Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat declared “war” against Palestinian youths who throw firebombs and rocks in the capital, saying police must use live ammunition if they are to counter escalating attacks against them and against Jewish civilians. In a phone interview Wednesday with The Times of Israel, Barkat, who has served as mayor since 2008, insisted that such violence was “unacceptable anywhere else in the world” and that Israel has been too “merciful.”
Youth from some of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods have been regularly throwing firebombs, rocks, firecrackers and glass bottles filled with paint at residents, in some areas on a nightly basis. The recent unrest on the Temple Mount, however, has brought about a surge in such attacks, resulting in the death of one Jerusalem resident earlier this week. Alexander Levlovitch’s car was pelted with rocks in East Talpiot as he drove home from a Rosh Hashanah dinner on Sunday night, causing him to veer off course and smash into a telephone pole.
Following Levlovitch’s death, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to step up the fight against these acts, calling for harsher minimum sentences and a change in the open-fire protocols, which would allow police to more easily shoot would-be stone throwers.
During the interview, Barkat laid out the current difficulties law enforcement officials face in combating that threat and what must be done to overcome them.
“It’s a fight against incitement, against lies,” he said.
To combat it, he continued, “the punishment must be dramatically increased” so that the young people throwing Molotov cocktails know that they will “pay a heavy price.”
Parts of the capital’s East Talpiot-Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, where Levlovitch was killed, have been under constant nightly attack for the past year. Just last week the municipality had to distribute fire extinguishers to residents whose homes and gardens are targeted by Molotov cocktails.
Despite additional security cameras and an increased police presence in the neighborhood, which lies just across the pre-1967 Green Line, the violence there has continued. There is also a police investigation into the nightly attacks, the mayor said.
He would not discuss the details of the ongoing investigation, but sounded confident that the attacks there would soon end.
“The investigation is in full swing,” he said. “And I am 100 percent convinced that all those responsible will be caught and pay the price.”
The burden of proof
Though the Jerusalem mayor praised Israel’s democracy and the legal system that comes along with it, he complained that the system sometimes allows the guilty to go free.
“Throughout the last few years, even when police used to catch teenagers throwing stones, they were very, very quickly released by the courts,” Barkat said. “And so they gained confidence.”
That is a common complaint from Jerusalem residents, who claim to see the same teenagers throwing firebombs, getting arrested, being freed and returning days later to attack them again.
That, the mayor said, is the cost of living in a democracy, where courts put the burden of proof on law enforcement.
“Whether we like it or not, we respect our courts,” Barkat said. “It’s very clear that we will have to invest more in collecting evidence.”
To accomplish this, Barkat has proposed increasing “investments on the ground” in the form of new security cameras and more advanced tracking software to provide additional information that would make charges stick against stone throwers.
“We are discussing a different deployment of the police, being more responsive and using force against stone throwers and Molotov cocktail throwers,” he said, but refused to detail what exactly that deployment would look like.
“Police will have to be dramatically more aggressive” in order to stop the threat, Barkat said. People who throw firebombs and rocks need to know that if “they put other people’s lives at risk, they are putting their own lives at risk,” he added.
‘What would they do?’
He insisted that the proposed measures, though a change for Israel, would not be different from other cities’ responses.
“In London, in New York, if someone comes with a giant rock, and he’s going to throw it at a police officer or at innocent people, what would they do?” Barkat asked.
“What are the open-fire orders for police in New York, in London, when someone tries to throw a rock or even shoot at a police cruiser?” he asked. They shoot them, he declared. “We need to do the same here.” (British police do not routinely carry guns.)
The problem, Barkat said, has been that “the nation of Israel is merciful, with a big heart.”
But now, the mayor said, police needed to get tougher: “Instead of allowing someone to injure a police officer or an innocent civilian — because we know that stones can kill — we need to neutralize that person on the spot.
‘It’s not Arab villages, it’s gangs’
“And they need to know that when they get caught, they will sit in jail for many years and pay heavy fines,” he said.
Despite his tough talk and calls for harsher measures against stone throwers, the mayor was quick to dismiss the notion that the Arab neighborhoods and towns surrounding Jerusalem were to blame for the attacks, instead placing the responsibility on a small, violent minority within those areas.
“It’s not Arab villages,” he said. “It’s gangs. It’s young gangs that are using violence in a terrible way.”
Those teenagers, the mayor explained, “don’t understand how serious what they are doing is. So you need to explain it in a harsh way.
“On the other hand,” the mayor went on, “we are increasing our investments in education, we have a longer school day to give an alternative to our students in the eastern part of the city.”
Police on Wednesday night, shot one would-be firebomber in the lower-body as he prepared to throw a petrol bomb and arresting eight suspects in Jerusalem — six of them minors — for disturbing the peace, according to a police official.
Police also set up roadblocks in the Arab villages surrounding the city, including Jabel Mukaber and Sur Baher. The Adalah Legal Center, which advocates for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, came out against the move, calling it “arbitrary, collective punishment.”
The Jerusalem mayor, however, reiterated the need for increased measures to stop the violence.
“We’re coming out in a war against stone throwers. A war,” Barkat said. “It’s not acceptable in any other part of the world, and it won’t be here either.”