Police stage biggest ever riot drill

Before Tzehilim exercise, Border Police chief warns Acre rioting will happen again in other mixed cities.

Tzehilim riot drill 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
Tzehilim riot drill 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
From a distance, it resembles any Arab village, complete with minarets, oriental architecture and narrow alleyways. But in reality it is the Tze'elim urban combat training zone in the western Negev. On Thursday, the largest police drill in Israeli history took place there. Seven thousand officers descended on the site to face a host of continuous simulations of mass Arab rioting, shooting attacks, hostage situations, attacks by extremist Jewish gunmen, and attempts by a mob of hundreds to break through a Gaza checkpoint. Police have received intelligence on plans for a mass push through a Gaza checkpoint, a senior Border Police source told The Jerusalem Post. During the drill, police disguised as Arab rioters shouted "Death to the Jews" in Arabic and "Allahu Akbar," as loudspeakers in the background carried a muezzin's call to prayer every half hour. Arabic graffiti scarred the walls, and burning tires and torched cars peppered the "village." On Tuesday, at a press conference held at the Border Police's Jerusalem headquarters, police planners ominously had told journalists that all of the scenes on display could easily materialize into reality. "These are not imaginary scenarios," said Cmdr. Bentzi Sao, the head of the Israel Police's Operations Branch. "The Gaza cease-fire is soon ending, and this is certainly an event that can trigger disorder." "Can the rioting of Acre happen again? It will happen again. It will happen in Jaffa, Ramle, Lod and other mixed cities," Border Police chief Cmdr. Yisrael Yitzhak warned. "We have no concrete intelligence on mass incidents in the coming days, but we can't stay aloof to global incidents," Sao added, pointing to the recent mass rioting in Athens and Paris. In addition to the end of the cease-fire on Friday, police fear that a riot at the Temple Mount or a planned march by far-right extremists in Umm el-Fahm could set the country on fire. "Our first challenge is on a state level, in which democracy is threatened," Sao said. "The police inspector-general [David Cohen] said 2008 is the year of disorder drills," Yitzhak said. "We need to stage this on the ground, not give textbook answers with no field practice." Two days later, Cohen seemed a general watching a battle in progress, looking on as hundreds of officers in full riot gear deployed to deal with "Arab rioters." Police beepers flashed nightmarish scenarios every few minutes. At 7 a.m., Palestinian security prisoners rioted at the Ketziot and Meggido prisons, resulting in deaths and injuries. At 8, there was a shooting attack at Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market. A police officer was kidnapped in Nazareth, and riots erupted on the Temple Mount. Jewish extremists threw a pig's head into Jaffa's Hassan Bek Mosque, triggering riots (this scenario is based on a real attack on the mosque in 2005). At 9:20, arson attacks were reported in Jaffa, while riots broke out in Taibe, where a police commander was kidnapped by a mob. Police anti-terror and negotiation units were "sent in." At 10, Beduin in Rahat closed off a central artery in the South. "Following an incident in Gaza in which the IDF fired on a building resulting in 30 casualties, Arab rioting has broken out at six locations across the country," said Lt.-Cmdr. Amos Yaakov, commander of the Ba'ad Border Police base and a planner of Thursday's drill. "Jews and Arabs are fighting in various locations, and reports of road blockages in Wadi Ara are coming in," he added. As he spoke, dozens of policemen dressed as Arabs threw tennis balls (meant to represent rocks) at officers in riot gear. A police truck with water cannon dispersed the crowd before officers on horseback moved in. Meanwhile, planners threw in a number of surprises. As riot officers dealt with a hostage situation at the Umm el-Fahm police station, shots rang out. A lone gunman had opened fire on the officers. Police simulated a return of fire. The gunman dropped dead, placing a sign on his chest that read "dead terrorist." As police dealt with a riot sparked by a far-right march in the town, two Jewish gunmen wearing tzizit suddenly appeared. Shots rang out as the gunmen opened fire on a girl's school. An Arab mob rushed forward with a roar to lynch one of the gunmen. The second Jewish gunman remained holed up in the school. The police's challenge: to neutralize the gunman and prevent the mob from entering the building. The scenario was heavily influenced by the shooting attack carried out by AWOL IDF Pvt. Eden Natan Zada in Shfaram in 2005. Fifty-four police officers were injured (for real) during the drill, the vast majority suffering light wounds that were treated on the spot, though one officer broke his hand. Police planners stressed that the injuries were no surprise considering the number of officers involved in the highly physical drill. Four police were lightly injured when their vehicle turned over in a ditch. They were airlifted to hospital. "The Israel Police is much more prepared to deal with mass disturbances and rioting now than it was this morning," Cmdr. Bentzi Sao said when the drill was finished.