The IDF will provide an additional 300 soldiers to assist police in Jerusalem next week, the army said on Thursday. Six companies of cadets, amounting to several hundred soldiers in officer training, have already been sent to reinforce police in cities around the country.
Some of the soldiers already in place, and additional ones joining them next week, come from non-infantry units, predominantly the Military Police and the Homefront Command, an outfit that provides search and rescue services and emergency response in times of war, the police and IDF said.
The troop boost is the latest in a number of measures trotted out by the security cabinet in response to the stabbing attacks that have rocked Israel in recent weeks and sent the population into a panic. Another notable and even more dramatic move by the cabinet earlier this week was to put in place a so-called “breathing closure” around East Jerusalem neighborhoods, setting up checkpoints at the entrances and exits but allowing the resident population a level of mobility.
The purpose of these closures and IDF reinforcements has been twofold: On the one hand, there are the tactical and operational benefits of these checkpoints and reinforcements. And on the other hand, there is the matter of public perception, and the need for the Israeli political leadership to project to its citizens that things are under control.
The majority of the attackers since the beginning of October have indeed come from East Jerusalem neighborhoods, and the largest number hailed from Jabel Mukaber, which was also the hometown of the terrorists who attacked a Har Nof synagogue last year, killing five. For the past year, young men from the neighborhood have also thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails at residents of the adjacent Jewish Armon Hanatziv neighborhood on a nightly basis.
The problem, however, is that truly separating Arab neighborhoods from Jewish ones in East Jerusalem is nigh impossible. That, ironically enough, is due to the Israeli government’s efforts for the past 40 years to unify the city, Marik Shtern, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, told The Times of Israel.
A decidedly unified Jerusalem
After capturing East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, the government set out to “unify Jerusalem and to combine the two sides’ economies,” Shtern said.
And in that effort, the government was successful. In the early 1970s, Armon Hanatziv was built side by side with Jabel Mukaber. The two neighborhoods share playgrounds and clinics and supermarkets. Pisgat Zeev and Shuafat are equally close and intermeshed.
‘What? People can’t walk? They can’t ride bikes?’
And as a result, in barely 24 hours, the “breathing closure” on East Jerusalem failed more than once. The attack outside of Jerusalem’s central bus station on Wednesday evening was carried out by a resident of Ras al-Amud; hours later, four residents of East Jerusalem firebombed a Border Police base in Atarot.
While Israel could perhaps close off the neighborhoods to cars, that would not necessarily stop individuals from leaving. “Okay, you closed off a road,” Shtern said. “But people can’t walk? They can’t ride bikes?”
In the short term, the only way Israel could entirely ban East Jerusalem residents from West Jerusalem or other Israeli cities would be a massive deployment of police or soldiers into the neighborhoods’ main streets, Shtern said.
However, he admitted, “I work more to bring people together than keep them apart.”
A full lockdown of East Jerusalem has never been implemented in the 48 years it has been under Israeli control, not even during the first and second intifadas. Though there have been lockdowns in West Bank cities, even these have been rare and never lasted more than 24 to 48 hours.
And today, not only would a true closure be immensely difficult to implement, it could also have dramatic unintended consequences, Shtern said. Not only would it be severely damaging to East Jerusalem residents, it would be detrimental to West Jerusalem as well.
Approximately 50 percent of workers from East Jerusalem are employed in West Jerusalem and some West Bank settlements, which is somewhere between 30,000 and 35,000 people. If those people suddenly could not go to work, the results would be dire for all of Jerusalem’s economy, Shtern said.
The purpose of the “breathing closure” can therefore be seen as largely symbolic.
“[The government] wants to show the Jewish population that it is doing something,” Shtern said.
Even Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who, along with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, has been one of the most vocal supporters of the closure, has admitted that it will not be a silver bullet.
“Can I say that this 100% guarantees that nobody will enter Jerusalem or possibly acquire some weapon they can use to stab people? No,” Erdan told Israel Radio when the closures were announced on Wednesday.
A helpful drop in the bucket
In addition to the IDF soldiers who are already assisting law enforcement, the Israel Prison Service decided on Thursday to put some 400 prison guards at the Israel Police’s disposal.
Tel Aviv’s police department alone received approximately 100 soldiers, most of them officer cadets, who will assist in patrolling public spaces such as the Dizengoff Center mall and the outdoor Carmel Market, Channel 2 reported.
Additional law enforcement in cities around the country will potentially act as a deterrent to would-be attackers and will allow for a quicker response to attacks.
However, these actions too can be seen for their symbolic as much as for their operational value. They provide a sense of security in a time when attacks have come in large and small cities and suburbs around the country in both residential and commercial areas.
As of 2014, the Israel Police had close to 30,000 full-time officers and nearly 70,000 volunteers. Though an additional 700-1,000 soldiers will certainly assist police officers, they amount to a very small percentage of the total law enforcement in Israel.
That the additional soldiers and “breathing closure” of East Jerusalem are operationally ineffectual does not diminish their role in this escalating rash of violence.
In light of the recent attacks, Israelis have been on edge. An IDF officer fired his weapon inside of a moving train on Thursday morning after passengers saw a “suspicious” person and shouted, “Terrorist!” No terrorist was found on the train, but several people were lightly injured when the train’s emergency brakes kicked in.
Hours later, the Israel Police conducted a massive manhunt, employing a helicopter and shutting down major highways in Tel Aviv, after reports came in of another “suspicious” vehicle, driven by two East Jerusalem residents. The Shin Bet interrogated the pair and found no evidence that they had planned to carry out a terrorist attack — they were only electricians out on a job.