Extreme measures

Since becoming Jerusalem police chief last May, Nisso Shaham has made increasing law enforcement in haredi neighborhoods his priority.

Jerusalem police chief Nisso Shaham 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem police chief Nisso Shaham 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Two weeks ago, two journalists from haredi (ultra-Orthodox) news websites were questioned about signs depicting Jerusalem Police chief Nisso Shaham as Hitler during a demonstration earlier this month in the capital’s Mea She’arim neighborhood. At that protest, a small group of haredim wearing concentration camp uniforms and yellow Stars of David held up signs that read, “Adolf Shaham, fresh arrival from Berlin.”
The two journalists, Yaki Admakar from the website Behadrei Haredim and Yishai Cohen from Kikar Hashabbat, published photos the demonstrators had used, showing Shaham dressed in a Nazi uniform; police questioned them to figure out who was behind the initiative. One of the results of the investigation, besides the arrest of suspects (two young haredi men, residents of Beit Shemesh), was a rise in threats against Shaham. This led in turn to increased security around him, including patrols near his home, though the police chief refused to have a personal guard following him 24 hours a day.
At a High Court of Justice hearing in October for City Council member Rachel Azaria’s petition regarding gender segregation at last Succot’s Simhat Beit Hashoeva festival, Shaham told Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch that during his tenure, “Mea She’arim has ceased to be extraterritorial, but a part of the State of Israel and hence its laws will be implemented there, too.”
He also announced at the time that within a few days, Egged bus No. 1, which had been banned from the haredi neighborhood for over two years, would come back (the residents of Mea She’arim refused to let a bus that was not gender-separated drive through their streets).
“Are the police taking back control of the casbah of Mea She’arim?” asked a journalist present at the hearing, to which the police chief repeated with a thin smile, “Mea She’arim is no longer extraterritorial.”
Shaham has been changing the rules of the game in the city. If before his arrival there were neighborhoods that the police avoided entering, those days are now over. Though he has been careful not to seem critical of the previous police chief, Shaham has expressed his determination that the police must operate in all areas on several occasions, like at the High Court hearing. Asked if this new, firmer policy wouldn’t lead to harsh reactions, Shaham agreed only to say that difficulty was not reason enough not to launch it.
Besides Mea She’arim, this new policy could result in more demolitions of illegal constructions in the Arab neighborhoods. According to a recent report by the head of the construction permits at the municipality, Ofir May, no demolition orders were issued during 2011 in the Arab neighborhoods located beyond the security fence, because the police did not provide escorts to the municipal inspectors who are responsible for implementing the orders.
Mea She’arim, Silwan and Isawiya are only some of the “sensitive” neighborhoods in which, for the past few years, residents have felt that not enough, if anything, has been done to combat nuisances like drug dealers, violence and other crime. Shaham, according to police sources, has tried hard to make clear that with him in charge of the city’s security, things will no longer be the same. These sources have confirmed that unlike in previous years, police forces are back in neighborhoods they avoided since at least the intifada, such as Isawiya and Silwan, as well as in Mea She’arim.
Although he has met with satisfaction from various areas of the city, Shaham has also sparked anger and even hatred – not only among extremists in the haredi community, but also among settlers in Judea and Samaria and Jews who live in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. At the 2005 disengagement protest in Kfar Maimon, which drew thousands of demonstrators, Shaham, then a deputy chief for the northern Negev District, was caught on camera telling his men in regard to the protesters, “Let them burn, s*** on them all.”
The harsh words were broadcast, largely on Channel 10, and he apologized. However, he was fined and received a demerit in his personal file, and his advancement in the police was halted for a while.
Nonetheless, police sources say there was never any intention to freeze his career or force him to leave the police. In May 2011, he was appointed chief of police in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, and since then, it seems that Mea She’arim and other haredi neighborhoods have been his primary focus.
Though a small but noisy minority in the form of the extremist Sikrikim group sees Shaham’s presence in Mea She’arim as a red flag, there are many in the haredi community who sincerely and even openly express their satisfaction. Few in the haredi leadership have dared, until recently, to say so out loud, but it is hardly a secret that before Shaham’s arrival, there was a feeling that what happened inside Mea She’arim didn’t concern the police.
“These people [the Sikrikim] are so violent that I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we’ll see a man hanged in Shabbat Square,” says Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head and founder of the ZAKA rescue and recovery organization “We will not see law and order in Mea She’arim as long as the police won’t go in there and do their job,” he adds. “Until now, it’s as if we don’t interest them at all, as if we’re not part of this country.”
SHAHAM HAS refused to be interviewed, but some of those close to him and within the police have agreed to try and depict his credo and explain his positions.
The only thing Jerusalem Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby would tell In Jerusalem was that the police chief “made it clear right from the first day of his appointment that Mea She’arim is
part of the State of Israel, and as such, the laws of the country will be enforced there, too, as we do in any other neighborhood, whether it is Rehavia, Kiryat Hayovel, Beit Hanina or Isawiya.”
At least regarding Mea She’arim, facts on the ground during the last few weeks support this declaration. For the first time in the neighborhood’s history, haredi men, some of them high-ranking members of prominent sects, have been arrested, others have been banned from the city for long periods, and last Succot, despite arrangements made by some members of the Toldot Aharon Hassidic sect, there was no gender segregation in Mea She’arim.
BORN IN 1958 in Kiryat Hayovel to parents who had immigrated from Egypt, Shaham studied at the capital’s Denmark School, served in the IDF’s Golani Brigade and participated in the Litani military operation in 1978. In January 1979, he enrolled in the police and served as an undercover agent in the Jerusalem District, then among the Beduin in the Negev and in the Gaza region, bringing hundreds of smugglers and drug dealers to justice. This earned him a high distinction.
In 1982, he was sent back to serve in Jerusalem as head of the undercover unit, which he was the first to establish and use to frame perpetrators of serious crimes.
In this position, he managed to uncover and bring down the local Jewish terror group TNT (an acronym for “terror against terror” in Hebrew), which was responsible for a series of violent acts against Christian and Muslim institutions in the city.
But his most famous period was as commander of holy sites in the Old City during 2001-4. During that time, both Jewish residents in the Old City and Palestinians nicknamed him “Mr.
Temple Mount” for his ability to reduce much of the violence at that sensitive site. In July 2007 he was appointed deputy chief of the Jerusalem District (after the High Court of Justice rejected a petition from settler organizations to cancel his nomination), and in May 2011, following former Jerusalem Police chief Yohanan Danino’s nomination to head the Israel Police, Shaham was appointed to fill his shoes.
WHETHER IT was planned in advance or decided in light of the growing violence in Mea She’arim, something has changed in police activity there.
Last September, a day before the aforementioned High Court hearing, the police, heavily armed and equipped against stone-throwing, burst into the neighborhood early in the morning, closed down its market and arrested Motel Hirsch and Yoelish Kraus – two of the most extreme and outspoken members of the Natorei Karta and Eda Haredit groups – on suspicion of attacking neighborhood residents who refused to pay them “protection money.” Hirsch, the son of the late Palestinian member of Parliament Moshe Hirsch, one of the fiercest anti-Zionists in the Eda Haredit, and Kraus, better known as the organization’s “spokesman and field operator,” were ordered to stay away from Jerusalem for six months.
“That was the first move, soon to be followed by more actions of this type,” City Council member Yossi Daitch (United Torah Judaism), himself a Mea She’arim resident, said this week.
“Hirsch was suspected for a long time of having led the violent attacks against a bookstore in the neighborhood – officially because [the vendor] was selling books that the Eda Haredit didn’t approve of, but in fact, [according to] the investigation, because he wanted to obtain money to fund the activities of the Sikrikim, of which he is a prominent member,” Daitch continued. “These people are few, but they are very violent and the worst is that they don’t obey any rabbi or spiritual authority; we’ve lost control over them.”
The next move came a few days after Succot, when police shut down an illegal slaughterhouse that Kraus owned in the neighborhood and that had been a nuisance to neighbors for years, though they had never dared to complain to the police. The police took all the necessary steps to shut the facility down completely, sealing its doors and disconnecting it from the electricity to prevent any attempt to open it again.
“By then, the message was clearly received,” says a source in the police. “Residents of Mea She’arim realized that the rules of the game had changed and that from now on violence and law-breaking would not be tolerated anymore.”
One neighborhood resident recalls that “on the eve of Succot, all the preparations for a total gender separation during the [Simhat Beit Hashoeva] festival were displayed, including the private guards hired for that matter. No one expected that the police would be so eager to prevent it, based on last year’s example.”
The police determination to open the street took people by surprise, the resident admits.
And indeed, during the High Court hearing, when Beinisch asked Shaham how he planned to ensure that democracy would be preserved in the haredi neighborhood, he answered that “there is no need for a High Court ruling, because I plan to keep Mea She’arim open and without any gender segregation at all anyway. That’s what I am preparing my men for, and that’s what is going to be there.”
Asked how he planned to deal with the rising radicalization there, he told this reporter at the end of the High Court session that even the small segregated corridor he was allowing the Toldot Aharon sect to enter their synagogue during the holiday was going to be his last gesture.
“Next year, I give the residents of Jerusalem my word that even that will not be allowed,” he said. “People will walk freely in the streets of Mea She’arim, and there will not be any gender segregation on my watch.”
Since then, there have been more arrests among the Sikrikim, and while some of the reactions have been harsh – like the sign depicting the police chief as a Nazi officer – the police’s attitude toward Mea She’arim has dramatically changed.
“After all, we are the first to suffer from these extremists,” notes Daitch. “The vast majority of the haredi residents do not share their goals or their methods, but that was the police’s duty, to install order here.”
One of the methods used to reach this result was the use of a double-track dialogue.
“We have [maintained] an open channel among the police, the municipality – which gives strong support to the police – and the moderates among the haredi leadership for quite a while,” explains Ben-Ruby. “The police are well aware of the fact that only a small portion of the residents of Mea She’arim are using violence, while the majority of haredi society just wishes to live peacefully and lawfully. So we are very careful not to fuel the public conflict between secular people and haredim in the city.
The police’s task is to prevent violence and law-breaking anywhere in this city, including Mea She’arim.”
One of the innovations Shaham has brought in is the involvement of other parties in police activity. In the case of Mea She’arim, the police work in close collaboration with the Tax Authority and try to catch the Sikrikim through their unlawful financial activities. Two weeks ago, police conducted a large operation that ended in two more arrests, in conjunction with teams from the Tax Authority and the municipality.
BUT WHAT seems to be working for the residents of Mea She’arim does not necessarily work for Jewish residents in east Jerusalem neighborhoods.
“The police are always tough when it comes to Jews,” says rightwing activist Aryeh King. “It’s so easy to be tough with haredim, with Jews who wish to live in Jerusalem – but when it comes to Arabs, to enforcing the law against illegal construction in an Arab neighborhood, the same police are absent.”
King, the director of the Israel Land Fund, says he hasn’t asked for a meeting with Shaham, assessing that it would not help anyway.
However, he adds that all the cases of obvious illegal construction are “well known to the police and to chief Shaham, and yet nothing is done to prevent or stop it.”
According to King, repeated acts of illegal construction, vandalism (mostly at the Mount of Olives cemetery) and the ongoing use of the Old City’s southern exterior wall below the Temple Mount as an illegal Muslim graveyard have not been handled, despite repeated complaints to the police.
“It is no secret that I was opposed to [Shaham’s] nomination,” he continues. “I even submitted a petition to the High Court, but I lost.”
He adds that every time he has asked the police chief why he doesn’t order illegal Arab structures destroyed, the answer has been that it is the municipality’s prerogative.
However, Eldad Rabinovitch, a resident of the Silwan neighborhood’s controversial Beit Yehonatan building and a member of the Ateret Cohanim organization, says that a distinction has to be made between the incident at Kfar Maimon and the facts on the ground.
“What we see on the ground is a police chief who is not afraid to enter these neighborhoods and send in his men when needed, and [who] has brought back some order here and in general in the streets of Jerusalem – that’s the only thing that really matters in our eyes today,” he says.
Meanwhile, City Council member Meir Margalit (Meretz), who holds the Arab residents’ portfolio, says that for the moment he doesn’t see any change in the police’s activities in Arab neighborhoods.
“The Arab residents suffer a lot from crime – drugs and prostitution – but while middle-aged people wish to see more police action, probably because they are afraid for their families and children, the young people, who are more militant, refuse any cooperation with the Israeli police,” he says.
In fact, he adds, policemen are rarely seen in east Jerusalem. “It is only Border Police, which is, in a sense, ridiculous, since Jerusalem is under Israeli sovereignty.”
Jawad Siam, founder of the Silwan Alternative Information Center, agrees that for now, there is no apparent change in police activity in his neighborhood.
“Police keep arresting kids accused of throwing stones at settlers’ cars, but we haven’t heard about a heavier hand on drug dealers, which is a serious problem here,” he says.
While he believes that all the Palestinian residents in Silwan or any other Arab neighborhood would like to see police crack down on the level of crime there, Siam personally doubts the police have an interest in doing so.
“Perhaps they think that way we will not have the time or the resources to oppose the Jewish colonization of east Jerusalem,” he says.
According to Ben-Ruby, the police are conducting various operations in the Arab neighborhoods – some openly and others undercover – according to the demands on the ground. However, he reiterates that “what matters is that the principle is clear: There are no more locations in Jerusalem where the police will not be present.”