Police failed to prepare for Guardian of the Walls riots, says Comptroller

About 520 outbreaks of violence were reported throughout Israel during the operation, killing three and injuring hundreds.

Violent riots broke out in Ramla last night amid the ongoing violence between Palestinians and Israelis in east Jerusalem. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Violent riots broke out in Ramla last night amid the ongoing violence between Palestinians and Israelis in east Jerusalem.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

The State Comptroller found "noticeable deficiencies" in the operations of law enforcement in mixed cities before and during the widespread violence that broke out during Operation Guardian of the Walls last year, according to a report released by the comptroller's office on Wednesday.

The report was published in two parts with one part dealing with the police's conduct during Operation Guardian of the Walls and the second part dealing with municipal services for Arab residents in mixed cities.

The report examined the operations of police in Lod, Jaffa and Acre during the riots. About 520 outbreaks of violence were reported throughout Israel during the operation, killing three, injuring hundreds and leading to about 3,200 arrests, including about 240 Jews. About NIS 48 million in damage was caused to civilian property and about NIS 10 million in damage was caused to police property.

"The violent riots during Operation Guardian of the Walls revealed significant deficiencies in the operations of the police and in the interface between police and the Shin Bet. These deficiencies severely harmed the most basic personal security that Israeli citizens are entitled to," said the comptroller on Wednesday.

"These events brought to the surface existing tensions between the different population groups and testified to the need to take actions at the national and local level to create a respectful and common public space and to prevent the recurrence of such events. These events also illustrated the challenges of maintaining personal safety and ensuring public order in the cities involved and sharpened the need to examine the aspects of policing and law enforcement in these cities."

Violent riots broke out in Ramla and across the country amid the ongoing violence between Palestinians and Israelis in east Jerusalem. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)Violent riots broke out in Ramla and across the country amid the ongoing violence between Palestinians and Israelis in east Jerusalem. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, a mixed locality is one in which a significant majority of Jewish residents lives alongside a significant minority of Arab residents. There are nine such localities in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Ramle, Lod, Ma'alot-Tarshiha, Nof HaGalil and Neve Shalom. About 1,970,000 residents live in these localities, including about 500,000 Arabs.

"Mixed cities are part of the Israeli landscape, and are a microcosm of the entire Israeli society, in all its complexity," said the comptroller on Wednesday, stressing that the prime minister, public security minister and the Israeli government, police and Shin Bet must pay attention to the central issues mentioned in the report.

The comptroller recommended that the police and Shin Bet work to improve their operations in mixed cities during standard operations and increase their preparation for extreme events, such as the May 2021 riots.

The comptroller's report stressed that while police were aware of the possibility of riots flaring up in a pattern similar to the riots which broke out during Operation Guardian of the Walls and had even defined this threat in detail and expressed it in operational plans, they failed to respond appropriately once this threat was actualized during the operation.

Law enforcement focused on Jerusalem, leaving rest of country understaffed

In the days leading up to the Guardian of the Walls riots, Israel Police and the Shin Bet placed an emphasis on reinforcing the Jerusalem district while ignoring other areas where violence ended up breaking out. On May 10, 2021, about 1,400 police officers were assigned to the Jerusalem District, including 524 from Border Police, drawing forces away from other districts.

While ahead of the operation the Shin Bet identified a trend of rising tension in the Arab sector and insisted on the potential risk of an outbreak of violence, including clashes between Jews and Arabs in mixed localities, the agency also assessed that these events were local and placed the main emphasis on Jerusalem.

"The Shin Bet, like the police intelligence, did not provide a warning about the Guardian of the Walls incidents; nor did it form a reflective intelligence picture regarding the strength, scope and severity of the events that broke out. It also emerged that in the Shin Bet's activities in mixed cities during the Guardian of the Walls events, it encountered operational difficulties due to coordination problems with the police," said the comptroller.

When the violence broke out during the operation, about 57% of the Border Police forces in Lod were not available for the Central District. In total, only about 25 policemen were present in Lod and only 58 policemen were present in Acre when the violence broke out in May 2021. These officers were neither equipped nor trained to deal with riots.

The report also found that stations in Lod and Jaffa were understaffed, with half of the unmanned units at these stations being patrol units. Police in mixed cities rely heavily on reinforcements, extensive activity by mission headquarters, police officers who are temporarily stationed at these stations, volunteers and Israelis doing their national service in the police. The officers were also lacking the equipment needed in order to respond to the riots.

It took law enforcement two days of violence before the command system formulated a situation assessment reflecting the scope and strength of the situation, leading to a delay in the formation of an operational response and the deployment of forces that could deal with the riots.

Reserve forces were only fully deployed a week after the initial directive for the deployment of reserve forces was issued, with the comptroller lamenting that this "practically negated the possibility of using the reserve forces to deal with the disturbances in the time period when they were most needed, in the first days of the events, when the scope and intensity of the incidents were at their peak."

Citizens calling police were met with a dial tone

Police failed to respond to thousands of calls from residents of mixed cities during the riots, with about 2,800 calls to the 100 police hotline in Lod between May 11 to 13 not receiving a response. Another about 4,000 calls were answered but did not receive a relevant police response, according to the report.

"The 100 hotline failed in its role in the event, when its best performance was required more than ever. In this state of affairs, there is a considerable harm to the sense of personal security of citizens. Against this background, among other things, local organizations of residents and other factors developed to deal with the events," said the report.

'Significant functional deficiencies' in police intelligence

During Operation Guardian of the Walls, "significant functional deficiencies" were found in the police's intelligence system, in the exercise of its responsibility to provide warnings about incidents, in its ability to form a reflective intelligence picture before and during the events and in its ability to stream relevant information that would have enabled effective handling of these incidents.

"Deficiencies concerning the building of the intelligence force and its operation harmed the police's preparedness and ability to deal with the incidents. The police intelligence system did not present a significant forecast regarding the events that broke out outside of Jerusalem in general and in mixed cities in particular. Police attention was directed mainly to dealing with events in Jerusalem."

At the police stations in mixed cities, it was found that four intelligence coordinators from the Lod station, four from the Jaffa station and three from the Acre station did not speak Arabic. Nine intelligence coordinators at these three stations had not entered Arabic language training courses.

"This situation may directly affect their ability to perform their duties optimally, since about a third of the residents in these cities belong to the Arab population, and in any case a significant portion of the intelligence information will be in the Arabic language. In these circumstances, not knowing the language can lead to deficiencies in the intelligence picture," stressed the report.

The comptroller's report pointed out that while police had started using a central system for extracting open source intelligence from social media in 2018, in 2020 they were forced to stop using it after they failed to extend the contract for the system and failed to purchase a broader system due to budget gaps. The system was only reinstalled near the end of Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Due to this lack of a central system, police were forced to mostly rely on manual collection for open source intelligence, meaning they were limited in aspects of the scope of information, locating sources and understanding network connections.

Additionally, despite the Shin Bet and Israel Police having written procedures on the division of intelligence collection and assessment responsibilities in the field of public order between the two agencies, the relevant parties in both the police and the Shin Bet were not familiar with the procedures.

While the number of arrests was already low compared to the number of rioters during the operation, the number of indictments filed was even lower, with many cases being closed without indictments due to difficulties in collecting and analyzing evidence.

"It should be clarified that the shortcomings and gaps that emerged in this audit do not diminish the appreciation for the dedication of the Israel Police officers and their commanders, the soldiers and commanders in the Border Guard and the Shin Bet personnel, who work under difficult conditions, while taking risks and self-sacrifice, to maintain the safety of people and property and to enforce the law," stressed the comptroller.

Police welcome report, say many issues have already been addressed

Israel Police stated on Wednesday that it welcomed the comptroller's report and would work to implement the recommendations mentioned in it, adding that a "significant portion" of the issues raised by the report have already been examined and addressed.

"Israel Police officers are constantly working to protect and faithfully serve all citizens of Israel, and to provide them with equal police services regardless of origin, religion, or skin color, and this was also the case during the 'Guardian of the Walls' operation," said police. "During this time, the police operated with increased forces all over the country, in order to prevent incidents of violence and disorder, with the aim of saving human lives and maintaining the safety and security of the entire public."

Police's failures and social inequality 'two sides of the same coin'

The NGO Abraham Initiatives stressed that the part of the report dealing with the police's handling of the riots and a second part released in parallel concerning municipal services in mixed cities are "two sides of the same coin."

"As those who are intimately familiar with the reality in the mixed cities, we saw the gaps with our own eyes.

The Abraham Initiatives stressed that the situation of Arab residents in mixed cities is "immeasurably worse" than the situation of Jewish residents, adding that this may explain part of the causes of the severe tensions that erupted in the riots in May 2021. The NGO emphasized that national tension and the feeling of alienation of Arab citizens from the state may also be a factor in the tensions.

"The state must also pay attention to this matter, and we reinforce the state comptroller's position that action must be taken to create a sense of belonging for the Palestinian citizens to the state," said the NGO.

The failure of police to respond to the basic needs of Arab residents of mixed cities creates a "deep feeling of deprivation and alienation from the city" and their inability to respond during the riots deepened these feelings, leading them to "seek to take the law into their hands."

The Abraham Initiatives called for the state to invest in police and for police to work intelligently and hand-in-hand with the communities in mixed cities. The organization added that further investments must be made to address severe gaps in mixed cities.