Head to Head / Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Are the Police Ready for the Events in September?

Public Security Minister, how do you maintain public order at the tent cities, prepare police and prison service for potential unrest in September, and await the comptroller's report on the functioning of the police and prison services during the Carmel fire?

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch has to cope with a number of fronts at the same time. He's in charge of public order at the tent cities, he's preparing the police and prison service for any violent protests when the Palestinian declaration of independence comes up for a vote at the United Nations, and he's awaiting the publication of a tough report on the functioning of the police and prison service during the Carmel fire late last year.

Minister Aharonovitch, are the police preparing to dismantle the protest tents throughout the country?

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch
Moti Milrod

The police have no intention of removing the tents. First because the police are not the ones to do that. If the various municipalities turn to the police to help the municipal inspectors and provide them with protection and security, we'll examine this from the public and legal standpoint. Only then will we decide. There has not yet been a request of this kind. On Friday night I explained to the prime minister that we have no intention of initiating moves to get inspectors to remove the tents. I personally understand the problems and the protest, and I think this will not happen.

Do the police have a contingency plan for dismantling the tents? What's behind the reports that the police will do this?

I meet with the police once a week, every Thursday, to assess the situation and approve plans. This subject has not been brought up or mentioned to me; there hasn't even been a request of that kind. On the contrary, one has to act with restraint toward the protest on the streets today. Both toward the tents and toward the demonstrations one must act with restraint, common sense and understanding. We must show a great deal of patience. You could see this policy of the police during the big demonstration in Tel Aviv last week, and also during the demonstrations over the weekend.

It can be assumed, despite all the patience, that the neighbors aren't always thrilled about the settlement on the boulevard outside. How do the police deal with such complaints?

The police will not take any step, nor will I. If the neighbors are being disturbed, the complaints must be sent to the welfare department, the municipality and the Health Ministry - they have to deal with that. The committee of the protest leaders has to deal with that.

One assumes that the presence of so many groups in different tent cities for so long will lead to complaints about criminal acts, theft or fighting. To what extent have the police had to address such phenomena in recent weeks?

There certainly have been complaints about disturbances and criminal events in the tent cities, and we're dealing with them. Tents are tents - they are open places and things are going on there the whole day and night. It's impossible to ignore this or that kind of phenomenon, but there has been no dramatic change in the crime rate in the areas where the tents have been set up. The police guard the areas from the outside. There are a few cases here and there, but it's not a phenomenon. There is nothing dramatic there.

Will the police allow the tent protest to continue in September amid the concerns about confrontations with the Palestinians because of the expected recognition at the United Nations? Are the police ready to deal with mass public disturbances in September while allowing the social protest to continue?

There won't be any clash and one thing doesn't have to interfere with the other. I see no connection between the expected events in September and what is happening now. If heaven forbid both the protest and the September events come to fruition, the police will know how to deal with them. The police don't have the privilege of saying "We're dismantling the tents so we can deal better with [the events of] September." There are sufficient forces to deal with them.

Are the police ready if there is a declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations?

If you're asking me what's going to happen, at this point, we have no way of knowing. We can't know at the moment what size and strength the events will take place. I'm getting ready for every possible scenario, and those are the instructions I've given. We see the demonstrations in the Arab countries around us and the events in London. Everything must be on the table. We're getting ready for all possible scenarios.

We've been making preparations now for quite a few months at all levels of preparation .... We've made big acquisitions in Israel and abroad. The police have new tools and the acquisitions are continuing. Every two or three weeks they show me the progress. We're making very good progress in preparing the force, arming it, training it and practicing. This is being done systematically. The prison service is also preparing to take in detainees. The Israel Defense Forces, police and Shin Bet security service are cooperating at the highest levels, as well as at the lower levels. I believe we'll be ready for the events. They could be simple disturbances or violent events.

Yesterday the state comptroller distributed his draft report on the Carmel fire. The report sharply criticizes the way the police and prison service functioned during and after the disaster when the bus carrying police cadets caught fire. Have you looked at the draft?

This is a very thick report. It's on my desk. I respect the comptroller and believe he did a professional job. At first glance, the criticism of the police and prison service is not negligible. Of course the report must be thoroughly scrutinized. We also must remember the families who lost their loved ones in this event.

Are there remarks against you in the report, since you were the government representative responsible for dealing with the blaze?

There are no personal remarks against me in the report. When I arrived at the scene in the afternoon and took over responsibility, I was in charge for four days, as I understand, in the best way possible. I received the draft because I'm in charge of the police and prison service that are criticized in it. I asked them to study it and respond. We're talking about the people who commanded the event. There are things that must be read and understood.

People in the police expressed concerns that the comptroller would criticize the officers who died in the disaster. The police, for their part, awarded citations posthumously. Does the report refer to mistakes by the officers who died in the blaze?

I haven't had time yet to look at it thoroughly. I assume it goes into details about those officers. But right now I don't want to get involved in the details. It's improper to discuss things at this stage. I remind you that this is a draft. It must be read thoroughly, and everything the police have to say about it has to be heard. I've instructed the police and prison service to read it and learn lessons.

The tent protesters have included the status of police officers in their struggle. At the same time, you got the Finance Ministry to raise the salaries of rookie police officers considerably. Do you think the treasury plans to invest more to improve the status of veteran policemen?

I've been fighting for that from the day I took the job. I've held dozens of meetings about that with the prime minister and the finance minister. We found a solution for 6,000 police officers who are starting off. Because of the problems with salaries, the police haven't managed to maintain their manpower and get good people to join.

I see the rise in salaries as a great achievement for the police and prison service .... A policeman can't work when he's earning only NIS 5,000 a month. [Tomorrow] afternoon I'll have a first meeting with treasury representatives to arrange the salary conditions for veteran policemen.

The Finance Ministry has shown a willingness. Retirees will also get something extra that's tied to the cost of living index and a grant to cover differences since 1998, when the entire economy cut itself off from the pensioners.