(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
At first, it was tense.
When the six-person volunteer Border Police unit found 13 Palestinians sleeping in a construction site in Har Homa Monday night, it was unclear whether they were laborers or terrorists. They can also be "in between" - building these apartments for Jewish families to make ends meet, but also casing the territory and reporting back to terrorist groups about targets and holes in Israeli security.
The members of the unit, commanded by the American oleh Jamie, did not fool around, loudly ordering the Palestinians not to look back at them, to keep their hands above their heads, and not to speak a word as policewoman Ortal guarded them from behind, M-16 at the ready.
After being marched single file down the stairs of the unfinished apartment building, the Palestinians were frisked one-by-one and again ordered to stand in a line facing a wall, in silence, hands above their heads. Only once the police ran the Palestinians' IDs through the computer in a jeep that came to provide back-up, and none were found to be security threats, did the officers ease up on their extreme caution.
This one incident highlights the difficult balancing act the Border Police is asked to perform on a regular basis, juggling the need to protect themselves and Israeli citizens with their own orders and morals, which mostly prohibit them from acting harshly against the illegal infiltrators they catch during every patrol.
In the past, the unit has come under criticism for excessive violence in pursuing its objectives, a reputation the unit is trying to redress.
In this particular unit, their status as volunteers with varying cultural backgrounds (most are olim) contribute to differing philosophies regarding their behavior toward the Palestinians.
The group of 90 volunteers is attached to the Oz Border Police base, whose jurisdiction runs from the Bethlehem crossing to the Old City. They each put in at least 12 nighttime hours per month for their unit.
In their work, the volunteers are increasingly on the frontlines of Israel's efforts to stop infiltration from the West Bank until the security fence around the capital city is complete. It is through Jerusalem that the last suicide bomber, who struck in Tel Aviv last month, is known to have passed, and it is presumed by security forces that this is now the preferred route for many terrorists.
"Israel has always been a country where the citizens have taken care of defense," Jamie said. "The guys love serving and knowing they're doing something for their country."
The Monday night patrol started by setting up a checkpoint on a main street in the mixed Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor.
Aharon, the commander of a separate Border Police unit who joined with this one for the night because of other operations going on around the city, was all business. After a native French officer chatted for a minute with one Arab he pulled over, Aharon gave him strict orders.
"Don't let them out of the car, don't have a conversation with them," he told the officer firmly, drawing a surprised look. "Your job is to be a police officer and that's it."
Aharon, 25, who was once haredi but was kicked out of his family home when he announced his intention to join the army, explained: "We should be nice, we shouldn't yell at them or anything, but we need to keep some distance, otherwise we can't do our job properly."
But Aharon's initial words of respect for the Palestinians were belied by what he later said. When the group of 13 were being individually frisked, a man with a kippa walked down the street and gazed curiously at the happenings. "We're just taking out the trash," Aharon said. "Thanks," the man replied, smiling.
Those words, Jamie said on Tuesday, got Aharon kicked out of the unit.
"That's not appropriate behavior for us," Jamie said, explaining the decision.
During the frisking and check of the IDs, a 21-year-old native Israeli officer named Yael, who was drafted into the Border Police and arrived with the back-up jeep, wanted to let the Palestinian men remove their hands from atop their heads. She was prevented from doing so by Yevgen, a native Russian officer who outranked her.
Why did he stop the sympathetic action? "Look how many of us there are and how many of them," he said. There were eight Israelis and 13 Palestinians. "What happens if one of them starts to jump on us and we get into a fight?" But the police have guns, someone pointed out. "We aren't allowed to use them unless they have a deadly weapon like a gun or a knife," Yevgen said. "Even if they start hitting me, I'm not permitted to use my gun."
It was now midnight and a cool breeze had the Palestinians huddled together against the wall. Though the men were caught around 10:30, it took two hours to process them. While they sat, cold and mostly silent, needing to ask permission to go the bathroom, some of the Israeli officers relaxed, smoked cigarettes, and told a few jokes while they filled out the necessary paperwork. This was a familiar routine.
One of the Palestinians, Gihad Abu Zakar, told this reporter he was staying the night here because he was looking for more clients for his taxi work and got stuck in Jerusalem after 7 p.m., when his permission to be in the area from the Civil Administration ends.
His son, five months old, is in Hadassah-University Hospital receiving treatment for leukemia, and Zakar needs NIS 2,500 every day to pay for the treatment, a sum he cannot possibly hope to earn, since the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health has no money to give him as a result of the economic siege on the PA by Israel and the international community.
Upon hearing the story, two of the native French officers in the unit dismissed it out of hand. "They all have stories like that," one said. "Go ask the others why they are here and you'll hear something about their wife or son, too," said the other.
But further inspection revealed Zakar, 26, was telling the truth. He had the proper document from the Civil Administration, detailing his permission to be in Jerusalem for the purpose of visiting his son at the hospital from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the next month.
"Wow, that's sad," Jamie said, hearing the news. "You know, most of these guys are probably really decent, just trying to make a living for their families. But they can't be here, they're just too much of a security risk."
"Sometimes, I give them the Web sites of places in Jordan that are looking for workers," he added.
This night ended with the Border Police volunteers walking the Palestinians down to the nearest Arab village on the other side of the security fence. But there are many more nights like these to come until the fence is complete.