The military’s police work
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The military’s police work

A battalion commander speaks of the challenges of facing unarmed Palestinian resistance

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Israeli Border Police in Nebi Salah (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/ Flash 90)
Israeli Border Police in Nebi Salah (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/ Flash 90)

Lt. Col. G, a reserves battalion commander, is exactly the sort of officer the army would like to see facing civil protests in the West Bank.

A financial analyst by profession, his hair is streaked with gray and his speech is measured and soft. One can hardly imagine him popping a protester in the face with the magazine of his M-16. Yet he says that his patience was stretched to the limits during a recent stint of service in the Binyamin region near Ramallah.

Upon call-up, the officers in the battalion met with the divisional commander, who laid out their mission.

They would be laying ambushes night and day along the roads in order to catch people throwing Molotov Cocktails. They would be on the lookout for school children throwing rocks. They would be watching for the relatively new tactic of rocks being thrown from passing cars. They would maintain a presence on the road and try to prevent car-jackings, which have spiked recently and could easily lead to kidnappings. They would be first responders in the case of break-ins into homes in the nearby settlements, which, as was tragically proven in Itamar, can lead to nationalist crimes of murder. They would be asked to close roads if the Shin Bet alerted them to terror-related activity in the region. And, on every Friday, they would have to enforce the IDF’s closure of a spring that lies in the valley between the settlement of Halamish and the Palestinian village of Nebi Salah.

The settlers call the spring Maayan Meir. The Palestinians call it Ein al-Kos. And ever since 2009, when both sides clashed alongside the spring, the army has closed the area off on Fridays.

The closure has led to routine protests. The Palestinians, along with Israeli members of Anarchists Against the Wall and international pro-Palestinian activists, march down to the spring and confront the soldiers. There are those who chant; there are those who curse; there are those who spit; there are those with sticks and those who hurl stones.

Lt. Col. G’s job was to send his troops there in advance of the protesters and to make sure that they were not allowed to violate the army’s closure of the area. He was also told to exercise restraint, to avoid the use of lethal force so long as his soldiers’ lives were not in danger. At their disposal they had what the army calls protest-clearing gear but little training and less know-how.

“Most of the preparations were mental,” he said. “I called the soldiers together and told them that they’d have to let the curses and the insults roll off them. But when you’re spat upon and when it goes on for a long time, then that has an effect.”

Lt. Col. G knows deputy brigade commander Shalom Eisner — the officer suspended on Sunday for striking an activist a blow to the face with his rifle on Saturday, in a confrontation near Jericho. Lt. Col. G said Eisner is “a very principled officer” and one whom he “very much respects.”

The trouble, he said, is inherent to the task and not a reflection of the individual officer. “Think about the situation,” he said. “Eisner is a deputy brigade commander. He is told: keep route 90 open. Don’t let the cyclists on the road. The protesters’ main goal is to close the road.”

In such situations, he said, officers are being asked to be “overly creative” instead of following the letter of an order, as they are trained to do.

Nebi Salah and the route 90 confrontation should both be handled by the police, according to Lt. Col G. “That’s their job,” he said, noting that they have the training and gear necessary to defuse such situations.

Combat soldiers, thrust into this sort of predicament, he said, “are caught in a trap.”

 

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