The Hero of the South

Kobi Mor, the commander of the police's Magen unit that guards the Negev border, killed the second suicide bomber in Dimona yesterday. He started the day as a chief inspector and might very well have finished it as a superintendent.

The commander of the Southern District, Major General Uri Bar-Lev, decided while traveling from Dimona to Be'er Sheva that this was the right time to promote Mor to the rank designated for the Magen unit's commander. Bar-Lev also recommended to his predecessor as district commander - current police commissioner David Cohen - that Mor be given a commendation.

Less than two months ago, on a cold and cloudy December morning, Bar-Lev, chief inspector Sarit Phillipson and a guest went for a tour of the district. The day ended in Sderot during a short respite between Qassam rockets. But the response of both citizens and police to Bar-Lev's visit proved how bad a decision it was to place the city under the aegis of the army's Home Front Command.

The police, with their good connections with the fire departments and ambulance services, do a better job against terror attacks than the army, whether they are rockets or suicide bombers.

But before Bar-Lev visited Sderot, he stopped in Dimona. At the police station he was updated on the city's war against crime. He heard about the effectiveness of the Yeruham station, where experienced policemen who work with the local people live near their posts.

On his way from Yeruham to Dimona, Bar-Lev stopped on the side of the road. Waiting for him was Mor, in fatigues and with a two-day growth of beard, along with his unit: the "Guardians of the Negev Border," or Magen in its Hebrew acronym. They were in the midst of one of the exercises accompanying the establishment of the new unit.

Bar-Lev was the commander of the army's elite Duvdevan unit in the late 1980s, and switched to the police to establish an elite unit in Jerusalem. He decided to bring this spirit with him to the South, and established Magen. That unit is the southern equivalent of the northern border's Yagel unit, which plays a major role in preventing drug smuggling.

The National Police Headquarters and Southern District argue over who deserves most of the credit for establishing Magen; both claim they came up with the idea and found the budget.

Bar-Lev brought Mor, 34 and single, from the Paratroopers. He was a major but decided to join the police. Mor first served in the investigations unit and later moved to the district headquarters, where he attracted Bar-Lev's attention.

Mor recruited dozens of officers who were looking for a challenge, both from within the police and outside, and especially from the army. One of the outstanding officers is a Bedouin.

The exercise Bar-Lev attended included field operations and camouflage, taught by experts from the most elite commando units. These two weeks of training were meant to bring Magen to the level of such units.The policemen practiced ambushes against smugglers.

Wearing dirty fatigues and combat boots, it was impossible to tell the difference between these policemen and the veterans of the Israel Defense Forces' finest units, including all the legendary units that operated in the Negev over the generations.

Mor promised Bar-Lev on his visit, sitting in a tent in the field, that once the unit became operational in January it would produce results.

A week and a half ago, with the fall of the wall between Gaza and Egypt, Bar-Lev sat with the head of the Shin Bet security service in the South for an emergency meeting. The two, along with their counterparts in the IDF, understood that a new era was starting: one of suicide bombers wearing explosive belts penetrating into the South. The special level of readiness was based on firm information, not just suspicions or working assumptions.

Yesterday, Magen officers set out to work from their temporary trailers - they will be moving in two months to near Dimona. While they were leaving their offices they received word of the suicide bombing. They jumped into their cars and raced to the scene. When they got there it turned out that the event was not yet over.

Mor, the hero of the day, found himself facing the cameras - and glory - much sooner than he might have expected. This may have hurt his hopes to stay camouflaged and unknown, but it proved that the police's investment in the unit was justified. And for now it does not matter who gets most of the credit, Bar-Lev or commissioner Cohen.