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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
He may not look it, but Cmdr. Uri Bar-Lev is hurting inside. In less than 30 days, the Southern District police chief will be brought up before a disciplinary hearing and likely be dismissed from his post by longtime rival, Insp.-Gen. Dudi Cohen.
Bar-Lev's crime: Refusing Cohen's offer of a study leave, which, as every police officer knows, is another way of showing a senior officer the door. Especially when the offer is made to a man with degrees in engineering and political science. Bar-Lev is being fired for not leaving quietly.
It wasn't personal, Cohen assured the police this week, as he faced a chorus of criticism over his sacking of a district chief who has cut crime levels drastically and won over the hearts of his subordinates (a rare feat in the police). But Bar-Lev loyalists can be found far beyond police ranks, all over his domain in the Negev.
Residents of the South, from the once crime-infested Beduin town of Rahat to rocket-battered Sderot, adore Bar-Lev and are outraged by his forced departure.
Public officials representing southern cities and local councils, from Beersheba to Ashdod, who took part in Bar-Lev's experimental and ultimately successful "board meetings" of southern police and civilian leaders, cannot understand why he is being punished.
After taking up his position in 2004, Bar-Lev adopted the motto of the American police, "to protect and serve." He takes the slogan more seriously than most would imagine. When I first visited Bar-Lev at Southern District headquarters in Beersheba several months ago, he was on the phone arranging dental care for an impoverished Negev resident.
He motioned for me to sit down, as he navigated the bureaucracy of the national health service to locate a dentist who would be willing to help. "Yes, if you can see him I would really appreciate that," Bar-Lev said.
When the conversation ended, I expressed my surprise at seeing a police chief take on social welfare duties on behalf of residents.
"This is part of police responsibilities," Bar-Lev said. "To serve. We must be at the disposal of our citizens and extend them our helping hand. When it comes to criminals, our hand is like a hammer coming down on those who violate the law. But we must also know how to open our hand for our citizens."
After an especially traumatic rocket attack on Sderot, I joined a police tour of the city. Suddenly, the police van stopped.
"How are you doing today?" Bar-Lev asked his officers.
He was patrolling the town on foot - his characteristic response to Kassam attacks. For Sderot's residents, fed up with empty promises of distant politicians in Jerusalem to deal with the attacks, the sight of the district police chief walking their streets was comforting. Today, the most hardened and cynical Sderot residents, who have nothing but contempt for the government, are busy gathering petitions to protest Bar-Lev's sacking.
But not everyone is upset by recent developments. A brief glance at Internet forums run by those with national religious affiliations reveals an unmistakable glee. Some settlers (by no means all) believe Bar-Lev is the latest target of divine retribution for his role in dismantling Gush Katif. They show little interest in the tremendous benefit he has brought to the Negev.
Bar-Lev took the helm of a police district which covers two-thirds of the country, and has the longest international borders of any district. And he introduced innovative new approaches to tackling the incessant drug smuggling from Egypt and Jordan (much heroin comes in from Jordan).
This year, Bar-Lev created the Magen unit, a special force dedicated to tackling arms and drug smuggling. The unit is composed of former snipers, paratroopers, border policemen and Golani Brigade veterans and most have spent years in combat zones like Gaza. For the first time in the district's history, the new ground unit will work with Black Hawk helicopters to target suspected drug smugglers by air and land simultaneously, closing off avenues of escape.
"Now that he is leaving in the way he is, we feel that we are like everyone else. We're no longer special," a senior district officer said this week.
Much has been written about why Cohen feels the need to oust Bar-Lev. Only he knows why he did it. But there can be little doubt that Cohen dislikes Bar-Lev and wastes few opportunities to show it. This was evident when Bar-Lev was forced to return a certificate of appreciation from the mayor of Rahat, Talal al-Krenawi, on the grounds that police officers cannot accept commendations from others.
"I feel like I've been slapped in the face," Krenawi said last week. "I gave this certificate not because of any personal interest, but because of what Bar-Lev and the police have done for the Beduin in the Negev. The certificate was not covered in gold or platinum, it was a NIS 20 piece of cardboard. I refuse to take it back."
That matter could have been resolved far more diplomatically, with a quiet request to Krenawi to change the wording of the certificate so that it was addressed the the Southern District rather than Bar-Lev personally, a change Bar-Lev, who is very modest, would certainly approve of.
What most upsets Bar-Lev is his concern that Cohen's conduct will undermine a message he has been drilling in the minds of his officers for many years. Bar-Lev's worries were best summed up by one of his own senior officers.
"Uri always talked to us about excellence. He said, those who excel move forward [in the police]. This man is considered excellent, but he is out of the organization. People are now asking, what does this mean for us?"
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