Settlers arrested in Yitzhar
Police carrying an arrested settler in the West Bank last spring. Photo by Hadar Cohen
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In March, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch took the Knesset podium to respond to a query on the police’s new National Crime Unit in the West Bank. The unit "has the capacity to conduct investigations at a much higher level, with all the technologies and appropriate people," Aharonovitch stated, adding: "In the coming months we’ll be in a different place, solving very serious cases. If necessary, we’ll investigate cases of Jews against Arabs, Arabs against Jews, from the right to the left."

But despite the minister’s pledge, the department handles only crime by Jews against Arabs, not Arabs against Jews.

The police say Aharonovitch’s promise was a "misunderstanding," but his other pledges haven't been kept either. Old cases aren’t being solved, and the unit has little to show for itself. Many people in the police are wondering whether its budget is going to waste.

The first staff work to establish the unit began in December 2011, after right-wing activists broke into the Ephraim Brigade’s base, beat up the deputy commander and damaged vehicles. Aharonovitch proposed emergency steps to the prime minister, including the establishment of the unit. In October 2012 came the decision to budget the unit.

At present the unit includes about 40 investigators and detectives, a figure that’s supposed to double by the end of the year. That’s a big number; it triples the number of investigators operating in the West Bank to 120. By comparison, the investigations unit in the center of the country, which handled about 31 murders in 2012, as well as criminal gangs and serious crime in the Arab community, is composed of 300 officers and policemen.

The new unit is headed by Chief Superintendent Udi Levy, a veteran of detective and intelligence work in the West Bank. A police officer told Haaretz that Levy is "a good guy, but he's part of the old system that couldn’t deal with right-wing activists.  “They didn't bring in a hotshot from the outside with proven experience in eliminating crime."

On the other hand, another source in the district says "Levy knows all the people. He's a walking phone book. An officer from outside would have needed a year to understand who’s where."

Every little thing

In a bid to create deterrence, the unit investigates every minor offense with all its resources. Even if it doesn’t produce a prison sentence in a particular case, the brief detentions, house arrests and bans from the West Bank keep the troublemakers away.

For that purpose the unit regularly requests long detentions, and if the request is denied in the magistrate's court, the unit appeals to the district court. During one appeal, Judge Ram Winograd of the Jerusalem District Court noted that the police "have a tendency to file a large number of appeals without any justification."

An officer in the West Bank says every file opened in the region that contains a whiff of nationalist crime is sent to the new unit for investigation. Plenty of resources go into esoteric cases. For example, one investigation was described as "telephone harassment of Nitzan Alon," the head of Central Command, but the reality was otherwise.

A., a minor from Givot Shomron who is known to the police, phoned Alon's home to protest the demolition of homes. The call was answered by Alon’s son, who suggested that they meet at a nearby gas station so he could explain his father's actions.

A. came to the meeting, but Alon's son told his parents, who told the police. Instead of a conversation, police from the unit were waiting for A. The judge wasn’t very impressed by the police operation and released A. on condition that he not phone or visit Alon’s home for 30 days.

Attorney Itamar Ban-Gvir represents suspects in the unit's cases. "This unit is a farce, its success percentage is infinitesimal. The courts repeatedly criticize them. I’ve represented 15 to 20 cases against them. They request detention days for crimes for which four months ago they wouldn't have dared ask for detention. They request detention extensions for teenagers who enter a closed military zone,” he says.

“Many of the requests have no factual foundation except that the detainee wears a large skullcap and long side curls. Often I don't understand what makes the incident nationalist. The fact that the suspect has side curls?”

Surveillance strategy

The unit has yet to solve a big case. None of the arsonists who set fire to mosques have been caught. Cases of firing at Palestinians, vehicle arson and property damage have not been solved either.

To cover for its shortcomings in gathering evidence, the unit has developed a surveillance strategy. Court evidence shows that the police planted a GPS device to transmit the location of a car owned by right-wing activists.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago the investigations unit launched an operation against disorderly conduct in the Yitzhar area. The Samaria Brigade commander, Col. Yoav Yarom, has complained about stone-throwing at army units in the area; even his car was attacked.

In the operation, police rode in police and military vehicles to intentionally lure stone-throwers. The stone-throwers came, and police from the Special Patrol Unit caught them in the act. The unit is very proud of this operation, which produced six indictments. Still, "this is a basic detective activity," one officer says. "An ambush at known points of crime. It's done at every police station in the country, at every point in time. There was no need to invest in 80 central unit positions."

Whatever the case, the unit is still at it. Two of the accused have been summoned to another interrogation after they were "identified in pictures" blocking a military vehicle.

And the unit isn’t improving the district’s weakest point: its investigative prowess. One case is the assault of an 80-year-old Palestinian near the settlement of Avnei Hefetz around Passover.

The old man told the investigators that he could identify the attackers. Two men were detained on suspicion of assault, but there was no police lineup due to the difficulty "finding similar stand-ins." The two denied they were involved and were released.

The Yesh Din human rights group is monitoring 938 complaints by Palestinians since 2006. Only 8.5 percent of the cases have produced an indictment. The numbers are similar for 2013, despite the new unit's operations.

"The careless investigations and the low percentage of indictments are a clear message to criminals that the state has no interest in having them refrain from their activities," says Yesh Din’s Noa Cohen.