Tension and rioting had plagued Jerusalem and the Arab sector for months, but when a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Rabbi Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Banita to death and wounded Banita’s wife and two-year-old son in the Old City on October 3, a wave of violence began in earnest.
From that point on, the rest of 2015 would be defined by almost daily stabbing attacks on both sides of the Green Line, as the “stabbing intifada” left Israelis gripped with a fear they hadn’t felt since the suicide bombings of the second intifada over a decade earlier.
At the forefront of it all was Asst.-Ch. Bentzi Sau, the Tel Aviv chief of police and acting national police inspector-general.Click here for more stories from the "2015 - The Year That Was" Jpost special
In June Sau was made acting chief as the search began to replace newly retired Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino, and by October Sau found himself commanding the police on the front lines of a wave of terrorism that followed none of the previous rules.
Sau was the face of the organization and spoke of police as “the country’s bulletproof vest” – a sort of human shield between civilians and the attackers who on a daily basis carried out stabbing attacks.
Virtually none of them were affiliated with any terrorist organizations or known to the security services, leaving police with little prior intelligence or capacity to arrest the attackers before they struck.
At the same time, the hunt for a new police commissioner continued to stretch on, with Sau considered a top contender. He would be repeatedly passed over for the position, which would eventually go to Roni Alsheikh, the former deputy head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post
at his office in Tel Aviv this week, just days before he is set to retire, the man who would not be commissioner spoke about the main lessons he took away from leading the fight against the latest wave of terrorist attacks, and what he believes worked best in fighting a menace that doesn’t have a playbook.
“This is a wave of terrorism that was different than other ones we encountered.
The second intifada was organized and had an infrastructure to target. This one has been led by individuals who made decisions on their own, and there is no infrastructure to attack in order to stop the terrorism,” Sau said.
According to Sau, the current terrorist wave has been driven mostly by online “incitement” on social networks, in particular the spreading of falsehoods claiming that Israel was looking to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. He added that it has followed a similar model elsewhere in the region, where groups such as Islamic State have used viral videos to spread propaganda and inspire further attacks.
“A state can defend itself against its borders and fight external forces trying to invade, but social networks are viral; they cross all borders,” Sau said.
Looking back on the past few months – the most fateful and defining of his more than three decades in the Border Police and Israel Police – Sau said one of the most crucial steps taken was banning visits by politicians to the Temple Mount and limiting the entry of young Muslim worshipers, the demographic most likely to take part in rioting at the hot spot.
“The decision was made to isolate the Temple Mount from all of the dangerous elements who were looking to inflame the situation, because quiet on the Temple Mount can calm the violence elsewhere for the long term,” Sau said.
In addition, he credited the call-up of massive police reinforcements, in particular in and around the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and a policy of “creating friction” between police and rioters, where officers are sent into high-tension areas in order to draw the clashes into Palestinian neighborhoods and away from major roadways and seam-line neighborhoods, where Jews and Arabs live in close proximity to one another.
Furthermore, he said the use of live fire against rioters has played a positive role in deterring violence, and that 58 rioters had been wounded and arrested after being shot in the lower body by police snipers.
He also credited the “high level of awareness” shown by everyday citizens for helping prevent further loss of life, including a number of cases in which civilians managed to stop attackers.
That said, he lamented the vigilante violence that was on display on a number of occasions in recent months, saying “there were a number of cases in which civilians tried to take the law into their own hands and harm attackers who had been apprehended. The message to the public needs to be clear that we are a country of laws, and citizens must follow the law and allow the authorities to carry out their role,” Sau said.
As the stabbing attacks continued in earnest, the number of civilians applying for firearms permits skyrocketed, and the Public Security Ministry issued a new set of guidelines that somewhat eased Israel’s strenuous restrictions on firearms permits. Outside Israel – especially in the United States – the sight of Israeli civilians using firearms to stop attacks was seized on by some as an argument in favor of looser gun control, a conclusion Sau appeared not to share.
“I think that the policies on firearms licenses in Israel over the years have proved themselves, and I don’t think that exceptional circumstances would cause us to change our policies. We are very far from the situation in the United States where any citizen can acquire, carry and use a gun,” Sau said. “We are in a very serious and sensitive security situation, and the firearm-permit process must remain the way it is – without any serious changes.”
Asked what he thinks will be the major issues facing Alsheikh as police commissioner, he spoke about fighting and preventing terrorism, the “war on organized crime,” and improving the services provided by police to the public.
Another major concern will be dealing with the problem of sexual harassment, Sau said, after a series of sexual misconduct scandals involving top police commanders has left the public image of the police battered and bruised.
“Over the past two years we have worked on implementing the standards of behavior between male and female employees that all sectors in Israel have dealt with. I am convinced we are on the right path and that the police brass is not ignoring the problem and are dealing with it in a very serious manner.”
Whatever success police have in the coming years dealing with sexual harassment, terrorism, organized crime, minority issues and police brutality, Sau won’t be there to take part. He said he doesn’t have any plans yet for the next step, after he hangs up his uniform later this month, becoming a civilian again for the first time in 38 years.
“My first task will be to learn how to be a civilian after 38 years wearing a uniform; I hope I’ll get to other plans sometime soon.”