Security Revolution in East Jerusalem: Israel Opens Community Police Station in Tense Palestinian Neighborhood

A more aggressive policing by Israeli authorities is being replaced by community policing carried out by officers who are becoming familiar with the neighborhood

Israel's Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at the event marking the official opening of the police station in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher, on Sunday, January 12, 2020.
Emil Salman

Two weeks ago, a serious dispute erupted between two families in the Palestinian village of Sur Baher, which straddles the border between Jerusalem and the West Bank. Dozens of young men were throwing stones at one another. In the past, the police did not hesitate to intervene in such incidents, usually by deploying the Border Police or special forces, and only exacerbating the situation in the process.

In a video clip of the disturbance posted on social media, a single police cruiser is seen arriving at the scene, sirens blaring. The police officers who got out of the car came without protective gear. They calmed the situation and dispersed the two sides.

The case is an example of the revolution taking place in Sur Baher, where more aggressive policing by Israeli authorities is being replaced by community policing carried out by officers who are becoming familiar with the neighborhood and trying to solve the problems there.

The relative success of the police in this and four other neighborhoods where similar stations exist represents a historic shift in many people’s view in the complex relations between the police and East Jerusalem Palestinians. It’s a quiet revolution that began three years ago and has continued uninterrupted and without much media attention.

Security forces from Israeli police's special patrol unit Yasam in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher, in 2016.
AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP

On Sunday, the Israel Police community policing station was officially opened in Sur Baher at an integrated community service center that also has other government services, including emergency medical services, an office of the Population and Immigration Authority and a Border Police station. The dedication ceremony was attended by hundreds of police and a small group of residents.

One of them was Ramadan Dabash, a well-known figure in East Jerusalem who ran for Jerusalem city council in 2018. He delivered remarks at the event, and two Palestinian children sang a peace song in Hebrew together with a Jerusalem choir.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told the gathering that Arab citizens of the capital deserve to have personal security just as Jewish residents of the city do. But the station, he acknowledged, also serves a political function. “We are unifying the city through deeds, and I’m proud of having the privilege to strengthen Israel’s sovereignty over the entire city,” he said.

Along with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon and two senior police commanders, Erdan cut a ribbon marking the official opening of the station. And to a recording of drumbeats, an Israeli flag was raised.

Initially in temporary quarters

Police Superintendent Guy Gilboa is the commander of the new station. He actually established it two and a half years ago, but it was housed in a temporary facility until this week. From his window he can see the American Embassy, which was moved to the city from Tel Aviv in 2018, sparking protests that threatened to disrupt Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem.

The new police station in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher, on Monday, January 13, 2020.
Emil Salman

Near the station, there is a school for boys, that purportedly made the site problematic for Israeli police in a Palestinian neighborhood. Gilboa acknowledged that he had been worried about possible problems but said so far his concerns have proven unfounded.

“I thought I would have to replace the sign and the locks every day. No one has touched anything. There hasn’t even been graffiti.” Although a bottle of paint was thrown at the new building, the residents of the village appear to welcome the presence of the police station.

Sur Baher is considered a religious village and the Islamic Hamas movement has significant influence there. Residents say that the calm atmosphere in which the police station was greeted could quickly dissipate if residents believe, for example, that there is a threat to mosques on the Temple Mount.

Gilboa and his six officers have begun circulating in the village in an effort to solve problems. “I’ve gone from door to door, from shop to shop, asking people what was bothering them. At first there were WhatsApp [text message] warnings about approaching the police, but slowly that disappeared. The area had been clamoring for police services,” he said.

Calm has prevailed so far. The police in Sur Baher have tried to distinguish themselves from other Israeli security forces operating in East Jerusalem. As a result, they don’t disperse demonstrations or take part in arrests. They even try avoiding issuing tickets – in an effort to change the residents’ perception of the police.

Israel Border Police forces at the entrance to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher, in 2015.
Lior Mizrahi

Gilboa said the first thing people complained about related to traffic problems. “We began with friendly enforcement, issuing warnings to people who disrupted traffic where they parked, telling them, that next time, they would be fined. We have been making calls to them In the evening and have talked to them. It works. We have issued 900 warnings and just 10 tickets.” Gilboa has also worked with the municipality to get streets upgraded and nuisances removed.

The combined community service center in Sur Baher is one of five in East Jerusalem. The others are in the Shoafat refugee camp and in Silwan, Beit Hanina and Isawiyah. The new approach was developed during the tenure of a prior Jerusalem police chief, Yoram Halevy, with Erdan’s blessing.

A change of image

The plan was entitled “From Green to Blue,” referring to the shift from the green uniforms of the Border Police and special forces, whom the Palestinian residents view as Israeli occupation forces, to blue-uniformed regular Israel Police forces. Since the new stations began operating about three years ago, there has been a jump in the number of complaints filed by Palestinians, including reports of domestic violence and disputes with neighbors.

The police are trying to demonstrate that their image as an aggressive security force is inaccurate, although the community policing effort is being pursued at the same time that security forces have stepped up aggressive operations in the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Isawiyah. The new stations in Palestinian neighborhoods organize Hebrew lessons and student driving courses. They visit schools and intervene with municipal authorities to facilitate getting services provided to the neighborhoods.

“We’ve gone into schools run by the Waqf [Muslim religious trust] and private schools, offering things that no father would refuse – safe online internet use, road safety, drug abuse prevention and the safe use of electric bikes,” Gilboa recounted. He is convinced that the program is working. “In two and a half years, we’ve had [just] three stones thrown at us. I walk everywhere in my blue dress uniform, without a bullet-proof vest or rifle.” Residents are increasingly cooperating with the police too. The police helped establish neighborhood parent patrols and are setting up an emergency neighborhood response team comprised of a doctor, a pharmacist and residents with all-terrain vehicles or with heavy equipment at their disposal.

“Sometimes it’s good and sometimes not,” A., a village resident said. “If they deal with the problems with young men with weapons, that’s good, but sometimes they issue tickets even when you park opposite your house, although you have nowhere to put your car,” he said. “But we see them and they are [on the streets] and it’s good that they’re here.”

Low-key support

Haaretz spoke with a number of other Sur Baher residents, none of whom objected to the new police program, but most of them refused to say so publicly.

Journalist Eliezer Yaari wrote a book about Sur Baher and has been conducting research about the village for a number of years. He said he hadn’t heard criticism of the police over the program, even from residents with extreme views.

“The level of involvement of the authorities and the level of their desire to be involved is huge, and it’s part of their conformation that they [the residents] are part of Israel,” he said.

One of the program’s successes has been a reduction in the use of fireworks at weddings and other events. And Gilboa has made it a practice to invite grooms in to ask them to refrain from firing weapons at their wedding. He recently discovered that one groom used loudspeakers with recorded explosions instead.

Palestinians in Jerusalem have had praise for the new stations, which make life easier for area residents, but there is also concern that the stations represent another step in increased Israeli influence in East Jerusalem – which Palestinians see as their future capital – severing the residents’ ties with Palestinians in the West Bank.

“The police car has become part of the scenery in the neighborhood,” said Fuad Abu Hamed, a businessman who lives in Sur Baher. “You see them at events. They try to mediate and provide assistance. Residents know this can help, but on the other hand, I realize what Israel is doing, and it’s not because of my blue eyes. It’s part of a grand plan, and in the meantime, Palestine is losing Jerusalem.”