Two residents of the southern Bedouin town of Bir Hadaj were arrested in connection with the recent assault of IDF soldiers who were trying to prevent theft from a military base, Israel Police said Wednesday, as a top official promised a harsh crackdown.
In an incident last month partially caught on film, two officers attempted to chase thieves who had stolen equipment from a southern army base but they were then ambushed by others, who forced them to retreat. The incident shone a harsh light on what some officials describe as lawlessness in areas of southern Israel, where theft and smuggling flourish.
The Beersheba Magistrate’s Court ordered one of the suspects to be held until Friday and the other to be held under house arrest, police said in a statement.
On Tuesday, three residents of the town turned themselves in to police, the force said. Two were arrested and one was released.
Hours later police descended on the town in the Negev desert and carried out a series of arrests.
Police later said that 17 people were arrested for “various offenses and many items suspected of being stolen” were discovered. The searches also “identified items that are believed to belong to the IDF.”
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, whose portfolio includes the police, tweeted that the raid was the beginning of “a widespread enforcement operation.”
כוחות המשטרה פתחו במבצע אכיפה מקיף בביר הדאג'.
14 חשודים נעצרו. 3 כלי רכב נתפסו. ציוד וכסף מזומן הוחרמו.
ישר כח למפקדים ולמפקדות, לשוטרות ולשוטרים בשטח, שממשיכים לפעול לחיזוק המשילות ולחיזוק הביטחון האישי של תושבי הדרום.
— אמיר אוחנה (@AmirOhana) June 10, 2020
Alongside an image of a line of squad cars driving along a desert trail, Ohana said three vehicles were seized and “equipment and cash confiscated.”
He congratulated officers on their actions “to strengthen the rule of law and strengthen the personal security of the people of the south.”
“This is absolutely not the only step,” Ohana vowed. “This is how it will go on.”
Though he did not mention the military incident, Ohana referred to a June 2 tweet of his in which he wrote police “will not remain indifferent to unrest on the southern roads and the phenomenon of theft from IDF bases. More to come.”
According to Hebrew media, which published footage of the incident, on May 31 several men had entered the Tzeelim base undisturbed and took weapons. Two company commanders taking a course saw them and decided to chase the thieves’ vehicle in their jeep.
However, dozens of people physically blocked the jeep at the entrance to Bir Hadaj, and within minutes the officers were surrounded. They were threatened and told to get off the road, with one officer forced to shoot in the air upon feeling his life was in danger. The rioters cursed at the officers and damaged a military vehicle.
The soldiers called for police backup, which arrived to assist them.
ההפקרות בצאלים נמשכת
בדואים מהנגב מקיפים קציני צה״ל אחרי עוד שוד מבסיס צאלים ומרדף שהסתיים בצורה מאוד מטרידה מבחינת צה״ל. דובר צה״ל בתגובה: הגשנו תלונה במשטרה pic.twitter.com/07UPzmghZL
— צחי דבוש (@TsahiDabush) June 2, 2020
Though thefts from military bases are a common occurrence, that type of direct confrontation is rare.
An initial investigation of the incident published last week concluded that it had been a mistake for the two commanders to go after the thieves by themselves, saying the army’s job was to prevent the thefts and not to pursue the offenders.
A joint statement by the army and police said Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Eyal Zamir and Deputy Police Commissioner Alon Asur had agreed to tighten cooperation between the two bodies, in an effort to stop the theft of weapons from bases in the south.
Law enforcement authorities have long been accused of turning a blind eye to lawlessness and organized crime in the Negev region, with soldiers prohibited from taking action. Critics say that generally soldiers will alert police about the theft, but no action will be taken beyond taking down statements.