Police unprepared to deal with multi-front outbreak of violence, chief warns

Two years after intense ethnic clashes nationwide, Kobi Shabtai tells Knesset lack of manpower, equipment and resources means cops would be unable to deal with a similar scenario

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai addresses a State Control Committee meeting at the Knesset on June 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai addresses a State Control Committee meeting at the Knesset on June 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Police Comissioner Kobi Shabtai on Tuesday warned that his force was unprepared for a “multi-front” outbreak of violence across the country such as the rioting and ethnic clashes that accompanied the 2021 Gaza war.

Shabtai said officers are in a better position than they were two years ago, when the force was severely challenged by days of mob violence and fighting between Jews and Arabs in mixed cities, which came as the military battled Gaza-based terrorists in Operation Guardian of the Walls.

“Today we are much more prepared than we were in the past, during Guardian of the Walls, to deal with a large number of sites…but we’re still not where we need to be,” Shabtai told a hearing of the Knesset State Control Committee

“We won’t be able to deal with such a scenario if there will be a multi-front incident in the entire country,” Shabtai added, pointing to a lack of “manpower, resources, means and equipment” preventing the police from “rising to the occasion.”

Shabtai noted that in Lod — which saw some of the most intense rioting in May 2021 — the police station is missing 30% of its manpower, which amounts to 56 officers. Lod has also seen a share of the deadly underworld violence plaguing the Arab community, which has claimed 91 victims so far this year.

Compensation was a major issue, the police chief said. “If the issue of salaries for Israel Police officers is not improved, I don’t see an improvement in the manpower situation,” he said.

As part of the state budget passed last month, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir pledged “a raise of some 20 percent for police officers, the recruitment of thousands of officers and prison guards, and the establishment of a national guard.”

Ben Gvir, a far-right firebrand known for harsh anti-Arab rhetoric, has sought to create an armed civilian volunteer guard force tasked with dealing with ethnic violence in mixed cities. Critics say the body would largely duplicate the activities of existing law enforcement agencies, and accuse the minister of attempting to build a militia under his command.

Shabtai said police were “undoubtedly” unprepared during the 2021 clashes, and highlighted the decision to overly focus on securing Jerusalem as a key “operation failure.”

Tensions were indeed initially centered on the capital, which had seen days of fighting around the Temple Mount and was slated to host a controversial right-wing march when the Hamas terror group targeted the city with rockets, triggering the 10-day conflict.

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, with long-simmering nationalist tensions between Jews and Arabs exploding in a barrage of firebombs, shootings and brawls.

“We did not expect to reach such a spiral [of violence] so quickly,” he added, noting that only cops accustomed to walking a beat were present in mixed Jewish-Arab cities where some of the most intense clashes took place.

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 a damning report released last summer, the state ombudsman said 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.

The police and other security agencies said at the time they were already implementing reforms to address the shortcomings on display in May 2021.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the head of the police operations division said the force was preparing for a scenario in which violent incidents broke out in 106 different locations, “68 of which we can answer.”

“We are short 4,000 Border Police reservists and a large enough budget to make up this gap,” Deputy Commissioner Sigal Bar Zvi said.

A car burns after being set on fire during riots in Acre, northern Israel, May 12, 2021. (Roni Ofer/Flash90)

Border Police commander Amir Cohen also decried “very large gaps” in manpower and funding, charging that despite the State Comptroller report “not a lot is being done.”

But he touted cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces to help bolster the Border Police’s ranks, increased training for reserve officers and improved ability to enlist them on short notice.

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