

In July 2013, police made 32 appointments of senior police officers to new positions. These included new subdistrict and deputy district heads, and new officers in top investigative positions. Only four went to women, including one in the police planning branch, one in the legal branch and one in the police disciplinary branch.

The four female promotions most prominently included Dep.-Ch. Yael Edelman – who was made the first-ever police adviser on women’s affairs.

According to police figures from last year, there were six women with the rank of deputy chiefs – the third-highest in the police force – 24 commanders and 91 chief superintendents. These are all nice numbers, if one doesn’t look too closely.

Though female officers make up nearly a quarter of the police force, out of 128 district, subdistrict and station commanders in Israel, only four are women. And while Ben-Gurion Subdistrict Ch.-Supt. Sigalit Bar-Tzvi is a highly regarded officer and Givatayim Station Ch.-Supt. Miriam Peled was an admired officer and detective in the Tel Aviv district’s investigative branch, neither are marquee posts, no more decorated than the positions held by Ch.-Supt. Eti Meirson of the Zichron Ya’acov station or Ch.-Supt. Anna Ben-Mordechai of the Mevaseret Zion station.

A look at the mid-level command may indicate where part of the problem for the Israel Police lies. There are simply nowhere near enough women with command positions in local stations and subdistricts, with positions of power and authority out in the field – where, for the most part, it’s a man’s world.

Standing in the freezing cold at the entrance to Jerusalem on Thursday night, national chief Danino was asked about the string of sex scandals, when all he really wanted to do was talk about police preparations for the snow that was set to fall. Moshe Nussbaum, Channel 2’s crime reporter, then inquired if in light of all of the scandals, maybe the time had come for him to resign.

Danino, to his credit, didn’t dodge the question. He said that as he sees it, resigning at this point would be a dereliction of duty, abandoning his post at a time of crisis, and that part of the reason we’re hearing about so many scandals is because of police efforts to expose sexual harassment within their organization.

He then repeated a statement he’s made a number of times recently: The scandals the public reads about in the press don’t represent the police force as a whole – and don’t have anything to do with the tens of thousands of police who fulfill their duty day in and day out, without committing sexual misconduct.

That sounds like wishful thinking.

Like it or not, the series of officers – including several district chiefs – who have resigned or been dismissed amid sexual misconduct probes are the face of the organization to the Israeli public.

Appointments like Gaziel’s may help change that image, but there is no magical solution or quick fix. It will take a long, multi-year process in which we will probably see many more cases come to light, and probably a number of police commanders – senior and mid-level – facing criminal charges.

Hopefully, when all is said and done, the police force will be seen as safer for women than it is today – and a point of pride for the public.

Caution: Arabs will steal this column!

(This post originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine on February 13th, 2015)

To paraphrase Naftali Bennett, if you are reading this column in a café, watch out: Arabs will steal your laptop.

Speaking at a conference at Tel Aviv University on Sunday, the head of the Bayit Yehudi party said public security in Israel had reached a low point, then cherry-picked some examples.

“Anyone who has toured the Negev in recent years knows they can’t leave their car at the small makhtesh [crater] or next to one of the rivers, because it’s a sure thing the cars will be broken into or stolen – also in Petah Tikva, and the Galilee. And farming equipment and tractors are stolen from farmers.’’ Turning to east Jerusalem, he said, “You can’t even go to the Mount of Olives or Mount Scopus anymore. And it’s already impossible to enter any Arab village or city. This, first off, has an effect on the Arab citizens – because the state decided that the rule of law is maybe in Tel Aviv, Haifa or Ra’anana, but not in these places.”

To be fair to Bennett, at no point did he say “Arabs will steal your car,” as some reported. Still, anyone who’s lived in Israel for five minutes can read between the lines here. Farming equipment in the Negev, car theft in the Galilee, rock throwers in east Jerusalem, and the dangers that you – everyday (Jewish) citizen of Israel – face upon entering an Arab village or city, all very clearly say to the Israeli ear: The Arab citizens are a public security threat, both national and criminal, both in terms of property crime and violent crime, for the Jewish citizens of Israel.

Forget the fact that actually it’s not impossible to enter an Arab village or town in Israel – a statement almost along the lines of the Fox News claim that whole swaths of Paris are no-go zones for police and non-Muslims. Forget about the fact that the vast majority of the car bombs that blew up in Israeli streets over the past few years were part of feuds between Jewish gangsters, and were detonated in Jewish neighborhoods.

Forget the battered women – Jewish and Arab – who have been killed by their spouses in recent years, after police and the system failed to protect them. Forget the countless small businessmen – Jew and Arab alike – across Israel being extorted by Jewish and gentile gangsters.

Forget the man who was a witness in an extortion complaint against a Jewish gangster and was blown up in his car last month in Hod Hasharon, not far from Bennett’s Ra’anana home.

Forget all of them: Public security is only an issue, only a campaign talking point, when it involves threats – exaggerated or otherwise – that Arabs pose to Jews in Israel.

Bennett was right when he said that crime in Arab communities first affects Arabs, and was also right to say that the state has neglected these areas, preserving the rule of law for places like Tel Aviv. Still, there’s a right way and a wrong way to talk about crime in the Arab sector.

Crime is one of the main issues affecting Arab communities in Israel, along with unemployment, poor infrastructure and poverty. The state does not deal with the local infrastructure or enforce local ordinances like it does in Jewish cities, and police do not respond to violent crimes with the same seriousness that they do when a shooting or stabbing happens in a Jewish town.

The state and the police aren’t the only ones – the media do the same. An underworld shooting in Tel Aviv is frontpage news; one in Tira, Tuba-Zanghariya or Tel Sheva warrants a brief, maybe more if it’s a slow news day. That’s why Israel Police Chief Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino said, after the fatal drive-by on the Tel Aviv promenade near Jaffa last February, that “if this had been 50 meters south [in Jaffa], no one would have cared – but because it was next to the Tahana [entertainment] center, everyone was screaming to the high heavens.”

He got some grief for the quote, but he was right, basically.

It’s no secret that crime rates in the Arab sector are disproportionately high.

According to a 2011 report by the Public Security Ministry, 67 percent of murder cases involved Israeli Arabs, as did 70% of attempted murders. Arab offenders were also represented in a disproportionate percentage of assault, robbery and arson cases, according to the report.

The issue was highlighted by Welfare and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen in January, when he told a conference in Kafr Kasim that around 50% of Israeli murder victims are Arabs – despite the fact that they make up only around 20% of the population.

At the same gathering, Nohad Ali, a sociologist from the University of Haifa, presented research he had compiled with the Aman Center and the university, which examined data on violence in Arab society between 2007 and 2013.

Ali said at the meeting that the Arab sector in Israel has one of the highest levels of violence, if compared to Arab countries in the region. The data showed that violence among Jews decreased from 2005 to 2013, while violence in the Arab sector increased from 2006 to 2011, and that 70% of attempted murders take place in the Arab sector.

They also found that 95% of the Arab population in Israel sees violence as the No. 1 problem in their society.

Tackling the violence wreaking havoc in the Arab sector – where the amount of illegal firearms is multitudes higher than in Israeli Jewish society – is one of Israel’s main public security issues, even though the victims are predominantly other Arabs.

Crime and public security should be a top election issue, not only when it involves cases where the victims are Jews, or “one of us.” This comes sharply into focus in light of recent outrage, sparked by the latest case of a Druse soldier who reported being beaten after being overheard speaking Arabic. The outrage is very justified, but I assume it would be far more muted if the victim of such an alleged hate crime was an Arab, Muslim or otherwise, who did not serve in the IDF – and was not one of us.

Politicians across the political spectrum – including Bennett – have almost entirely abandoned crime in their election campaigns, preferring instead to argue over matters like who’s the bigger Zionist.

Though it probably won’t earn them many votes, it’d be refreshing to see a politician in this election cycle talk about how his party can make Israel a safer place for all citizens, even if they live in Arab towns – those no-go zones Bennett warned about – where no one will vote for Bayit Yehudi.

The murder of a mob complainant – a reason for outrage

Shai Bachar never had a chance.

The car in which Shai Bachar was killed, after the explosion on January 23rd. (Magen David Adom)

The car in which Shai Bachar was killed, after the explosion on January 23rd. (Magen David Adom)

The bomb that tore through his car on Friday left him sprawled on the asphalt near the Hod Hasharon railway station, with massive internal injuries and burns across his body. Luckily, his 17-year-old daughter sitting in the passenger seat was only lightly hurt by the shock wave, but her father would be ruled dead shortly after sundown.

One witness told Channel 2 that the car bomb which killed the produce vendor sounded like a rocket strike, as criminals settling accounts again shook an Israeli city with the sounds of war.

Bachar didn’t have to die – and his brutal end should only spell further headaches for the Israel Police, and their attempts to get more victims, witnesses and informants to come forward and testify against organized crime figures.

Bachar was the complainant in an extortion case against Avi Ruhan, the head of a Sharon-based crime family and one of the top targets of the Israel Police. Bachar’s story is a common one, and the terror that preceded his death is shared by countless people across the country.

He took out a loan he didn’t manage to pay off, the loan was “adopted” by Israeli loan sharks (in this case, Ruhan’s crew), and the debt grew and grew with extreme rates of interest.

Unable to pay, Bachar was subject to threats, bodily harm and terrible stress, eventually complaining to the police – though people close to him say he was pressured by detectives into doing so.

Due to Bachar’s testimony to investigators, Ruhan and one of his lieutenants were arrested on aggravated extortion charges in September, and the mob boss was ordered kept in custody until the end of his trial.

At this point, as the key witness in a case against a top Israeli mobster, Bachar should have been given the protection fitting an asset of his level. By no means should anyone have been able to put a bomb inside his car.

Bachar didn’t appear to be a man confident in his safety. Before his death he tried to recant his complaint repeatedly, saying he had no contact with Ruhan and that the case was all lies.

Since his death, relatives of Bachar’s have told the press that he was pushed into issuing the complaint, that he was promised protection and that all of his attempts to avoid becoming a marked man were ignored by police, looking to make the case against Ruhan at all costs – including Bachar’s life.

It’s still unclear what, if any, serious protection Bachar was afforded, but it was certainly nowhere near what the law allows in Israel.

In 2008, the Witness Protection Authority was created, under the management of the Public Security Ministry.

Witnesses placed under the authority’s protection are put into protective custody and are often moved abroad with their families, given new identities and residency permits in a number of countries which have reached agreements on the matter with Israel. Those same countries are also eligible to send witnesses to Israel for relocation.

The authority does not publicize how large its staff is or how many witnesses it is protecting at any given time.

Bachar technically wasn’t on the level of being a high-profile witness.

He wasn’t a mobster’s right-hand man turned informant, he wasn’t an underworld figure flipped by police and feeding investigators an inside line. He was simply a complainant. He was one of countless Israelis who are subject to the intimidation and extortion that goes on across the country every day, and almost never makes the news.

He joins a list of witnesses killed in recent years, each murder a scandal in its own right. One of the most infamous was Eyal Salhov, a top lieutenant of Ruhan’s who was turned by police and began feeding them information on the crime gang. His betrayal was discovered after several months, and in October 2006 his associates called him to a meeting at a vacant lot in Pardess Katz and shot him repeatedly in the head – a “Red Riding Hood murder,” in Israeli underworld slang.

All fingers point to Ruhan’s gang, but the killing remains unsolved and has remained a thorn in the side of the police, especially for the officer who served as the head of the Investigations and Intelligence Branch at the time – the current Israel Police chief, Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino.

If police can’t protect a major asset like Salhov, what are the chances they’ll protect a complainant in an extortion case? There are potentially far more witnesses and complainants in Israel like Bachar – everyday people in debt to the mob, especially small business owners paying “protection” money they can hardly afford. There is little if any reason for them to feel confident they will be protected if they come forward.

The murder of a witness, even a career criminal like Salhov turned informant, is a scandal, an outrage that cannot be allowed in a civil society. Every such murder is a no-confidence vote in the ability of police to protect informants and witnesses, and a message that violent criminals can act with relative impunity.

The culture of fear and silence is a crippling obstacle for the justice system.

Without witness testimony, criminal cases have to rely mainly on forensic evidence, paper trails, surveillance tactics and eavesdropping. With legal limits in place on the use of wiretapping and search warrants, human intel and sources are key, and so is protecting them.

Israel is both figuratively and literally an island in its region. There are few options for someone who is on the run.

While this helps police in the hunt for fugitives and missing persons, it can also put a stranglehold on people who are hounded by intimidation and the threat of bodily harm. Often, their only options are to pay up, leave the country or trust in the police.

Most people would be forgiven for believing there are only two options.

(This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine)

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.

Beyond the public eye, a new mafia killing season may be brewing

On Saturday night in Ashkelon, locals were evacuated from their homes in fear – for the first time since the end of Operation Protective Edge in late August.

Cops clear bystanders from the scene of a deadly car bomb in Jaffa last June. (Ben Hartman)

Cops clear bystanders from the scene of a deadly car bomb in Jaffa last June. (Ben Hartman)

The reason wasn’t a long-range rocket fired from Gaza, but an improvised explosive device found inside a city apartment building.

The bomb was left outside the house of the daughter of Eli Elezra, a powerful local businessman and contractor. No stranger to threats and extortion attempts by organized crime figures, his home was the target of grenade attacks on a couple of occasions in recent years.

Across the country, countless contractors and other businessmen are subjected to daily intimidation from Israeli roughnecks, even as these crimes have rarely made the news amid the relative quiet on the crime front.

Just a few hours after the bomb was found, further south, the gates of Ramon Prison opened and mobster Shalom Domrani, the one-time “King of the South,” walked out a free man. He had just finished a 15-month sentence for tampering with the Netivot municipal elections and he left prison with a motorcade of associates, back to reclaim his crown.

For the past several months things have been relatively quiet in the Ashkelon area, which in late 2013 and early 2014 was at the center of a wave of organized crime violence that gripped the Israeli media and public. Since then, there was the June kidnapping and murder of three yeshiva students, the killing of Palestinian teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a 50-day war over the summer, a wave of “lone wolf” terror attacks in Jerusalem, and now, elections.

There is little space for the gangland power struggles to seize headlines, but they continue beneath and above the surface, and could very well explode again in the coming months.

Domrani’s return to civilian life came as his arch-rival Benny Shlomo, the one with whom he has waged a deadly war in recent years, is set to be released this month after serving a year in prison for extortion. That feud is one of several that could ignite in the coming months, as a series of mob rivals are set to be released from prison.

In February, Jerusalem mobster Eli “Hakosem” (The Magician) Naim will finish a term for extortion, just after his blood rival Yaakov “Aka” Shimon will finish a three-year sentence for a weapons charge. In Beersheba, organized crime figure Niv Zaguri will be released after serving time on a series of charges, as well as for arranging a hit on a journalist – Artzi Halfon – who wrote for a local Negev newspaper and covered the Zaguris.

It’s a safe assumption that all of these men will waste little time returning to their old ways. Whenever a big player like Domrani or Aka is put away, the vacuum left at the top tends to create chaos. The top lieutenants still on the street want to keep working, and in the absence of their leader they often flip-flop, joining up with rival organizations.

This creates the drive for crime bosses to try and “rehabilitate” their organizations when they get out. Those who ran things in their absence must be set straight, and must learn to take no for an answer.

This is what we’ve seen over the past several years with the “change stores war,” during which associates of the Abergil and Avi Ruhan organizations fought their rivals from the Musli family and Eli Naim’s gang. The war kicked off in 2010, after Abergil crime family heads Yitzhak and Meir were arrested and extradited to the US, leaving a power vacuum. Former soldiers started changing sides or setting up their own side hustles, and the Musli family began gobbling up Abergil interests in the Rishon Lezion-Holon-Bat Yam area, especially change stores. In the war that erupted, at least 14 underworld figures have been killed in recent years.

Could we see such a scenario erupt in the South, as Domrani and Shlomo return to the streets? It’s certainly possible, maybe even likely. Neither man is likely to go straight and unless they move abroad and set up illicit or quasi-illicit businesses, they’ll both still be in southern Israel, two big fish in a small pond, fighting for scraps with car bombs and hand grenades.

A new gang war on the streets of Israel is something neither the police nor the government need. Other than a few incidents of late, police and security services have largely succeeded in restoring quiet to Jerusalem, where the lone wolf attacks and palpable tension had all but destroyed the feeling of personal safety in the city. They are now in the midst of investigating the “Yisrael Beytenu scandal,” one of the biggest public corruption cases in the country’s history – which has also seen public security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch step down, as the organization he is appointed to supervise (the police) carries out its flagship investigation against officials from his own party.

A new mob war would diminish public faith in the police and divert police resources needed elsewhere, but it could have a potentially more adverse effect on the prime minister. Though it is unlikely crime will be a campaign issue in this election, if there is again a gangland bloodletting on the streets it will serve as perfect ammunition for Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents, who will paint him as a man who abandoned domestic issues like crime; and who with all his talk about Iran, Hamas and Islamic State, is not able to provide Israelis with security from other Israelis.

More than anything else, though, the people of Israel don’t need the crime war of last year to return.

This is possibly even more true in places like Ashkelon, where after a summer of running to bomb shelters, the last thing they need is explosions in the streets of their city – and the awareness that they still may not be safe in their own neighborhoods.

(This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine on January 15th 2015)

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.