'We don't see a third intifada on the approach'

Border police commander at Tomb of the Patriarchs talks about delicate task of patrolling "powder keg" site.

Border police commander Taliya Shaanan 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Border police commander Taliya Shaanan 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
A middle-aged Palestinian man waits behind a metal gate on a deserted stretch of road in Hebron, during a break in a blistering cold rainstorm earlier this month. Several meters away, two border police officers take shelter inside a small cement post, the same site where a month earlier 17-year-old Muhammad Salaymeh was shot to death by a female border police officer, “N.,” after he pulled a toy gun and punched one of her fellow officers.
Though N. has now been reassigned outside of Hebron, little else has changed in the past month – a couple of officers man the checkpoint, controlling vehicle and foot traffic in this part of the mixed Palestinian- Jewish city.
For border police chief at the Tomb of the Patriarchs Cmdr. Taliya Shaanan (which also includes checkpoint 160), the shooting was nothing out of the ordinary, just another in a long line of incidents in this powder-keg city in which patrolmen under attack have used deadly force.
“My first responsibility is to protect my fighters. She [N] did exactly what she was supposed to do – someone who comes to hurt us will be hurt, and she reacted in kind.”
Shaanan said the event was a sensitive one, and that for a few hours the Islamic Wakf authorities cut off communication and stopped cooperating with the border police and the IDF in the area, but eventually after a few hours things got back to normal, because “they [the Islamic authorities] know not to push things too far.”
Though the day after the event was made notable by riots that continued for hours across the West Bank, and the shooting was seen by many as having the potential to spark a new round of violence in the West Bank, Shaanan said that the event was not a unique one.
When asked why the story of N.’s use of deadly force attracted so much media coverage, and why she was showered with such praise by the heads of the border police, Shaanan said it was “because it happened during a sensitive time, but also because of the positive way she responded.”
He said the attention the story received was not because N. was a woman, or because of some effort to attract more enlistment by women, saying “we have enough female fighters, and we’ll always attract female fighters,” adding that the Tomb of the Patriarchs Border Police unit has 12 female fighters and one female officer among its 225 officers.
The incident at checkpoint 160 happened at the end of a week of repeated reports of IDF soldiers being chased out of West Bank villages by rock-throwing Palestinians, and one story reported on Ynet – though denied by the IDF and police – where an undercover border police unit was exposed by Palestinians in a village in Jenin, and had to abandon its mission and flee.
The reports were analyzed by Israeli talking heads and pounced on by politicians in elections mode as being a sign that the IDF had lost its deterrent power in the West Bank partly through “having their hands tied” in dealing with Palestinian rioters.
Others remarked that the nearly daily events in the West Bank hinted that Israel could potentially be facing a third intifada, an analysis that Shaanan dismisses.
“We’re not talking about a possible third intifada here. The fact that there are cost-of-living protests and disturbances in the Palestinian Authority doesn’t mean that we see a third intifada on the approach. We do see people try to carry out terror attacks because of frustration, but what is printed in the media and what actually happens are two different things.”
Still, he admits that “every incident that happens here can become international.”
No greater example of the Hebron tinder box exists than the massacre in 1994, when Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein walked into the Ibrahim Mosque and gunned down 29 unarmed Palestinians and wounded over a hundred before he was disarmed and beat to death by the surviving worshipers.
Shaanan gives a play-by-play of the shooting, pointing at the spot in the Ibrahim Mosque where Goldstein stood and began unloading clip after clip of his Galil assault rifle into the worshipers.
Shaanan points to the spot in the corner where Goldstein was eventually overpowered by the crowd, meters away from where three members of the Wakf huddle around a coffee pot seeking shelter from the rain outside.
The massacre was a watershed event for Israel as a whole, and in particular for the daily operations of the Tomb of the Patriarchs complex.
No longer did the two sides overlap with one another, and serious measures were put into place to separate the two. These included barriers, checkpoints, and a metal wall running through the middle of the complex.
The border police under Shaanan today have the delicate task of, in his own words “ensuring religious freedom for both sides, and maintaining quiet for them as well,” a task that requires allowing both sides to have access to the entire site on their major holidays, a division that calls for compromise when Jewish and Muslim holidays overlap.
For Shaanan, a 48-year-old Galilee Druse and father of three, the border police isn’t what critics decry as a paramilitary occupation force abusing Palestinians and preserving the status quo in the West Bank, rather, it is an essential line of defense ensuring Israelis can live a normal life, and that no acts of terror by Palestinians, or by Jews, will spark a new wave of violence. Furthermore, to Shaanan, the diversity of the border police is a model of how other Israeli organizations and Israeli society as a whole should operate, with Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druse serving side by side.
Shaanan said that over 300,000 people visited the holy site in 2012, without any major international incident, even as he counted some 52 arrests of Palestinians carrying knives in or around the complex.
Keeping the peace also requires a rather peculiar ritual for Shaanan, where he walks to the office of the Ibrahim Mosque imam, deep inside the Jewish half of the complex, and escorts him through the synagogue to the mosque for prayers.
The commander said that though there are always extremists looking to disrupt the delicate balance, “both sides understand that they have a lot to lose if there is another major terror attack which would force us to close the site.”
Shaanan added that the border patrol in Hebron is under the command of the IDF in the area, and that in addition to their other duties, they are meant to be “the right hand of the army in Hebron.”