Security and Defense: A well-oiled machine

How the police spent over a decade developing the world’s most sophisticated anti-rocket and counter-terrorism response.

June 28, 2012 22:31
Gaza rocket attacks

Rocket remains. (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)


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Southern Israel is once again in between rounds of rocket attacks from Gaza. The lull in the barrages is partial at best; Not a day goes by without at least a couple of rockets exploding in rural areas, sending residents of villages fleeing for cover.

During times of escalation, the terrorists target major cities, though they must now try to circumvent the invisible protective layer around urban centers in the form of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

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Every time a rocket slams into southern Israel, the southern police district’s officers spring into action.

Today, the officers look skeptically at the lull in the fighting, and believe it is only a temporary respite.

Police have not returned to routine deployment in the South, and remain on standby in greater-than-usual numbers around Eilat and the Philadelphi corridors, in line with recent incidents and intelligence evaluations.

The police view their role in confronting rockets and terror attacks from Gaza and Sinai as semi-military, and work to swiftly contain incidents in Israeli territory in order to allow the IDF to focus its efforts on stopping the attackers on the borders and beyond them.

When Palestinian terrorists fired their first rocket into southern Israel 11 years ago, southern district police had no clear response plan.

“Back then, there were no systems and we working blindly,” said bomb squad unit officer Ch.-Supt. Yigal Turgerman.

Police began locating the remains of rockets based on phone-in reports from local residents. Today, when a rocket lands in the police’s southern district – the largest district, covering 60 percent of the country – a well-oiled machine goes into action.

The improved police response is a reflection of what police officers call the “routine emergency” that has become a way of life for hundreds of thousands of southern Israelis under rocket threat.

“The threat has become much more developed. There are Gaza-made rockets and rockets imported from several hostile countries,” Turgerman said.

“All of them carry warheads of various sizes designed to fall in built-up areas and cause damage and injuries,” he added.

When the air raid siren rings out, bomb squad officers initially respond like all other civilians: they take cover.

Turgerman lives in a village that is well within rocket range. When he hears the siren, he takes cover with his family in a safe room, makes sure everyone in his home is okay and then rushes out to the rocket scene.

“We’re all from the South and we know this routine,” he said. Unlike in 2001, when police had to rely on eye-witness reports to find the rockets, today the bomb squad officers are linked up to the IDF Home Front Command’s advanced radars, which provide precise data on rocket impact locations.

“We don’t have the privilege of having a set response time to rockets. We just have to be there as quickly as possible, because the public is in danger,” Turgerman explained.

Once on the scene, bomb squad officers first ensure that the rocket has already exploded. Then the projectile is examined and catalogued.

If the type of rocket is known, it is added to an ever-growing database. If it is a new type of rocket, a mobile explosives lab is called to the site and an in-depth investigation is launched, which continues back at the bomb squad’s lab.

A report is later composed and sent out to police national headquarters as well as to the IDF and intelligence services.

During times of escalation, as occurred this month, when over 160 rockets landed in the South, other police districts send their bomb squad units to reinforce their southern counterparts. This allows for reasonable response times. Police will also prioritize their responses to rockets that fall in cities, where dangers to lives are far greater.

“This is the response we have developed over the years,” Turgerman said. “At the end of the day, it’s about saving lives.”

Another key element of the response strategy is the fact that police coordinate all of their activities with the other emergency services; Magen David Adom paramedics, firefighters, Home Front Command officials and the intelligence services.

“We go to the scene together with them and hold joint evaluations with their representatives.

We hold joint exercises with the other emergency services almost every month,” said Asst.-Cmdr. Doron Ben-Amo, spokesman for the southern district.

“Building up these connections is very important to the district chief, Cmdr.

Yossi Prienti,” Ben-Amo said. “All the services work like a single fist directed to the scene.”

On a regular basis, Prienti sits down with military and intelligence representatives, and the other emergency services, at his office in Beersheba to prepare the police’s operational readiness. During the meetings, he hears the latest intelligence assessments.

“Our police district has the highest number of problematic borders. We border Gaza, Egypt and Jordan. Whether we like it or not, this requires precise readiness.

This quiet is very fragile,” Ben-Amo warned. “If one Grad rocket falls and the IDF responds, we could be back in an escalation.

Within an hour to two hours, we must be in a different mode,” he added.

Asst.-Cmdr Ilan Peretz, head of the southern district’s operations branch, is the key man responsible for transforming the police’s focus from ordinary crimefighting to a key counter-terrorism force within a few hours.

“We have lived under this threat, like the rest of the area’s residents, for years. Escalations are a matter of time. This is the emergency routine we live in,” Peretz told The Jerusalem Post.

The key to going into counter-terrorism and rocket response mode is to supply every southern police station commander and other senior officials with clear instructions on what to do, he said.

“Take the last terror attack on the Egyptian border fence on June 18 as an example.

We’re used to the fact that in attacks of this nature, the IDF responds and we get into a security escalation. We deploy additional patrol units in cities and the Gaza border communities, and place special police forces in city centers,” Peretz said.

“After an IDF response to a terror attack, our evaluations can end with the conclusion that a national escalation is underway,” he added.

In such cases, volunteers are called up in cities from Eilat to Ashdod, while Border Police forces are also deployed. Traffic Police maintain a higher presence on the roads, according to Peretz.

During times of sporadic rocket fire, the Israel Police maintains jurisdiction on the ground, but during significant military confrontations, the IDF Home Front Command takes control and the police become a tool at the IDF’s disposal.

Asked if all of these measures damage normal civilian crime fighting efforts, Peretz maintained that criminal incidents still receive full police attention. Over the past week, for example, despite the rise in tensions, police raided Beduin areas searching for weapons. Over the past weekend, police cracked down on drunk driving.

“We don’t abandon the criminal front.

We can’t stop serving the public in combatting crime,” he said.

Nevertheless, resources for crime fighting are depleted during heightened tensions.

“Unfortunately, we can’t be in every place at the same time. I can understand a citizen who dials 100 and wants to see a unit arrive because of an attack or because he sees a suspicious person. I don’t think the public is interested in the pressure that the police deals with, and I understand that,” Peretz said.

National police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld added, “The southern district deals with the constant threat of rockets. Our units maintain a rapid response time, thus protecting the public in the South.”

These well-evolved tools seem set to be employed again in the not-too-distant future, as arms continue to enter the Gaza Strip and terrorist groups expand their base of operations in the Sinai Peninsula.

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