Anything but routine

Lt.-Cmdr. Nir Mariash thinks that after 59 years, Israel's police force is up to par.

nir mariash 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nir mariash 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Lt.-Cmdr. Nir Mariash could have been the middle-class Israeli everyman of his generation. Born to Holocaust survivors, he "left kibbutz" together with his parents as a boy, and served for almost a decade in the IDF before giving up on the military for a BA from the Technion and a job in his father's factory. But the veteran officer in the Israel Police's Northern District is anything but everyman. He is even exceptional among his peers - after all, how many of the Israel Police's top brass can boast an MA from Harvard University, fluent English, and the high-energy pastime of distance running? But it was not the degree or the impressive track record during his first three-and-a-half years as Haifa Station Chief that pushed Mariash into the limelight. Instead, it was what he wryly describes as the "dessert" five months before he was set to finish his post in Haifa - the Second Lebanon War - which made the tall and soft-spoken police chief a national name. The War Mariash emphasizes, within his first sentence describing the events of this past summer, that "it is important to say that the police planned for the war. The police were very ready. In every intelligence assessment, we got overviews of what kind of missiles they had, how many missiles they had in their arsenal, and I think that anybody who had eyes in their head knew that at some point, missiles would fall on us. Maybe we didn't think it would be in so many numbers, maybe we didn't know it would be so massive, but we knew that we would be attacked." Fortunately for police and municipal responders in Haifa, the port city had already been coached for a different sort of disaster, with parallels to the situation in July. "The municipality received a budget from the JDC and we decided to produce, together with the mayor, a program concerning the preparedness of Haifa in the case of an earthquake." Haifa, with its refinery and its ammonia pools, has long been identified as a seismic hotspot, as it sits on the Yagur fault line. "We worked with the municipality and led a workshop during which we got to the point where everybody really knew what their jobs were. Like in an earthquake, not every official can call and find out what his job is. People need to be prepared and know without receiving instructions." On July 13, one day after the attack at Avivim, the first missiles fell on Haifa. By coincidence - it had been planned long in advance - a refresher course was held on the morning after the kidnappings of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser for the teams who had been trained in earthquake response a year earlier. Hours later, the first missile landed in Haifa's Stella Maris neighborhood. The police, under Mariash's direction, began working in a pre-planned format following the strike, increasing patrols and setting up "overlooks"- observation sites at high points from which "scouts" could pinpoint the locations of missile strikes, before emergency calls were even placed. Mariash stationed "the most experienced, oldest detectives at the overlooks, because they know the city and its roads better than anyone. They could tell us exactly where the missiles fell." One of those policemen, a veteran detective named Izzar, refused to leave his post at Haifa University for the duration of the war. The university overlook "gave us a very specific picture of where the missiles were falling," and Izzar understood the vast responsibility of his position. "This man didn't leave the post for 30 days. At the end of the war, he developed a disability - a disease - in his legs from standing so much. He didn't stop standing. After the war, he was in the hospital for a month." Mariash says that such acts by police officers were common last summer. "Police officers would work all three shifts during the war. They'd work two shifts and then they wouldn't want to leave to go home to rest." But despite the preparation and the devotion of the police, Mariash still had not foreseen what was to follow. On Sunday July 16, three days after the first strike, a barrage of missiles landed in the Haifa Railway Depot, killing eight. "That attack generated a revolution in our assumptions. It was an incident which changed my entire outlook. We were "accustomed" to dealing with terror attacks. We know how to fight and prevent bombings. We work with the Shin Bet, we use checkpoints, we do dozens of things. Suddenly, in this case, in an attack like this, seven, nine huge missiles are falling on us at once. In all of the other places, the missiles are falling and are barely wounding people, but in Haifa, eight people are killed." Mariash searched for a way to minimize such incidents in Haifa. "In this situation, as police, you can't take preventative action. You can't stop the missiles. What we could do were two things: We could first of all teach the public how to protect themselves. We needed to take leadership of the public, to tell them what steps they need to take and we needed to provide help as quickly as possible." Mariash and city hall enlisted the help of Radio Haifa. Broadcasting throughout the day, and particularly in the confusion following rocket strikes, the station offered Haifa's citizens instructions on how to protect themselves. "The public understood that the people who were talking to them - usually it was me or my lieutenant [Asst.-Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer, now Operations Commander for the Northern District] - were addressing them from the midst of the incident. That the person talking to them had just heard the same explosions, was in the same environment, really knows what's going on - and wasn't sitting in "The Hole" [IDF command bunker] in Tel Aviv." MARIASH COUNTS those instructions among his key achievements during the war. "I have no doubt that the talk - and we do know from places that were hit - that because of the raised awareness of the public, many lives were saved," he says, face earnest. He continues ticking off instances in which residents survived direct hits by following directions to gather in the south sides of their houses. The focus on quick response time also paid off - and in the end, became one of the most important lessons of the war for the police. "There is an amateur movie on the internet. On the movie you see the guys wandering around their neighborhood with a camera. They hear the sirens - and the camera keeps rolling - they run to a stairwell, and then you hear the explosion - strong - near them. You hear them cursing, and then running outside to see the damage with the camera. The clock on the camera is rolling, and within a minute and a half you already see police in the frame, evacuating the casualty. I teach a bit and lecture in the US and my colleagues there don't understand how the police work that way. Especially after the incident that was in Virginia [the April 16 shooting at Virginia Tech], they don't understand how our police respond so quickly." But with the end of the war came the end of the grace period in which the police were temporarily the among the country's heroes. "The war ended and we returned to daily life and once again, the police are responsible for everything wrong," Mariash says with a wry smile. The Police Mariash says that he understands the way in which the police easily become the scapegoat for the country's problems. "I know that the public doesn't like the police in the same way that we didn't like our teachers. We don't like people who give us boundaries. The police give us the boundaries of the law. They tell us that we can't drive too fast, that we can't be too loud, that you can't smoke drugs." "And people have criticisms, but the police must ultimately take care of everything that gets left over. We end up dealing with the youth who have left educational institutions and turned to crime, with mentally ill people who are kicked out of institutions when they're closed, and with homeless people and drug addicts and alcoholics for whom the other systems in the country don't offer a solution. In the end, they fall at our doorstep. But the police don't have anywhere to push them off to, and so in the end, we end up taking care of them." But despite the general feeling that the police force has hit an all-time low in public opinion, Mariash argues that the police in Israel are still - and perhaps more than ever - the "thin blue line" - or, as he says, the "flak jacket" of the nation. "The police are one of the most important bodies for security and independence of our country. First, because the police maintain the social order as well as the democracy, which is one of the highest values in our country. As a senior police officer I have absolutely no doubt that wherever there is no law and nobody maintains the law, there is complete anarchy and lack of order…. And that's just talking about classic police work, about the police that catches gangsters and criminals and thieves and conmen - both private as well as those in the government," he offers, in a pointed barb following a year in which scandal followed scandal among Israel's elected representatives. "In all kinds of places where other systems fail," he reiterates, "ultimately the police will become involved. Whether it is failure of the educational system - from parents and through to the schools - it ultimately gets to the police's doorway. Or when the state doesn't manage to defend its citizens from rocket strikes, it is the police officer who has to come and reach the civilian who has been hit by the missile." It is that very role that drew Mariash - almost accidentally - to the police after he finished eight years of service in the IDF. He says that his place as part of "the last flak jacket for society" is "a very comfortable position." While a student at the Technion, Mariash began to work part time for the police force, serving as a neighborhood commander of Haifa's tony Denya, an area known more for its flashiness than its felons. "I discovered that there are drug addicts and there are criminals and there are people who live in fear all their lives from gangsters and people, families who live in fear from one of the parents, these are things that I hadn't seen or really heard of. And this was something that kindled Zionism in me. That is to say, I left the army to work in my dad's factory and planned on having a comfortable life. But in some place I connected deeply to what the police do and it rearranged my head. I thought 'maybe I left the army, but now I'm doing something no less important." Twenty-seven years later, Mariash is no less enthusiastic regarding the demands -as well as the goals - of police work. "The army spends most of its time planning for war. During routine, you are planning for war and practicing, whereas the police are in a state of war 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The police cannot rest for an instant. If we rest one day, the drugs and break-ins begin again stronger. We don't even have to rest to feel it. It is enough that if the police are operating in one area, then 'they' immediately attack the place I just left. The police must always be dynamic and always fight. And that also fits me. People who don't like routine need to join the police," he smiles. The Galilee The abrupt change from Haifa Station Chief to the commander of the Galilee Subdistrict was one of those moves that guaranteed a break in routine. "The Galilee may be only 30 minutes from Haifa, but it is another world." As opposed to crowded Haifa, much of the Galilee population is located in villages and communities. The majority of its residents are non-Jewish minorities, and it boasts one of the widest arrays of ethnic and religious groups of any of Israel's regions. "Our country is made up of a mosaic of its citizens. And the Galilee is maybe the most dominant in that field," Mariash smiles, before launching into a discussion of what he describes as the "special" concerns of his district. Among the concerns, Mariash lists agricultural crime and all of the "traditional" police issues, as well as more exceptional concerns including interfamily feuds that involve anything from knives to shoulder-launched missiles, internecine conflict, and murders carried out in the name of "family honor". "As police, we are a leading body in ensuring that everyone is equal. There must not be a situation in which someone is denied services because he belongs to a certain community or religious group. Everybody gets the same service so that all the residents will see us as their police," Mariash explains. One of those services, he says, can even be acting as human shields to keep the peace between rival families who use handguns, rifles and LAW rockets and petrol bombs in their efforts to emerge victorious. "During a certain conflict between a Beduin family and a Christian family in the same village, we stood out in the winter cold, night after night, with the [elite] YASAM [unit] in the middle, in order to maintain the peace. That was during the period of the strongest criticism of the police last year, at the time of Benny Sela and Ta'ir Rada. And I said to myself, 'nobody knows about this. Here are two groups of people who want to kill each other and we are standing here in the middle, sometimes even with the two parties shooting around us." The work with so many minority groups involves close ties with community leaders, with whom Mariash and his officers meet on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis. SOMETIMES the balance between working with tradition while maintaining law and order seems particularly tenuous. Police in the Galilee often work to bring about 'sulhas' - mediated resolutions between the parties. But at the same time, they are also insistent on prosecuting the offenders according to the criminal code. This last aspect is occasionally problematic, as forgiving past crimes is often a key aspect of the sulha. In addition, the police are frequently among the closest contact that many Galilee residents have with government agencies. "We are a sort of Wailing Wall because many of the residents here have complaints about what they do or don't get from the government. In many meetings with residents, they direct towards us all the complaints that they have against the way the state treats them." But the challenges facing the Galilee Subdistrict are not restricted to the wide spectrum of cultures present throughout the region. As Israel's northernmost subdistrict, the area, which was hard-hit by war, also faces the disadvantages of an area that many see as 'out of sight; out of mind.' "We are located on the periphery of the country, and of course, people on the edges are perceived as weaker. Of course it influences life here. I see the impact primarily on the subject of infrastructure - and particularly the roadways." Mariash is reminded of this parity almost every day. "Forty percent of Israel's deadly crashes are in the North. It is because of the infrastructure - there is a difference when the roads are such that if you accidentally fail to pay attention for an instant, it is the last mistake you will make in your life. In the center of the country, you get distracted, you maybe crash into a wall or something. Here, you fall a dozen meters. If it's like that on the roads, I believe it's like that with the other services as well." But nevertheless, Mariash remains optimistic as to his ability to help his subdistrict grow and flourish. When asked about his plans for the future, he says without pause that he hopes that the police give him the opportunity to complete his current position before whisking him off to another post. "I would really like to see every resident of the Galilee able to say, "this is my country and this is my police. I would like everyone to feel that they can trust their police…. In the end, I would like to have to spend my time doing what 'regular' police forces have to do, chasing after thieves."