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Damning report finds systemic intelligence, operational failures in May 2021 riots

State watchdog finds police failed to see unrest coming or adequately grasp breadth of violence, delaying deployments to help quell inter-ethnic fighting

Police on the streets of the central Israeli city of Lod during riots on May 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Police on the streets of the central Israeli city of Lod during riots on May 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Systemic failures hampered the police’s response to severe riots that broke out in May 2021, from intelligence gathering and coordination to operational preparedness, the state ombudsman said in a damning report published Wednesday.

Three people were killed and hundreds more hurt in days of violent unrest in cities with mixed Arab-Jewish populations as Israel saw some of the worst inter-communal violence since the state’s founding, as long-simmering nationalist tensions between Jews and Arabs exploding in a barrage of firebombs, shootings and brawls. The riots occurred during Operation Guardian of the Walls, the name for Israel’s 11-day war with Gaza.

The report found that the police failed in collecting intelligence on the possibility of nationalistically motivated mass disturbances. It also pointed to failures in intelligence-sharing between the Shin Bet and the police; incorrect allocations of manpower due to faulty intelligence leading to serious delays in force deployment; and a lack of adequate equipment for riot police.

Some of the most glaring problems included police intelligence coordinators in mixed Jewish-Arab cities who did not speak Arabic, and a three-year delay in the rollout of a social media monitoring system.

“The violent riots amid the events of Guardian of the Walls revealed significant deficiencies in the police’s activities,” said State Ombudsman Matanyahu Englman.

“This did severe harm to the most basic right of citizens of the country — their personal security,” he continued, adding that law enforcement officials must solve these problems in order to restore this sense of security.

The riots began on May 10 with thousands of Arab Israelis participating in violent demonstrations in mixed cities including Lod, Ramle and Acre.

Israelis carry out Torahs from a torched synagogue in the central Israeli city of Lod on May 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jewish Israelis participated in violent counter-demonstrations in response to the riots, in some cases incited by Jewish supremacist extremist organizations.

Arab and Jewish mobs attacked passersby in some cases, severely maiming them or worse.

Aside from the deaths and injuries, synagogues, a mosque, apartments and cars were burned, citizens were stoned and homes were looted.

The police failed to gain control of these violent disturbances for days.

According to the report, the police’s intelligence services failed to forecast severe violence outside of Jerusalem in general and in mixed cities in particular.

Even after the riots broke out the police force still lacked the needed intelligence to determine where its resources were most needed and would be best utilized.

Israeli police seen on the streets of the central Israeli city of Lod during ethnic unrest on May 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The report noted that when the riots broke out, the police did not have an operational, broad intelligence gathering system for online platforms.

In addition, before the riots the police had not activated any intelligence gathering program for identifying possible nationalistically motivated disturbances and did not work to find sources who could help them gather such information.

And responsibility for intelligence gathering for possible nationalist-motivated disturbances was not clearly defined, so that a situation was created in which neither the police nor the Shin Bet worked efficiently to gather and share intelligence for such events.

The Shin Bet did identify increased Jewish-Arab tensions in the months leading up to May 2021, but concluded that events that had taken place were local and limited to Jerusalem, without broader implications for the rest of the country.

The Shin Bet ultimately failed, like police intelligence, to present an accurate picture of the possibility for severe and widespread riots.

“The intelligence gaps in dealing with riots in general, and the events during Operation Guardian of the Walls in particular, were created or widened due to the absence of a clear arrangement for cooperation and division of responsibilities between the police and the Shin Bet on this [intelligence] issue,” the report found.

Because of the intelligence services’ emphasis on Jerusalem as the likely focus of rioting, police manpower was directed toward the capital and away from other areas where riots ultimately broke out.

Medics evacuate an injured man during clashes between Arab and Jews in Acre, northern Israel, May 12, 2021. (Roni Ofer/Flash90)

On May 10 there were just 25 uniformed police officers in the city of Lod, and just 58 in Acre the following day, the majority of whom were not equipped to deal with rioting.

A preliminary directive for the mobilization of Border Police reserves was issued on May 8, but was then suspended. Full deployment of the reserve forces was only completed on the evening of May 15.

The report also found a serious lack of equipment for riot police for dealing with widespread and violent disturbances. Police forces in Lod lacked communications equipment and tactical riot gear, including body armor and helmets. A similar picture emerged for police forces in the central and coastal districts, which include Acre.

“These gaps harmed the availability of the forces, limited their capabilities, harmed their operational ability and their ability to control and command the disturbances, endangered the police officers, and caused considerable damage to the operational response of the police to the incidents,” the report found.

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