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In new recording, police chief seems to misread tensions ahead of May 2021 conflict

‘It’ll pass,’ says Shabtai in newly aired clip amid clashes in East Jerusalem, Temple Mount last year; police say comments were tied specifically to situation at that point in time

Police chief Kobi Shabtai attends a police ceremony in Beit Shemesh, November 7, 2022. (Flash90)
Police chief Kobi Shabtai attends a police ceremony in Beit Shemesh, November 7, 2022. (Flash90)

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai appeared to believe that tensions would abate right before they boiled over on the eve of the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Gaza terror groups that also saw deadly riots in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, the worst Israel had seen in decades.

In a recording from a briefing aired Tuesday on Hebrew-language media, Shabtai can be heard responding with “let’s not get too excited, [give them] two-three days, it’ll pass,” to a suggestion that an escalation was in the offing amid confrontations in Jerusalem surrounding the month-long Muslim month of Ramadan last May and clashes on the Temple Mount.

The reports did not specify when the recording was from but others in the briefing could be heard cautioning that the situation on the ground, specifically in East Jerusalem and the Temple mount, could quickly spin out of control.

In the recording, then-public security minister Amir Ohana urged the police to take immediate action, and said the situation was “the most significant, most explosive national threat at this time,” adding that the police chief should not wait.

In response to the report, the police said in a statement Tuesday that the aired recording was a purposefully edited segment “that does not represent the conduct of the [whole] meeting.”

The commissioner was referring “to the intelligence picture as presented in the assessment of the situation and was correct at that point in time,” according to the police statement.

A car burns in the central Israeli city of Lod during riots on May 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

This summer, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said the police and the Shin Bet security agency failed in their duties during the riots between Jewish and Arab communities amid the major conflict between the IDF and terror groups in Gaza, dubbed “Operation Guardians of the Walls.”

“The violent riots during the Guardian of the Walls revealed major deficiencies in the activities of the [security] regime,” Englman wrote, adding the failures seriously damaged Israelis’ security.

Among the faulty areas the report highlights were intelligence; deploying forces; calling up reserves; the operational response in the field; logistical preparation; training forces to deal with disturbances; and handling investigations and prosecutions.

One of the glaring failures outlined by the report was the lack of police response to almost 3,000 calls made to the 100 emergency number between May 11 and 13 May, while approximately 4,000 others were left without a meaningful response.

Englman also said that he found significant flaws in the division of responsibilities between the Shin Bet and police, which contributed to intelligence gaps.

In comments before the release of the report, Englman said that during last year’s conflict, there were violent incidents and “serious disturbances of high intensity and on a large scale throughout Israel,” leading to injuries and serious property damage.

He said the unrest highlighted the challenge of maintaining personal security and ensuring public order in ethnically mixed communities, which called for a possible need to deploy additional law enforcement personnel there.

File: Police are seen in Lod during ethnic rioting in the mixed Jewish-Arab city in central Israel, May 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

In the weeks preceding the 11-day conflict and the eruption of violence in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, Palestinians clashed with Israeli police close to Damascus Gate in the Old City over what they deemed unfair restrictions during Ramadan, and far-right activists marched to the site, exacerbating quickly spiraling tensions. The activists, some affiliated with the Jewish supremacist Lehava movement, chanted “Death to Arabs.”

The clashes were sparked by a decision by Jerusalem police to prevent Palestinians from sitting on the steps of the Damascus Gate. In an unofficial — but tremendously resonant — Jerusalem tradition, thousands of Palestinians often sit in the area following nighttime prayers during Ramadan.

Tensions were also high surrounding the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism and revered as the location of both ancient Jewish temples. The compound is also Islam’s third holiest site and is managed by Jordan — from whom Israel captured the Old City and rest of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War — as part of a delicate arrangement with the Jewish state.

But in recent years, religious and secular nationalists have worked to secure greater Israeli control over the Temple Mount and increase Jewish access and prayer rights, moves that have sparked tensions with Palestinians that have spilled into violence.

Days after open conflict broke out in May 2021, Shabtai reportedly placed the blame squarely on far-right extremist Itamar Ben Gvir, the Otzma Yehudit leader who is set to be appointed to the newly created role of national security minister in the upcoming government.

A man passes by cars torched after a night of violence between Israeli Arab protesters and Israeli police in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod, central Israel, on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)

Amid ongoing riots and violence in Jewish-Arab cities, Shabtai said, according to Israeli TV: “The person who is responsible for this intifada is Itamar Ben Gvir. It started with the Lehava protest at Damascus Gate,” Shabtai said, referring to far-right demonstrations around Jerusalem’s Old City. “It continued with provocations in Sheikh Jarrah, and now he is moving around with Lehava activists.”

Tensions in the flashpoint East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah were a contributing factor in the start of the conflict. Ben Gvir had set up an ad hoc office in the neighborhood to support Israelis attempting to move into the area, sparking clashes with Palestinian residents.

Throughout the 11 days of Operation Guardian of the Walls, more than 4,360 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern and central Israel — a pace nearly three times that of the 2014 Gaza war, which saw on average 130 projectiles fired per day, compared to the nearly 400 launched per day on average during the May 2021 fighting.

In addition, mixed cities such as Lod and Bat Yam saw outbreaks of riots and violence, and have struggled to repair relations between their Arab and Jewish communities since then.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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