Rain and vigilance reduce Jerusalem violence to a simmer
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Rain and vigilance reduce Jerusalem violence to a simmer

Modified police tactics have sharply reduced the intensity and duration of Palestinian protests, leading some to conclude an intifada is not on the horizon

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

An Israel Police officer and a Border Policeman in front of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City,  November 19, 2014 (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
An Israel Police officer and a Border Policeman in front of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, November 19, 2014 (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

At the heart of Jerusalem there is no longer a wall, nor is the city solitary. Its cisterns are not dry; its marketplace is not empty. The Temple Mount is heavily visited, yet Jerusalem, contrary to songwriter Naomi Shemer’s poignant 1967 vision, is not lit by a thousand suns, nor does it sway to a pine-scented breeze.

In late 2014, its residents are clamoring for relief — from small, violent riots by Arab youths, revenge attacks, religiously motivated terror, “price tag” hate crimes — and from what many Arabs of East Jerusalem would contend is a rapacious policy of governmental and municipal distribution of resources in the eastern part of the city.

Still, the security forces that have been dispatched to quell the unrest are convinced of two things: that there is no intifada, or organized uprising, and that whatever it is that has seized the capital in recent weeks is very nearly extinguished.

The Border Police, the green-uniformed gendarmerie doing the lion’s share of the boot-level police work in the capital, say the security measures put in place – aided by the atypically wet onset of winter – have worked to tamp down the violence and restore calm to the city.

Arab-Jewish tensions, stalking the city for years, burst forth in July shortly after Israeli Jews murdered Muhammad Abu Khdeir, an Arab Muslim teen, in random retribution for the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens, Gil-ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Fraenkel, several weeks prior. The violence began during the dog days of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza and swirled around the swollen city of Jerusalem, which began to feel on the edge of a fracture this fall with the Temple Mount the religious epicenter of the conflict

A Border Policeman checking the papers of an Israeli Arab resident of Jabel Mukaber on November 19, 2014 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)
A Border Policeman checking the papers of an Israeli Arab resident of Jabel Mukaber on November 19, 2014 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)

On a tour offered by Border Police in the eastern part of the city, the first stop was late in the afternoon as a thin rain sprinkled the city. Just outside the neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber — home to several of the terrorists that have targeted civilians in recent weeks and, it certainly bears mentioning, Arab medical staff such as Dr. Abed Kalila, a surgeon, who treated some of the wounded in the attack — three border policemen, their chests studded with stun grenades, stood beside two waist-high cubes of concrete adorned with red police tape.

The troops eyed the cars coming in and out of the village, as most Palestinians and Israeli Arabs call their places of residence.

A young Arab man in a hooded gray sweatshirt and a small backpack approached the roadblock.

“How you doing?” one of the officers called to him from 15 yards away.

Baruch hashem,” he said, using the Hebrew terminology for the English “thank God” or the Arabic alhamdulillah.

What’s in the pack? one of the officers asked, as the teen continued to approach.

Clothes, he said, plopping the bag down beside them and opening the zipper. “I work at a hotel.”

The officers looked inside, rummaged, and waved him through. One of them, a reservist not authorized to speak with the press, said police officers from his company had confiscated knives and other potential weapons in recent days and that the main point of their presence was not so much to stop terrorists – there are many other ways in and out of the neighborhood – but to put pressure on the residents, “so they know that when things quiet down we’ll go away.” [Update: as of Monday, amid a stretch of relative quiet, many of the roadblocks have in fact been removed.]

Finance Minister Yair Lapid with Border Police on a November 23, 2014 tour of Meir Nakar Street, where Jabel Mukaber and Armon Hanatziv meet (photo credit: Yonantan Sindel/ Flash 90)
Finance Minister Yair Lapid with Border Police on a November 23, 2014, tour of Meir Nakar Street, where Arab Jabel Mukaber and Jewish Armon Hanatziv meet (photo credit: Yonantan Sindel/ Flash 90)

Several hundred yards away, on Meir Nakar Street — a road that links the Jewish neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv with Jabel Mukaber where its name becomes Abu Rabia Street — Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Finance Minister Yair Lapid stood with a group of Border Police and assured the public, in front of a few cameras, that calm would be restored.

Lapid said the government would “take the steps” necessary to ensure security; Aharonovitch added that one who supports terror “must know that he will pay a price.”

That price will reportedly include the revocation of citizenship of residency status for those convicted of aiding terror attacks; the detention of rock throwers until the end of legal proceedings against them; cessation of social security payments; cancellation of driver’s licenses for 10 years for those convicted of stone-throwing; demolition of terrorists’ homes within 24 hours after the attack; covert burial of terrorists killed in attacks; and, among other possible measures, the deportation to Gaza of family members who express support of their kin’s terror actions.

That is on the governmental level. On the ground, the police have worked, successfully, to quell the disturbances in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods, and changed their deployment and some of their tactics to try to curb the so-called “folk terror” attacks that have shaken the city.

Chief Superintendant Aviad Ketafi, the Border Police officer in charge of Jabel Mukaber and Sur Baher, two Arab neighborhoods in the south of the city, picked me up along the seam line of the city and, while driving through predominantly Arab neighborhoods that this 20-year resident of the city has hardly ever seen, declared Jerusalem “light years away” from an intifada or “anything like it.”

Chief Superintendant Aviad Ketafi, above the Shuafat Refugee Camp, during a November 25, 2014 tour of the city (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Chief Superintendant Aviad Ketafi, above the Shuafat Refugee Camp, during a November 25, 2014 tour of the city (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Instead, he said, there were two unrelated phenomena: demonstrations of rage – “always at the same places, always at the same time,” by fewer than a dozen boys ranging in age from “eight to 19, in the extreme case” – and the rise in terror attacks.

In Issawiya in northeast Jerusalem, the first neighborhood we stopped in, he said that several weeks ago we would have needed to plan a police entry into the neighborhood. “We would have needed the water cannons,” he said, “and we would have had rocks thrown at us.”

Since then, the police have tripled the number of operational troops in the capital. The nearly 1,000 additional Border Police troops, combined with undercover units, 320 cameras in the Old City alone, and four surveillance balloons, have contributed to a 30 percent drop in the number of protests in recent weeks and “a far more important” reduction in the intensity of the protests. If in the past each demonstration lasted for hours and included dozens of fireworks launched at officers – they are considered lethal from within 50 feet – then today, he said, many of the disturbances are characterized by a few stones and are over within minutes.

While driving out of Issawiyeh and noting the distance between the village and the Hebrew University dorms – roughly 300 yards – he said that the officers are out in public, on the central streets, “and in the alleys and on the roofs.”

The offensive posture, including night-time arrests “every single night,” have generated intelligence and kept down the level of violence in the eastern part of the city.

Two teens shooting fireworks at police forces on Friday November 7, 2014 in Shuafat Refugee Camp (photo credit: Yonantan Sindel/ Flash 90)
Two teens shooting fireworks at police forces on Friday November 7, 2014 in Shuafat Refugee Camp (photo credit: Yonantan Sindel/ Flash 90)

On a hilltop overlooking the Shuafat refugee camp, which is beyond the security barrier but within municipal Jerusalem, the other, more troubling side of the unrest was brought to the fore. Ketafi pointed out the home of Ibrahim Akari, the man who ran down and killed Border Policeman Chief Inspector Jedan Assad in early November.

The attacks like the one that took his colleague Assad are difficult to prevent, he said, as the decision to turn a car into a weapon need not be premeditated. Therefore, the police have tried to protect vulnerable areas, he said, posting additional officers to central gathering spots and points of friction.

The police and the Shin Bet security service, which share intelligence coverage of East Jerusalem, have also been working “very hard” to monitor social media profiles and online forums in hopes of identifying potential attackers, he said. The Shin Bet, for its part, recently posted on its website, as the first on a list of “hot positions,” the job of “data mining” – a post that requires fluent Arabic and, preferably, a background in web intelligence. Akari, for instance, had used Facebook, just one week before his own attack, to praise Mutaz Hijazi, the assassin who tried to kill Temple Mount activist Yehudah Glick on October 29.

In a-Tur, near the Augusta Victoria hospital and the Mount of Olives, Ketafi pointed to a police foot patrol and a crew of municipal workers filling potholes. He spoke of obligations and rights, saying that “for better and for worse, they are part of us.”

The heightened police presence, he asserted, led a father two weeks ago to call the police and alert them that his son may be planning an attack, saying, “Come and take him now,” which the police did.

Finally, back at the base, near a squad of police officers donning partial riot gear and bandoliers of foam-tipped bullets, Ketafi repeated his assertion that the tide of violence and terror is ebbing. Asked if the police are on the path toward flattening the wave of terror, he declared, “We’ve already succeeded.”

Community leaders cautiously agreed. Bassem Eid, a human rights activist and resident of Beit Haninah, an Arab neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem, said that nowhere on the horizon is there “anything resembling an intifada.”

The small-scale riots on the streets are not organized, are devoid of ideology, and are sapped of power by the Palestinian understanding that violence “doesn’t attain a thing,” he said.

His friends, fathers to teenagers and pre-teen boys, routinely keep their sons in the house from five in the afternoon and onward, he added, noting that some residents, however unenthusiastic they may be about the Zionist state of Israel, are pleased to finally see uniformed police on their streets, imposing long-absent law and order.

The planned house demolitions, he said, though, raise concerns about the durability of the accumulating calm.

On the other side of the city, near Jabel Mukaber, local community leader Yehuda Ben-Yosef, the head of the Armon Hanatziv community centers, said he would like to see a dual approach in which “one hands strikes hard” against terror and the other “provides all the infrastructure that it can.”

Speaking of the increase in police troops, he said that residents were feeling safer in the seam line neighborhood and that “things are simmering down.”

“But,” he added, “life is volatile. Almost anything could set it off.”

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