The sheriff of Sderot

In the shadow of the relentless Kassams, the ever-present Southern District police chief Uri Bar-Lev and his cops are a rare source of comfort and reassurance.

bar-lev 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bar-lev 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Uri Bar-Lev is doing what he tends to do a lot in his spare time recently - cruising around Sderot at 20 kph - when the emergency siren sounds. He instructs his driver to pull over to the side of the residential street, and then he notices a young woman who has stopped her car and is paralyzed with fear, unable to turn off the engine or leave the vehicle. As the first rocket falls in the distance, Bar-Lev leans into the woman's car window, slowly coaxing her to leave the vehicle and take cover in a nearby house. A second later, a rocket shrieks overhead, plunging into a nearby house, but Bar-Lev does not show that he has even heard the boom. Slowly and shakily, the woman, a Sderot resident who has witnessed one too many barrages in recent days, exits the car and is escorted into a nearby house, whose residents have opened their doors to the passers-by. After making sure that the woman is safely ensconced, Bar-Lev gets back into his car and speeds away, arriving first on the scene where the shrieking Kassam has barreled through the house's wall. Realizing that he is the first emergency responder there, he checks to make sure his first-aid kit is ready, scopes out the scene, and crouches down next to the house's owner, who is holding his ears and rocking back and forth in shock. Bar-Lev, the commander of the Israel Police's Southern District, is the face of the police in the western Negev town of Sderot. The citizens see him coming, and leave their yards and stores to say hello to him, to congratulate him on the police's efforts, and to express their support - even love. "Uri, Uri, come look! You're on television!" a group of men at a local barbershop call out to the police chief as he patrols the center of town. Bar-Lev smiles and walks in, watching the Channel 10 broadcast as the barbershop's patrons clap him on his back. Bar-Lev, personable and soft-spoken, has temporarily relocated the district headquarters to Sderot, and so he and his staff officers meet with the local residents - as well as the Sderot cops - every day. "I moved my headquarters here since the beginning of this upswing in violence to serve as a personal example, to the citizens as well as to the police officers. [I wanted] to demonstrate our presence, which is especially important because Sderot is an intimate city." The intimacy in Sderot can be seen on a daily basis, in the interactions between police and residents. "We understand the disillusionment of Sderot residents and we understand that, sometimes, they need to release their stress," says Sderot Station Chief Ch.-Supt. Haim Bublil. A total of 81 police officers live in the western Negev city, and many times when residents hold protests, it is their neighbors, dressed in blue, who are called upon to respond to the disturbances. "When they want to demonstrate, I respect their right and their desire to do so," Bublil says, "and I am ultimately responsible for determining what is the red line of acceptability that they can not cross." Most of the time, he says, dialogue with the residents is all that is needed to keep the demonstrations from spinning out of hand. Even at the most heated recent protests, police officers addressed their fellow Sderot residents by name in mostly successful appeals to maintain a strict doctrine of non-violence. "They know that the police are with them, stuck in the same cauldron. We are here with them, day in and day out. And they value that," explains Bublil. Bar-Lev is sitting in a local caf drinking a milkshake when he hears loudspeakers blaring in the streets, calling on residents to come and protest in front of city hall. He smiles; the noise is coming from the same pickup truck, with a cargo of watermelons and a watermelon drawn on the driver's door, that has been the focal point of many recent demonstrations. It is one of the few vehicles in the town outfitted with a loudspeaker system, intended to call would-be customers out from their houses to buy fruit. After finishing the milkshake, Bar-Lev goes over to the parking lot near the municipality building to check out what's unfolding. "They won't let us hold the protest here!" complains one of the handful of demonstrators, leaning in to the police chief's car window. Bar-Lev explains to him that protesting in the street could cause traffic jams and block rescue equipment should a missile land. He calls over the local police intelligence officer, and after a quick roadside situation assessment, the police and protesters agree to move the demonstration out of the street. After waiting a few minutes to make sure everything runs as planned, and clapping demonstrators and policemen on the back, he is off again. "The work here is special because the residents here are very warm people. They don't just ignore you. Maybe there are a few who yell, but in general, the residents here hold a lot of love toward the police," Bar-Lev says, smiling. Like the rest of the police in Sderot, Bar-Lev has little time to rest while the rockets fall. He begins his days often with the first rocket strike before 7 a.m., and finishes after midnight. He holds meetings with local residents - not just in Sderot, but also visiting the surrounding kibbutzim and moshavs - to understand their special needs. "Here we are representing the government, not just the Israel Police but also the state of Israel. That is the reason that we do much of what we're doing. It isn't really the job of the police job to go to town hall meetings and listen to all of the public complaints, but we're here and so it is important that we do this. The citizen sees in the police the state of Israel. They see in us all of the authorities rolled into one. We are proud to be part of this country, and we're proud to offer solutions," he says. "Even at ten at night, after a long day," says Bar-Lev, "we have local policemen who hear the emergency sirens, get out of bed, throw on their uniforms and run outside, leaving their spouses and their children behind." The morale among police, he notes, is extremely high. Police from all over the Southern District, from as far away as Eilat, have volunteered to reinforce the Sderot station. And senior police officers in the district have used leave days to don the uniforms of street cops, cruising Sderot in patrol cars alongside fresh recruits. In the course of the day, Bar-Lev also takes 10 minutes to tape an interview celebrating the anniversary of the establishment of the elite IDF anti-terror unit Duvdevan. Bar-Lev was the unit's first commander and, from the cramped offices of the Sderot police headquarters, Bar-Lev reflects on the difference between the two roles. "For 10 years or even more I dealt with preventing terrorism. Now I deal with the response to terrorism. In some ways, it is even more demanding. But in the end [in both cases], you meet with people who say 'the bottom line is that we have no other country. We are here. We are staying here.' "This is our real strength," Bar-Lev muses. "Against terror, the deciding factor is not the army - who has better tanks, or more ground forces. The deciding factor is the fortitude of the people. Not just to stay because of economic motives, but also on an ideological level. The most important answer to terror is that statement: 'Nobody is going to force me out of here. Another 1,000 rockets might fall, but I will stay here because it is my home.'" Reinforcing those people, giving them the necessary tools to be able to stay in the bombed-out region, is part of the local police's raison d'etre. And it is exactly because of that presence that Bar-Lev himself has turned into something of a celebrity in the town. Local children ask the omnipresent freelance news photographers who roam the town to take pictures of them with the police commander. As he instructs police officers to roll up their tape barrier, a half hour after the final rocket strike of the night, some of the locals make a beeline for Bar-Lev. "Do you see this? Do you see this?" asks one man, his voice shaking with anger. "The government doesn't care about us! Nobody cares about us." And then his voice becomes a notch quieter. "Except you. I see you. Your police. You're always here. I didn't mean you, God forbid." Bar-Lev gently reassures him that he's taken no offense. As the police chief walks back to his car to return to the station, an older man approaches him. "Listen," this man says, smiling, "maybe you don't hear this enough. But thank you. The police are doing a great job here, and maybe you need to hear that more often. Thank you."