MKs grill Franco on yeshiva shooting

Police conduct during terror attack sharply criticized by politicians from the Left and Right.

Mercaz Harav library 224 (photo credit: AP)
Mercaz Harav library 224
(photo credit: AP)
Jerusalem's top cop was in the hot seat before the Knesset's Interior Committee on Wednesday, fielding tough questions from the Left and Right on the terrorist shooting at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem on March 6. Jerusalem District Police chief Cmdr. Aharon Franco presented the results of a formal police probe into the night of the attack, as well as the difficult questions surrounding the police response to a far-right-wing protest in the attacker's home neighborhood of Jebl Mukaber last Sunday. Franco told the committee that, according to the probe, the terrorist arrived at the yeshiva and began shooting at 8:30 p.m. Starting at 8:36, the 100 emergency hot line began fielding calls reporting the incident. By the end of the evening, around 1,100 people had called, terrorist Ala Abu Dhaim and eight people were dead and nine were wounded. Franco said a full two minutes lapsed between the first calls and the time that the first squad car was dispatched to the scene. The police investigation concluded that it was likely that slow response time at the hot line also delayed the response to the incident. The police car containing the patrolman who is at the center of the probe and a young woman carrying out her national service in the police arrived at the yeshiva exactly five minutes later. The policeman halted in the yeshiva's courtyard as his partner went to stop a bus filled with passengers from approaching the area. It was this decision to remain outside the building that drew sharp criticism from MKs on Wednesday. "The patrolman who arrived first at the scene should have pursued contact [with the terrorist]," Franco told the lawmakers. "I expect every police officer who knows that there is killing [going on] around him to pursue contact with the shooter." "The incident will be studied and the demand that police officers 'establish contact' will be reinforced," Franco said. But when asked if the policeman would be disciplined, Franco said that he did not foresee this happening in the near future. "We don't need to take steps against the policeman. He arrived at the scene, studied the incident, and in a short time, a detective officer arrived who was more professional and more experienced," Franco said. The patrolman later said that the terrorist had seen him through the library's window and had fired a volley of shots at him, but that he did not shoot back because he was afraid of shooting innocents. Instead, according to the probe, the patrolman took cover after the shots were fired in his direction. It was then that he encountered two police detectives and IDF Capt. David Shapira as they ran into the building, but rather than joining them, he warned them that they were in danger if they entered without wearing flak jackets. Franco complimented the detectives, saying that if they and Shapira had not entered the yeshiva "and acted diligently while endangering themselves, there would have been more students killed." The patrolman was not alone in failing to pursue the terrorist, according to the police probe. A 61-year-old security guard who was working at the yeshiva failed to do his job and act to save the students, Franco said. The armed guard was stationed at a different entrance from the one used by the terrorist. He thought that it was firecrackers for Purim, but even after he was told that it was a terrorist attack he did not approach the terrorist. Franco also offered new details concerning Abu Dhaim. According to Franco, Abu Dhaim had been involved in criminal activity, including with weapons, and with vehicle theft in the Hebron area but had no convictions. Recently, Franco said, Abu Dhaim become engaged to be married and begun to become more religious. Contrary to earlier reports, the police found that Abu Dhaim, who was armed with an AK-47 rifle with nine cartridges, two handguns and a knife at the time of the attack, had not been employed at the yeshiva. Interior Committee Chairman Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) was not satisfied with Franco's answers, telling him that "this massacre occurred over a very long period of time, and the police response should have been much more immediate. There is an unpleasant taste to the fact that you don't see any problem with the police's performance, and the feeling that you have practically passed this off as commonplace." "If the police had acted differently, we could have had fewer victims," Paz-Pines said. Franco also was criticized for the police response to the right-wing protest march to Jebl Mukaber, in which 22 protesters were arrested. Franco said police had not been surprised by the number of demonstrators, but that they had expected the protests to be "quiet." MK Dov Henin (Hadash) accused the police of hypocrisy, saying they were gentle with the protesters because they were Jews.