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Blazing through a clear blue sky, the helicopter sweeps in low over the green brush-filled fields outside Ashdod. Peering out the windows, Ch.-Supt. Nir Lapid and his navigator scan the area for their target, who is also being pursued by reinforcements on the ground.
With its propeller blades slicing the air, the helicopter dips in for another sweep of the terrain as a cool breeze penetrates the turboshaft engine of the seven-seater Bell LongRanger. The two police officers search for a suspected traffic criminal who has just fled from police on a three-wheel dune buggy and is hiding in the thick brush.
This is the kind of work that the Israel Police Helicopter Unit is doing now: patrols along Road 3 between Kiryat Malachi and Ashdod, searching for dangerous drivers. Backed up by undercover cops in unmarked cars on the highway, the helicopter hovers above the road, following convoys of cars, waiting to catch the next driver in the act of commiting a crime.
The unit, established in 1992, has increased from just two operational craft to six two of which it just received from the IDF three months ago, at the direction of head of Police Operations, Cmdr. Berti Ohayun.
The Jerusalem Post recently accompanied the unit for a day, to see how those aircraft were being put to use.
While keeping Israel's skies safe is the primary job of the Air Force, the police helicopter unit plays a key role not only in keeping Israel's roads safe from traffic offenders but also in apprehending top criminals and Palestinian terrorist cells. In contrast to the Air Force, where non-attack Bell helicopters are mostly used to transport top officers to meetings across the country, for the police they are a vital crime- and terrorism-fighting tool.
The unit participated in the police operation sealing off Jerusalem during Yasser Arafat's funeral, assisted ground forces during the three-day standoff with protesters in Kfar Maimon in the run-up to the Gaza evacuation, and participated in the recent search and capture of the Perinan brothers suspected high-profile murderers.
It was also active during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, clocking over 370 flight hours while patrolling the open fields along the Gaza border and directing ground forces to apprehend right-wing activists marching on their way to infiltrate the Gush Katif settlement bloc.
And, during the upcoming month of Ramadan, the unit will patrol the skies of Jerusalem every day.
As Asst.-Cmdr. Oded Shemla, the head of the unit, explains: "Whenever there is a big police operation, you can be sure that we are up in the air above."
Shemla, a 40-year-old former IAF pilot, like the rest of his 30-man crew, owes the establishment of his unit to a bank robber. In 1991, Roni Leibovitch dubbed the "Ofnobank" drove police crazy after he committed over 30 armed bank robberies in the Tel Aviv area. Following each robbery he would flee the bank on his motorcycle and disappear without a trace.
Police, who found themselves under immense public pressure and criticism for continuously failing to apprehend the thief, hired a civilian helicopter, which they put on 24-hour alert on a Tel Aviv skyscraper. Leibovitch was ultimately caught thanks to the helicopter, which discovered how he repeatedly succeeded in evading capture: When he fled the scene of each robbery with his motorcycle, he would drive a block to where he had parked a van, in which he would load the bike and then drive away.
"Following Leibovitch's capture, the police finally understood how important it was to have an independent helicopter unit," Shemla said. "Today, the entire police force understands our indispensability."
The unit currently has three branches one in the north and another in the south, with the main base, which it shares with Yamam, the police's SWAT unit, right outside Ramle.
While Shemla keeps in touch with other aviation units around the world, he is aware that the Israel Police unit is one of a kind despite its small size. "We are unique compared to the rest of the world due to our involvement in fighting terror," the father of three says. "While in America, the police are local or state, we are responsible for covering the entire country."
Lapid knows exactly what Shemla is talking about. After spending most of his military career ferrying IDF generals from meeting to meeting, the 36-year-old father of two says that law enforcement service is much more action-packed.
"With the police you the pilot are sometimes the only factor between catching a crook or a terrorist and him getting away," he says following a two-hour flight out searching for traffic offenders.
Just three weeks ago, on a late-night flight up north, Lapid received a call about an armed robber who had fled the scene of the robbery in a van but then switched to a Toyota sedan. Lapid picked up the suspect's trail and directed ground forces from the air until he was caught.
"The feeling is great," he says. "Especially when you know that without you up in the air the guy never would have been caught."
But there are times that, even while up in the air in a powerful helicopter, a pilot can feel helpless. In 2002, Shemla recalls, he received a phone call from one of the Yamam officers updating him about a hit-and-run car accident right near the base at the Nahshon junction.
"We immediately flew out to search for the perpetrator who was driving a red Fiat," Shemla said. "At first I thought it was just an accident and that he ran away but then I saw him turn around, go back into the junction and run over a group of soldiers."
While Shemla admits there was probably nothing he could have done to stop the car, in retrospect he lives with a sense of guilt. "It took a while to understand exactly what was going on," he says. "In hindsight, maybe I should have lowered the helicopter to try to deter the driver from plummeting into the junction."
But the unit has had several unbelievable successes in combating terrorism and even assisting in the capture of suicide bombers. In March 2001 at the beginning of the Intifada a police helicopter led Yamam forces to a house in Taiba where several suicide bombers were holed up. In the end of the raid, one terrorist was arrested and four were killed.
"It was the first time we had to deal with suicide bombers," Shemla recalls. "We stayed up in the air for 24 hours and were on the lookout for the ground forces while feeding them pictures of the scene they could not see from the ground."
Since then, Shemla and his crew have thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks. But for the aviation unit, part of their work is adapting to the new reality that Israel's diplomatic process with the Palestinians has created including the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the construction of the security fence in the West Bank.
"Not long ago," Shemla says, "I used to do a run over the seam line every morning. But since the construction of the security fence there is less of a need for our patrols in that area."
Adapting to new realities is what has led the helicopter unit to its latest innovation in the aviation crime-fighting field: the operation of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in police operations. Criminals, Shemla explains, have gotten used to the chopping sound of the helicopters and for that reason he has begun looking into more covert means of surveillance.
"For now we are just experimenting," Shemla admits. But the general direction, he says, is that UAVs are necessary to ensure police keep the upper hand when it comes to their opponents, the criminals, and to keep up what the aviation unit has been doing since it was established keeping tabs on the country from up above.