Police Stalled as Jewish-Arab Violence Engulfed Israeli Cities. Officers Now Think They Were 'Too Tolerant'

'We could easily have used live fire,' one official said of the police's response to unrest in Arab cities. Why did the force take so much time, and what does it mean for the future of its relations with the Arab community?

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Israeli police patrol during clashes between Arabs, police and Jews, in Lod, tonight.
Israeli police patrol during clashes between Arabs, police and Jews in Lod. Credit: Heidi Levine/AP
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

It took the police 72 hours to contain the rioting in Israel during this month's fighting with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“We managed to prevent a third intifada,” one police source said, adding that these riots were worse than those of October 2000 in terms of the number of incidents, their intensity and their geographic spread. But even he admitted that the police acted belatedly.

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“During the first days, we weren’t prepared, not regarding intelligence and not in the field,” he added.

The question now is whether this is really the end, or whether the rioting will resume with even greater intensity during the next military crisis.

“The feeling in the Arab street is one of victory,” one police source said. “They feel they managed to get the police and the government to fold on almost every decision.”

What finally suppressed the riots was the sending of massive forces – 20 companies of Border Police transferred from the West Bank or called up from the reserves – into affected areas, mainly Lod and Wadi Ara, and Acre in the north. But this happened only three days after the riots began.

Officers deemed this a necessary learning period. But one former senior officer disagreed. “The most important thing when you see riots developing is to immediately pour forces into the city, and that wasn’t done until a long time later,” he said.

One factor in the delay was the time needed to call up reservists. Another was that many of these forces had been sent to Jerusalem a few days earlier in preparation for the end of Ramadan. Until they could be moved elsewhere, police who normally hold office jobs found themselves protecting their stations against arson attempts.

“In the operation’s early days, we didn’t use all our tools, because we knew we weren’t strong enough,” one senior officer said. Only after the arrival of large, well-equipped forces “did the rioters understand there was someone on the other side and get deterred.”

In Jaffa, the beefed-up police presence sparked complaints of over-policing and excessive use of force. One officer, who faces an internal investigation, shot a sponge-tipped bullet at someone’s face for no apparent reason. Dozens of people were arrested, checkpoints were stationed at the entrances to major roads and cyclists received unjustified fines.

Border Police forces in the Arab-Jewish city of Lod during the riots. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

'Restraint is sometimes a strength'

The memory of October 2000, when 12 Arab Israelis and one Palestinian were killed by police gunfire, still haunts the police. Consequently, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai ordered his forces to refrain from killing at almost any price – to shoot only if lives were at risk and instead use riot-control tools like batons, sponge-tipped bullets and stun grenades. One police source said the police used more stun grenades in the past two weeks than in the 20 previous years.

“Restraint is sometimes strength,” one senior officer said. “Every death adds a gallon of gasoline to the fire and escalates the situation.”

Another police source agreed. “We could easily have used live fire, but where would this have led, to 10 fatalities? Instead, we let them run wild for two or three hours. In the end, they hurt themselves by destroying infrastructure in their cities. Today, we’re bringing the rioters to justice. So what’s preferable – burying people or bringing them to justice?”

In general, the police indeed showed restraint. But in one case, police gunfire is suspected of killing a 17-year-old Arab Israeli from the city of Umm al-Fahm just north of the West Bank.

The only other deaths, both in Lod, were an Arab rioter, Moussa Hassouna, shot by a Jew in what he claimed was self-defense and a Jewish man, Yigal Yehoshua, killed by a stone that the police think was thrown by Arabs. No suspect has been identified in the latter case.

One police mistake threatened to reignite the riots – Friday’s arrest of Kamal al-Khatib, deputy head of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, on suspicion of incitement. Thousands gathered at his home in Kafr Kana, threw stones and even shot at the police, who were unprepared.

The officers returned fire, and four residents were seriously wounded. Only 45 minutes later, after a special counterterrorism unit was summoned, were they extricated, along with Khatib.

Officers in close contact with Arab mayors were disappointed by their behavior during the rioting. Some who always showed up for meetings and coffee “simply didn’t answer” once the riots broke out, one officer said. Others refused to meet, saying “this isn’t the time.” Some led protests and blocked roads, then left when they saw they couldn’t control the people throwing stones.

“For some this was convenient, while others didn’t want to intervene to avoid being hurt politically. Behind the scenes, some inflamed tempers under the guise of calming things down.”

Some even openly encouraged the riots, one senior officer said. “Only toward the weekend, after seeing that every day of rioting was costing them hundreds of thousands of shekels of property damage, did they wake up.”

“In the end,” another source said, “they understood they were only hurting themselves.”

Police disperse crowds of Palestinian youths at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Appealing to local leaders

In Lod, Arab city councilors refused to meet with either Jewish representatives or Arabs serving at the city’s Border Police command post. The police then changed tactics, appealing instead to clan chiefs and opinion leaders.

One source said this helped greatly in cooling tempers. “When they suddenly see that the community centers are resuming operation and the police are helping to move trucks with food, that contributes to calm,” he added.

The Shin Bet security service also helped, with both interrogations and intelligence. “They have intelligence capabilities that the police aren’t authorized to use,” one police source said. “But in the early days, they mainly contributed a halo effect. People switched gears when they realized they were going to be interrogated by the Shin Bet. That’s a different ballgame.”

During the first 72 hours, hundreds of Jews flocked to Lod, including far-right groups like La Familia and armed settlers. This worried the police, who confiscated dozens of guns. In Lod, they managed to keep armed Jews off the streets, but in Ramle, Jews attacked Arabs and Arab homes.

But the Arabs also got outside reinforcements. One police source said a third of the people arrested in Lod were from East Jerusalem.

Both the police and the Shin Bet failed to foresee either the outbreak of the riots or their severity. They were also late in shutting down Telegram groups where Jews organized to attack Arabs.

And now that the riots have ended, the police are worried by the ramifications of their restraint, which some say has led to a loss of deterrence. Recent footage of Palestinians giving police the finger and even shoving a policeman outraged many officers, who accused the top brass, especially Jerusalem police chief Doron Turgeman, of tying their hands.

“We’ve lost control in Jerusalem,” one senior officer said. “Every kid permits himself to curse and shove police officers. There’s no deterrence and no leadership.”

Another agreed, saying, “We were too tolerant. A situation where they dare to give us the finger is intolerable. The most important thing now is to restore deterrence. Otherwise, they’ll go farther during the next escalation.”

In recent days, the police have tried to restore deterrence through massive, well-publicized arrests of suspected rioters, sometimes including humiliating photos of the detainees. But senior officers say they acted properly during the disturbances.

“True, it’s not easy to see the pictures from Jerusalem, but that’s a price we’re willing to pay,” one said.

Both former and current officers attributed the long learning curve during the riots in part to an inexperienced leadership. Shabtai never commanded any police district before becoming commissioner, nor had Turgeman commanded a district before being put in charge of Jerusalem, the most sensitive of all.

“The people who put those two at the head of the police are paying the price today,” one former senior police officer said. “Neither of them understands the ramifications of entering the Temple Mount or of behavior nearby, and we saw the results.”

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