protest - Moti Kimche - July 20 2011
The tent city protest in Tel Aviv. Photo by Moti Kimche
Text size

Three thousand, three hundred and eighty-three tents. That was the figure national police headquarters compiled from its seven districts around the country. Well in the lead was the Tel Aviv District, with 2,300 tents - 2,000 of them on Rothschild Boulevard; then the Central District, with 410; Jerusalem District, 245; Southern District, 200; Northern District, 130; Coastal District, 98. And finally, with a big round zero - "Nothing to report" - was the Judea and Samaria District.

The authorities' patience with the refugee camp on Rothschild is quickly running out. They have been dealing with complaints of theft and even of a few sexual assaults, some violent brawls, and ongoing requests from desperate neighbors for the removal of various hazardous items and obstacles. If there are many more disturbances of this kind, it is likely that Tel Aviv's municipality will issue eviction orders (even if as of this moment they deny entertaining such a notion ). After giving the residents time to pack up, it will vacate the tent camp by force - without infringing on demands for social justice, which will either be met or not by the powers-that-be, irrespective of what's happening on the boulevard.

Racist overtones

But so far the local protest seems light-years away from the scenes taking place in England. Two years ago, a group of senior Israel Police officers visited England and Northern Ireland. In London, local officers told them about the shock they and the community in general experienced after a 1993 murder investigation exposed police negligence and corruption. The affair, centered around the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black youth, exposed deep racism among the police. The upshot was that London's Metropolitan Police Authority forged closer ties with minorities, recruited more minority officers and listened to the demands of the black officers' union (incidentally, Muslims and Jews on the force have similar unions ).

The riots in England this week, which were triggered by an incident that resembled the Lawrence episode, showed Israeli police that the British approach has been superficial and inadequate. Some 4,300 community police officers in London, who are tasked with maintaining contact with local leaders and warning of impending disturbances, failed in their duties. The police's preparation for quelling the riots was out-of-date and clumsy.

Meanwhile, at the national headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem, some officers suggested sending the force's representative in Western Europe, who is based in Holland, to London to apprise the Brits of the lessons from the October 2000 riots, the unrest resulting from the disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank, events in Peki'in and Shfaram, and so on. It didn't happen.

September scenarios

A month before a possible declaration by the United Nations General Assembly that it recognizes an independent Palestinian state - albeit one that will not enjoy UN membership, certain types of executive bodies, an army or a police force - rigorous security preparations are under way for potential scenarios. Meanwhile, Israel's political echelon is paralyzed.

As far as intelligence is concerned, no one knows what the Palestinians will do - including the Palestinians themselves. The Israeli government is hoping for the best, readying for the worst and groping in the dark. Will a government that last month had no idea what its own people would do have the audacity to predict what another people will do? Fear of September may be an incentive to evacuate the 3,383 tents soon, to enable the focus to shift to the Palestinian arena (in which there could be an escalation of tension within the borders and in the form of rocket fire from outside ).

Last week, Maj. Gen. Gershon Hacohen led a Central Command exercise, under GOC Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi, in preparation for a confrontation based on a possible September scenario. Hacohen commanded the 36th Division during the Gaza evacuation, and he is drawing on that experience in order to determine how to handle a potential Palestinian uprising.

In the police, Brig. Gen. Meir Ben Yishai - who was deputy head of Control Command 36 (the police counterpart to Hacohen's division ) during the disengagement - is preparing to lead a simulation exercise based on a possible September scenario in another 10 days, together with Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino and senior police officers.

This week, police operations head Maj. Gen. Nissim Mor signed on understandings with his Israel Defense Forces counterpart, Maj. Gen. Ya'akov Ayash, the head of the army's Operations Directorate. The document splits the responsibilities between the two organizations. The IDF has responsibility for the West Bank - indeed, the police force deployed there, consisting of both the Border Police and the Judea and Samaria District, is subordinate to the army - whereas within Israel the IDF has no powers, unless a state of emergency is declared. The problems vis-a-vis army authority are therefore with Palestinian locales east of the separation fence and Israeli locales west of it.

Israel's police force has in general made a major effort to prepare for possible unrest after the UN vote. In the past few months, 7,400 policemen have undergone special training; at present, there are 16 task headquarters and 20 companies to handle disturbances. Each of the 38 police stations will get an extra 50 policemen to serve as quick-response forces. Much equipment has been acquired to avoid contacts within stone and truncheon range. Some NIS 70 million of the NIS 200 million have been earmarked to cover the expenses of 30 days of combating disturbances. The police's mounted unit is being reinforced, and will boast 64 horses.

Meanwhile, tanks with 200,000 liters of stinky fluid await demonstrators at likely flashpoints in the West Bank. The police will not carry firearms; if they face mortal danger, special forces in the rear will protect them.

What's the goal?

Those are the means and the methods, but what is their goal? In the absence of clear political guidelines concerning a response to possible September scenarios, a major debate is underway at the operational level in the security forces. Israel's response to the Palestinian initiatives will derive from its interpretation of the PA's goals and consequent implementation of the means; the force eventually used will no doubt determine the course of events.

The inflexible approach, reflecting Netanyahu's spirit, is embodied by the gatekeepers of sovereignty, who will seek to block Palestinian demonstrators at crossing points, primarily Qalandiyah, outside Jerusalem, which is shaping up as the center of the confrontation. They warn that if a firm line isn't drawn, the mob will flood the Islamic holy places and then head onward.

The flexible approach is being promoted by Jerusalem District police commander Maj. Gen. Nisso Shaham. Perhaps the most experienced of security officials when it comes to reading the mood of the Palestinians, particularly in Jerusalem, Shaham forecast what would happen on that Friday in September 2000, the day after Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount, despite the calming words of Jibril Rajoub. He is not eager to turn every incident into a battle over sovereignty. Indeed, if Shaham's evaluation is correct - and generals such as Hacohen and perhaps also Mizrahi apparently believe it is - then Israel must not arrogantly draw red lines, which are liable to result in Palestinian casualties. The thrust of the possible demonstrations may be blunted by issuing permits to allow tens of thousands of worshipers to come to the Temple Mount, where a visible, disciplined, restrained and firm police presence will keep things on an even keel. For the first time in a long time, that kind of presence - which aims to enforce the law, impose order, demonstrate deterrence and calm tempers - now exists in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Silwan and Issawiya.

The Shin Bet security service, the IDF and the police all agree that Jerusalem will most likely be the primary arena of disturbances erupting in September. Not necessarily only at the end of that month, according to the UN timetable, but maybe even at the beginning of it, after Id al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan. The rest will depend on the commanders' operational wisdom.

A senior officer this week recalled a meeting called by Sharon when arguments over dealing with a strange protrusion from the wall of the Temple Mount threatened to destroy the status quo. Various alternatives were considered for the repair work - Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians - and ultimately Sharon chose to employ Arab workers. Two Likud ministers, who are now in the Netanyahu government, objected. Sharon pounded the table with his hand. Sovereignty, he said, is bought with the blood of brave Israeli men. It will not be infringed if four Arab workers on ropes work on the wall.