Prepared for the worst, hoping for the best

As the Palestinians’ planned statehood bid looms, 7,000 specially trained riot police are on standby in the event of major violence.

Riot Police 311 (photo credit: Israel Police)
Riot Police 311
(photo credit: Israel Police)
There appears to be no concrete intelligence pointing to a likelihood of violent mass riots erupting after the Palestinian Authority submits its request to the UN General Assembly for statehood recognition in September, but the Israel Police has nevertheless been quietly preparing for the worstcase scenario.
Over the past several months, planners at the police’s Operations Branch at national headquarters in Jerusalem – headed by Cmdr. Nissim Mor, an experienced bomb squad officer – have been watching incidents of mass violence around the world, from the destruction and looting in London to the events taking place in the Arab world, in order to study how small events can quickly snowball into major incidents.
After months of preparation, evaluation and training, senior commanders believe the police force is now ready for any scenario involving an outbreak of violence linked to the Palestinian statehood bid.
The majority of contingency planning is based around Jerusalem, though plans are also in place for mixed Arab- Jewish cities and known flash points in the North and South.
The planning does not reflect any prior intelligence, but simply a need to be prepared for all possibilities.
Following the October 2000 Israeli Arab riots in the North, during which 13 rioters were shot dead by police – a response that police brass today recognize as a major failure – police have set up 16 special command centers around the country that are specifically tasked with training and mobilizing riot police, and ensuring that disturbances are quelled swiftly, without the use of lethal force.
Each command center is in charge of 300 officers, creating a national response force of 4,800 officers ready to deal with large-scale disturbances. During quiet times, these officers carry out their daily duties, and take part in special training courses. During flare ups, they are sent in to quell riots.
The riot police are backed up by a further 2,000 officers who are currently being trained as a reserve anti-riot force.
As soon as police planners conclude that an incident has the potential to turn into a large-scale riot, large numbers of officers will be mobilized to the scene to prevent the incident from spiraling out of control.
To that end, the Operations Branch has set up a special body, headed by Lt.- Cmdr. Meir Ben-Yishai, which has drawn up scenarios and training programs.
Planners at the Operations Branch believe riot police should be well armed with non-lethal crowd dispersal means and receive good protection, including horses, vests, shields and helmets, to increase their sense of security. The more secure an officer feels, they believe, the less likely the officer is to resort to lethal force in a riot situation.
Such measures have also been called for by the Or Commission, which was set up to investigate what went wrong in the October 2000 riots.
The police’s Technological Development has therefore developed a number of new crowd-dispersal means to add to the usual measures of tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades.
New non-lethal weapons include the “Skunk” liquid, which lets off a repulsive smell and sends rioters scattering.
The liquid has been used effectively in Bil’in in recent years, and has decreased injuries among police caused by stonethrowing.
There is, however, a ban on using it in holy places, to protect the sensibilities of worshipers.
Another means is the “Shout” system, which broadcasts an unbearable sound and causes rioters to run for cover with their hands over their ears, but does not injure them in any way.
Mor distinguishes between local and national incidents, and has drawn up police responses to fit each category.
In any major national incident, police brass will take control of the decision-making process, and the full arsenal of anti-riot equipment will be put to use.
“Unlike Syria, where the army deals with riots, in Israel, as a democratic and liberal country, the police are responsible for coping with disturbances. Even in places where the IDF is sovereign, when a public order event unfolds, like the disengagement from Gaza, the Israel Police leads the mission and not the army,” Mor recently told the Marot Hamishtara (Police Views) magazine, an internal police publication.
Since the jurisdictions of the IDF, the police and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) can overlap, it is worthwhile to define the term “police jurisdiction.”
According to the accepted norm, the IDF has full operational sovereignty along the country’s borders, and is responsible for dealing with any threat emerging from beyond the national frontiers. But the moment a national security incident unfolds within the country, the police take charge of the response in the affected area.
Hence, while the air force is responsible for dealing with rocket fire on the South from Gaza, it is the police who track down the site of a rocket impact zone inside the country and manage the scene.
The same working model applies to responses to mass rioting situations.
During Nakba Day in May, the IDF was tasked with stopping Syrian Palestinians from crossing the border on the Golan Heights, and police rounded up those who had succeeded in entering.
The police also arrived in large numbers at the village of Majdal Shams to end rock-throwing at soldiers by local residents.
“The police are supposed to be the IDF’s support [in border areas]. We must be ready to deal with those who cross borders, and with local residents, too,” Mor said.
This working arrangement is also in place in areas situated near the Green Line.
In the West Bank, Judea and Samaria Police operate in Area C, where Israel retains full security control and where settlements are located. Area B is jointly policed by Judea and Samaria and Palestinian police, while Area A, where the large Palestinian cities are located, is off-limits to police.
In the meantime, the police’s preparations have drawn to a close, and the Operations Branch is now on alert for the first sign of an incident that could trigger larger events.
Though police officers are still allowed to go on leave, they have been asked by their commanders not to leave the country in September, just in case.