The landscape of Israel is so thick with memorials to fallen sons and daughters that you almost feel that if you stacked them all, you could build a staircase of marble, concrete and metal far beyond the clouds.
On February 3 a new name was added to the list of fallen when 19-year-old Border Police officer Hadar Cohen was killed in a terrorist attack at the Damascus Gate, just two months after she enlisted in the service.
Another Israeli in uniform cut down while still a teenager, another family left in shambles.
There’s an extra aspect to Cohen’s story that has heaped controversy onto the tragedy. Cohen and another female officer were patrolling the worst hot spot of the “stabbing intifada” before they had finished their basic training, and commanders confirmed after the attack that they were deployed after only the bare minimum of training. The two were sent to the Damascus Gate as part of a three-officer patrol led by a more experienced male commander, although he was only a couple of years their senior.
Cohen and her fellow recruit were quite literally thrown directly into the fire, into perhaps the most dangerous spot in Israel in recent months, and faced one of the most difficult attacks of the wave of terrorism – a combined assault by three attackers armed with guns, knives and pipe bombs.
Since terrorism intensified in earnest late last year there have been around 2,000 Border Police officers deployed to Jerusalem to patrol the city, as well as reinforcements of police from across the country. The question – or accusation – that has been posed to police is why, with all of that seasoned manpower, were these two teenage girls thrown to the wolves at Damascus Gate? Why couldn’t they have relieved more seasoned officers serving at sleepy corners in west Jerusalem? These are relevant questions, and should be answered, but they seem perhaps short-sighted.
While Damascus Gate has been arguably the most dangerous spot (although parts of Gush Etzion or Hebron may have it beat), there is ultimately nowhere on the home front that is not the front line when security personnel are facing an intifada of attackers who strike randomly in civilian areas across the country.
Also, as dangerous as Damascus Gate has become, it’s worth remembering that it has remained popular with tourists and civilians all through this period of heightened terrorism, and is only a short walk from areas where Jewish Israeli families walk with a far greater feeling of personal security.
Furthermore, when are officers supposed to get this baptism of fire? If it were a month from now or three months from now, would Hadar have lived? Would she have fought off the attackers without being mortally wounded, or would she have accrued the know-how to approach the terrorists in a way that would have subdued them before they launched their attack? The Border Police often prides itself on being Hashahpatz shel hamedina – the bulletproof vest of the country. Anyone who enlists in the Border Police knows they will be sent to highly dangerous, unglamorous assignments where they are a buffer between civilians and those who seek to harm them, all while serving in an oft-maligned force where the hazards don’t pay off in prestige.
Other than the officers from their mistarvim undercover unit, Border Police don’t operate in the shadows – they are out in the open, specifically in locations of serious friction between the Palestinian civilian population and Israeli authorities, places like Damascus Gate.
HADAR AND her comrade wounded in the attack are ultimately much like countless other Israeli youths sent into terribly dangerous situations only months after they stopped being civilians – and before they stopped being teenagers.
Take, for instance, the 13 soldiers of the Golani Brigade’s 13th Division who were killed in Gaza City’s Shujaya neighborhood on the night of July 20, 2014 during Operation Protective Edge. Of these, at least six were inside a lightly armored, Vietnam-era M-113 armored personnel carrier that was hit by an anti-tank missile fired by a Hamas fighter. They had no chance, and were most likely killed instantly.
Most of the 13 were 21 years old or younger, including two who were as young as Hadar and her colleague. All of them were young men sent into a neighborhood Hamas had turned into a fortress of attack tunnels and heavily fortified homes full of fighters. Some had been in basic training only months earlier, and were sent into a lethal environment with insufficient tools at their disposal. Like Hadar’s family, their loved ones deserve answers too.
Many people feel an extra measure of pain and loss when the young person cut down in the line of fire is female. There is often more outrage about the loss, more questioning directed at commanders.
This is perhaps understandable, but ignores the fact that in the Border Police women are constantly deployed to these front-line positions, where they face the same threats as their male colleagues.
After her death, the condolences came in from the entire senior police leadership, as well as from Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Hadar was praised as a hero who helped fight off the terrorists and saved the life of her comrade, Ravit, a 19-year-old new female recruit like herself.
There is no reason to doubt the official account of the terror attack or how Hadar conducted herself. However, after tragedies like this, the tales of heroism feel at times like a salve hastily thrown on a devastating wound in an attempt to ease the pain. In this case, there’s also the feeling that the praise of her conduct may be partly an effort to stave off public criticism of the decision to deploy her to Damascus Gate so early after her enlistment, the implication being that, since she was a hero at judgment time, she was not sent to the fire too soon.
There may be comfort taken in knowing that a loved one died a hero, but it can’t change the fact that they’re gone, or that like Hadar, that their lives were taken before they had truly begun. The writer covers crime, African migrants and security issues for The Jerusalem Post. His blog can be found at www.benjaminhartman.com
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