What can US learn from Israel’s military experience with riots

Over the years Israel became more proficient at dealing with clashes, from using heavy handed tactics to trying to minimize clashes and reduce contact between security and rioters.

National Guard assist the Philadelphia Police Department in controlling the area near City Hall and the Municipal Services Building during a march by protesters against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania June 1, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/BASTIAAN SLABBERS)
National Guard assist the Philadelphia Police Department in controlling the area near City Hall and the Municipal Services Building during a march by protesters against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania June 1, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/BASTIAAN SLABBERS)
The US is increasingly using the National Guard as protests spread across America. US President Donald Trump encouraged governors to “dominate” the violent protests that rocked US cities, and he has suggested using more military units. Israel has effectively combined police and some military units over the years to confront protests and riots. While many would not point to Israel’s experience as a positive example to be followed, because they see it through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in terms of tactics and strategy there are lessons to be learned.
Israel has rarely had to confront large scale violent rioting within its borders. With some exceptions – the Wadi Salib riots in 1959, the October 2000 riots in Arab-Israeli communities – Israel usually has to deal with isolated clashes from different communities ranging from bedouins, left-wing student activists, Ethiopian anti-racism protests in 2015, and clashes with ultra-Orthodox sects.
In Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israel more frequently had to confront extensive protests and rioting over the last decades. It also confronted mass marches on the border of Gaza in 2018 and 2019. Over the years Israel became more proficient at dealing with these clashes, from using heavy-handed tactics during the First Intifada, to trying to minimize clashes and reduce contact between security forces and rioters.
When dealing with violent protests in the West Bank, Israel has become used to dealing with flash points, usually areas where the demonstrators gather such as near Kalandiya or the so-called DCO entrance to north Ramallah. The general method in these clashes is for security forces, usually consisting of a mix of Border Police and the army to document the protesters using drones and other methods and then use force to break them up quickly and not allow the protesters to gain ground or grow too large. Use of undercover security forces is used to target instigators and particularly aggressive perpetrators.
It appears Israel has gotten better over the years at reducing the number of casualties in these clashes. This is accomplished partly by not allowing them to become a running melee where security forces and rioters are entangled, which leads to the chance that errors will occur or that isolated security forces will have to rely on more force. Israel also seems to have gotten better at using tear gas effectively and a mixed strategy of holding forces back to reduce tensions and then using overwhelming force at a key moment when necessary.
Israel has often had a problem in the West Bank in that its regular army units who are trained for conventional war sometimes end up dealing with rioters and running after youth throwing rocks. This reduced the effectiveness of the IDF during the Second Intifada and Israel paid consequences in 2006 against Hezbollah. Israel has outfitted its Border Police units with the best riot gear and also increased the abilities of its Yasam special riot police units.
Protests and riots in Israel have sometimes gotten out of hand. During the summer of 2014, after the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, rioters took over parts of Beit Hanina in east Jerusalem and the area was essentially lawless for days, with train stations being vandalized.
In addition, the experiences with the anti-racism protests of 2015, involving many Ethiopian youth yielded mixed results. The protesters that year adopted some of the strategies of the anti-racism protests in the US. However, some heavy-handed tactics in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv led to less than ideal results, injuring police and Israeli citizens. Positive examples from those nights of violence could be seen when Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat came out to the streets to speak with the protesters and walking among them.
There is no magic wand to deal with peaceful protests that degenerate into riots and looting. The thin line that separates the two can sometimes be the throwing of one brick by a protester, or the use of one errant tear gas canister by police. We’ve seen recent riots in Iraq and France that have included legitimate grievances, lead to violence by both sides. Inevitably the central issue in a standoff will be whether the police and protesters identify with each other. More violence takes place when security forces see the protesters as an enemy and when the protesters despise the security forces.
Effective riot control is a system of knowledge that is shared between forces. Israel has shared its experience with police and security forces in other countries. This is because Israel faces unique and complex challenges and has gone through a learning curve. This sharing of information has led some pro-Palestinian activists to argue that US police use methods borrowed from Israel, as if Israel is at fault for US police killings of unarmed black men. That is not an accurate portrayal of the relationship. If anything, Israel’s increased ability to reduce harm to protesters and rioters is one of the lessons-learned. Israel wants to reduce tensions and end the cycle of violence that have gripped east Jerusalem and the West Bank. It doesn’t want increased contact between riot control units and riots. It wants short contact.
Israel has also learned from experience to not try to cannibalize all its army and regular police units to turn them into riot control units. It has learned that these groups are being used in the wrong way when they are sent to a mission that is unusual.
If the US can learn from that it can learn that military units and many police units are not good at controlling riots. Their presence may even increase tensions. That doesn’t mean they can’t be effectively used to do many things, such as patrol areas and show a presence and protect people and property. A more effective use of them is to use them that way while trained riot police, using good intelligence, take on looters and the most violent instigators. To do that they need intelligence. One thing the US could learn is to gather intelligence better during the day to see where riots may be at night and not use a broad sword to go after a threat that essentially requires a more precise instrument.


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