Reflections of an Israeli police officer

The terror and carnage I witnessed, as a first responder for such a long time, was something that, at the time was not spoken about at all, not discussed or communicated with work peers or family.

Marc Kahlberg (right), commander of the Tourist Police, with Insp.-Gen. Shlomo Aharonishki (left) and top police officers after the Park Hotel bombing in 2002 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Marc Kahlberg (right), commander of the Tourist Police, with Insp.-Gen. Shlomo Aharonishki (left) and top police officers after the Park Hotel bombing in 2002
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My reflections of the terror I witnessed in Israel between 1999 and 2006 are embedded in my mind like a Hollywood movie that no one wants to watch. My recollections are a personal reflection, that for a long-time fused anger, distress, depression, fear, guilt and resentment into one action-packed surreal scenario.
As a police detective from the sleepy town of Arad in southern Israel, advancing to Tel Aviv and then Netanya, my reality was filled with many different professional contrasts and emotions, depicting what I, today would describe as “covert chaos.”
I had fulfilled a childhood dream and immigrated to Israel from South Africa. I believed I knew everything I needed to about this wonderful country’s establishment, its wars and the terror that took place even before I was born.
My story documents the emotional and personal life of a South African-born Israeli police officer working through the turmoil and violence of organized crime, human trafficking and without any doubt, the most extreme and violent terror that a human being can witness.
The behind-the-scenes events of policing the terror in Israel was forced upon me. I witnessed the aftermath of 16 gruesome terror attacks of carnage and bloodshed. Some took place on my shift as a first responder and some on my watch as the commander of the Tourist Police in Netanya. I have vivid memories of the bloody body parts still moving in final moments of the victims’ lives. The smell and other terrifying visions of bloodshed still linger in my mind and will always haunt me.
The deception, pain, lies, silence, humiliation, suffering and heartache, are all portrayed in detail in my mind more than 20 years later, as tangible evidence to what was, and what today allows me to cherish life and my family.
My story is one that may not serve as a trigger for critical conversation between generations to come, nor will it be one that will create echoes of these past events that are too painful to discuss or even accept. Events that have largely been forgotten by most. I believe that this period of Israel’s existence be taught to our children and future generations as part of our unique history.
In order for our children to live their dreams, they need to be made safe first, but they also need to know and understand about our history and about our future, as understanding history allows us to correct our mistakes for the future.
The terror and carnage I witnessed, as a first responder for such a long time, was something that, at the time was not spoken about at all, not discussed or communicated with work peers or family. It was recorded only in official written reports, never publicly documented or revealed. As a soldier first and then a police officer I was always bound to an official code of silence, and my inner, more emotional code of silence.
During those years of constant chaos and specifically in 2001 and 2002 while the bombings and shootings were almost a daily affair, there were no social media, no digital technology and the main stream media reported extensively on the attacks themselves, but never covered the immediate, daily lives of those of us who faced the carnage, death and horror, that left us scarred mentally and certainly traumatized.
I felt lost in a world where compassion, feeling and sensitivity meant nothing. I was expected to and I did, simply carry on functioning no matter what. There was no emotional way of expressing my anger, my fear, compassion, or anything personal at all.
What was once called “the land milk and honey,” blossoming in growth, advancing in development is still constantly on alert and still under attack from both overt and covert enemies. Today’s added aggravation and tension come in the form of a stealth killer pandemic known as COVID-19, and in the form of cyberattacks that can also take the lives of innocent people and so much more.
Israel, indeed, has a colorful story of a non-fictional account, of a defiant stance in a struggle for the most basic civil right of all, the right to live.
If you ask me what kept me alive in my career as an Israeli police officer and before that as a soldier in the South African Defense Force and thereafter in the IDF, I would have to say it had a little to do with skill and training and everything to do with exceptional luck, a naturally developed sixth sense, the instinct and reactions of a fast back-line rugby player and many miracles.
In breaking an unwritten code of silence, after 20 years, my testimony of terror began long before I became the commander of the Netanya Tourist Police unit, which operated as a unique and highly skilled undercover detective intelligence unit, without anyone except a handful of senior officers knowing. Not even the policemen and women or volunteers, who served with commendation, knew. I worked closely with an officer of the Israel Security Agency as well as an elite Border Police unit, for which I trained on the job, and indeed the general public, from the street cleaner and municipal gardener to the grocery store manager and the CEO of the biggest corporate in the highly populated commercial district of Southern Netanya.
Our mission, without ever saying so openly, was to detect, delay and deter any form of terror at any stage of the planning of a terror attack within the sensitive areas of Netanya, such as the Commercial and Industrial areas, the schools, the synagogues as well as the main promenade where Netanya’s beautiful coastline always provides some of the best sunsets in the world.
In 2000, I had already completed two extremely challenging police intelligence and detective courses and was awarded a citation as the exemplary graduate of each course. Prior to the courses, I also co-established an elite intelligence unit in Tel Aviv that focused on serious crime within the tourist and foreign workers community.
My philosophy was to use the street wise instincts I acquired while growing up in the city of Johannesburg, while making good use of the additional knowledge the IDF and the Israel Police Academy had provided me. The courses were informative, professional and provided me with a basis for the legalities of policing correctly and professionally. There was however no replacement for actual on the ground “learn-as-you-work” education and the Israel police senior command understood this all too well as our training was mostly in real time scenarios doing real time work.
I was always against the use of unnecessary forceful policing, even when at times it was extremely necessary in attempting to save lives and I fully believed in and trusted the power of my street wise capabilities, wit and natural instinct to assist me in protecting the Israeli public that I was sworn to serve and protect. In hindsight, I believe that these traits were what motivated me to go to detective school in the first place.
All of this was long before I found myself in the eye of a “level five” storm of terror attacks in the form of suicide bombings – “homicide bombers” as the US police fraternity prefers to call them. These attacks, on a daily basis and with such human carnage were the likes of which had never been seen before in Israel.
I am not sure what the statistics are on how many people face death in their lives by a suicide bombing, but I am sure that I am or at least was a statistic in my own right. I was present and active in 16 brutal terrorist attacks. Dealing with the crime scenes were basically always the same, follow protocols, allow the professional units deal with specifics and so on, but each terror attack had a different feeling, a different smell and mood and each one left me with a very disturbing consequence, that at the time, I had no idea as to what consequence that was.
I have almost been killed a few times and perhaps faced my own mortality more times than I care to remember; but I never spoke about these life-threatening events with anyone, not a sole, that is until I met US Army, Lt.-Col. Allen West, a former member of the House of Representatives and current chairman of the Texas Republican Party. We met on a training event at the first “Safe City” Conference that my company MK International Security Consulting Ltd, co-organized with the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute. This was done with the support of the Industry, Commerce and Labor Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Union of Local Authorities in Israel, in 2009.
Allen West was an inspiration and a motivator to me, a person who had obviously seen a lot of carnage himself and someone who, perhaps without him even realizing, brought me out of what was a deep state of depression and post traumatic effects that I was unaware of at the time. My gratitude to Allen West is immense and will always be remembered.
In every terror attack, I saw blood and carnage in ways that are hard to describe. I sometimes recognized people I knew or had seen previously that were killed and physically torn apart or terribly wounded.
Many of these experiences are too difficult to describe, but I will carry the images forever in my mind. I was present at too many of these events of terror; at times, I was covered in blood and debris from these savage attacks.
Detective Marc Kahlberg (right) is congratulated by (from left) Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki, Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau and Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg after creating a successful secure zone at the end of 2002 to prevent further terrorist attacks in Netanya (Courtesy)Detective Marc Kahlberg (right) is congratulated by (from left) Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki, Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau and Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg after creating a successful secure zone at the end of 2002 to prevent further terrorist attacks in Netanya (Courtesy)
AT THE Park Hotel, on Passover Eve of 2002, my own heart felt like it had stopped. On that rainy night, I became exposed to a life-altering event. The 27th of March 2002 changed my life forever. It was the night I asked myself if God had disappeared. It is ironic that on this night, Jews all over the world were preparing to commemorate freedom and the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt into freedom.
I was anxious to get home after an 18-hour shift that culminated in the arrest of a potential terror suspect we found in a small hotel in Netanya’s Independence Square, just hours before. Preparations were underway at home for the impending feast and the opportunity to be with my family.
Meanwhile, in a nearby Arab village, preparations for the same evening had been made to destroy and kill people and their lives and any hope of real freedom or peace.
It was no sooner than literally sipping on my first glass of much needed wine at the Passover dinner that I received a hysterical call from the duty manager of a hotel next door to the Park Hotel. She screamed that there was a blast so loud that the buildings around her shook and that the ground had rattled. She begged me to come as fast as I could.
I have no idea as to how long the drive took me that night, I could not have pushed the vehicle any faster. I could not have shouted more loudly into my police radio, calling for assistance and I could not have been so focused and intent on arriving at the scene to find that it was not what I was about to witness. I arrived to find a handful of first responders trying to find their way into the dining room of the hotel, located on the ground floor, opposite the main entrance. I knew the Park Hotel and the management so well. I could not believe that I was back at the very hotel, I visited only a few hours prior to the call, only this time there was chaos, carnage, destruction, darkness and rain. There was an eerie silence apart from the sounds of ambulances, fire trucks and police vehicles rushing to the scene. I lost a friend that night. I lost a police volunteer of the highest esteem – he was the son-in-law of the hotel’s owners and he managed the hotel. I had seen him and spoken to him earlier that day. His memory and smile and willingness to always help and take part, will also forever be in my mind.
There is no training on earth that can prepare someone for the type of terror event that I witnessed that fateful night. There is nothing that I have ever seen that resembles the aftermath of the atrocity I had just witnessed. This was not only an act of terror but an extremely cruel and wicked terror attack that was designed to ensure that the maximum physical violence and death rate we immense, and it was. The physical and mental injuries would be ever-lasting for so many. This was not only an act of terror but a declaration of war and it all took place on my watch in my jurisdiction to the very people I was entrusted to protect.
Pulling bodies and body parts out of the dining room, placing them on round dining room tables, helping the wounded and the shocked get to medical attention as fast as possible, coping, managing and trying to deal with a situation that was simply not comprehensible brought out a temporary but exceptional ability or power from my inner being and allowed me to respond and react to a situation that was not normal by any means.
That eerie night, where the floor was literally turned into a pool of blood. The windows were blown out and the curtains in the lobby blew outwardly into the wind almost as if they were also screaming for help. An innocent holocaust survivor was blown across the room, as if the concentration camps were not enough punishment for one lifetime. I witnessed honor and bravery displayed by all of the first responders who were confronted by a scene resembling Dante’s Inferno.
The killer and suicide bomber, had been dispatched by his terror handlers to blow himself up and take the lives of as many Jews as possible. Disguised as a woman in order to hide the explosive belt that was packed with approximately 20 kilograms of explosives, and carrying a false Israeli identity card, the terrorist killer entered the dining room hall where guests were sitting and celebrating their Passover freedom. According to the testimony of that night’s survivors, he pulled the trigger and exploded while seemingly uttering words of prayer.
Until the Park Hotel terror attack, I had seen military action and terror in all forms. The psychological stress had its effects of course, but it was only after I was exposed to the insanity of the Park Hotel terror attack, where the quiet and tranquility of the beautiful coastal region of Netanya was shattered, did it really hit home. Not only for me, but for my fellow first responders. We had to find a way to at least pretend that we were in control and try to quickly recover. We had to show that life goes on and do all we could to get life back to normal as soon as possible. Today during the coronavirus pandemic, I see and compare governments behavior to, all over the world, trying to also show that they are in control and they too promise perhaps too quick a recovery. The recovery from twenty years ago is still going on for so many, the recovery from this pandemic in 2020 will also take twenty years to recover from, if we are lucky.
After the Park terror attack, the order of the day became one of dedicated prevention. The task of detecting and preventing any further attacks within civilian life became of the most strategic importance to me and indeed to the entire country. I was always on the lookout for possible perpetrators. I still am.
Everyone became a suspect, everyone that was not known or could be identified visually by my unit was checked and double checked. Searches were conducted with even greater frequency than ever before, at times we had to make use of one of the only two powers that we could without a formal court ordered search warrant and that was the State Security and drug laws. Most people respected what we were doing and understood that it was for their own safety and security. Those who did not understand, mostly had something to hide or simply did not care. I set up road blocks strategically and tactically for longer periods of time, moving position all the time to ensure that no terrorist could target a road block or check point and break through the secure zones in my area of operations. I ensured that a greater presence of police uniforms was seen on almost every street corner with a focus on prevention. Undercover activity was implemented and I drafted the first plans of my “Secure Zone Concept,” which thereafter assisted greatly in preventing any further terror attacks in the district of the Netanya tourist police. The Secure Zone concept, eventually became the foundations, I believe, for what is commonly known today as “Safe City.” After retiring, I established a company in Israel called Safe City and the former chief of police and creator of Israel’s elite Yamam unit, Assaf Hefetz, a personal mentor to me, was a partner and one of the co-directors of the company.
There was never, and still is not any sense of hatred or vengeance against those that I arrested; nether in the world of the violent crime that I was all too often exposed to, nor against those that were enemies of the State of Israel. I certainly abhor violence and terror of any sort, more so today that in those years of terror. I was never violent towards those that I had to arrest and never once degraded or humiliated any arrestee, I always hoped for the more subtle and tactful approach of gathering information or intelligence rather than any other method.
Perhaps what I had seen in South Africa as a child, paved my professional path. The thoughts of South Africa and apartheid were always in my mind and I was emotionally and morally obliged to make sure that neither I nor any of my peers would steep to those levels of racism in any form. It was a law and our moral duty to protect and make sure that those arrested were taken care of at all times. As a first responder on the streets of Israel, I was in effect the last line of defense for Israeli civilians. I was in the front lines of a very difficult battle and that battle was a proactive mission to save lives at all costs, something I managed to do after the Park Hotel attack alongside the very dedicated policemen and women, volunteers and other members of the public who served with me. The area and territory that I was responsible for, thankfully never saw another terror attack and that does not mean that there were no attempts or threats, quite the contrary.
The personal toll on my family was immense. I subconsciously distanced myself from my children and wife, all of whom I loved and still love dearly. The distancing came in the form of spending many additional hours at work, sometimes up to eighteen hours a day. Simple and natural fatherly behavior, like picking up one of my children and giving a hug of affection was a psychological barrier, that I fortunately overcame, but it took many years. The reason for this, I believe, was, having seen injured children caught up in the chaos and carnage, helpless to defend themselves.
My last physical testimony of terror was on December 5, 2005. I had been training a senior and high-level group of intelligence officers from the NYPD, including the chief of New York’s Counter-Terror Division Insp. Mike O’Niel (who recently passed away as the result of a suspected 9/11 illness). These were professional, extremely serious law enforcement officers who were present at the largest terror attack ever, on September 11, 2001.
I called on my experience that dated back to an event when we prevented a suicide bomber’s attempted attack on the same busy shopping mall in Netanya. The third and final attack at the Sharon mall in Netanya was witnessed live by these NYPD officers. This attack had become part and parcel of their training program, in real time. The knowledge we all gained would be passed on to the younger generation of first responders in order for them to prevent similar attacks, not respond to them.
The consequences of the December 2005 terror attack, essentially ended one security career for me and signaled the beginning of another. Everything around me had something to do with terror or killing. I had changed from being a person who smiled and joked, who enjoyed life to the fullest into an overly serious person with no more inclination to socialize with anyone.
There comes a time when as a first responder you suddenly realize that there isn’t a smiling face that you can trust. The adrenalin subsides and the constant threats are no longer issues that you can solve. There comes a time when you wake up and find that you are not recognized as a victim who has been plunged into a dark hole of post-traumatic stress disorder that cannot be dealt with.
When simply entering a room or hall full of people results in a cold sweat an internal biological radar in your brain starts to search and unwittingly profile every single person in the room; making sure that there is not the one terrorist suicide bomber that has slipped through the net of security. No one really has any control of a suicide bomber if he or she reaches the inner circle of a security perimeter and today, very sadly, a similar threat known as the COVID-19 pandemic is also a stealth and still invisible killer, that is extremely difficult to detect.
My wife, Idit, who was and still is a solid pillar of support was undeniably right in supporting my decision to resign from the Israel Police. My commander at the time, Col. Ron Gertner, attempted to persuade me to stay on and not resign, but today, I am proud to say, that he too has resigned and we still speak very often and at times work together on far less stressful issues.
Ironically, my very first business client, in my new career, was the NYPD, whom I am also grateful to as not only was I honored to be able to teach and train them, but I also learned a lot from them.
My abbreviated testimony of terror depicts my role and my testimony of terror. Where I came from, who I was, what I did are all reflections. There is certainly a human side of policing and security in what may sadly always be a volatile country called Israel, a country I love dearly, a country that has afforded me four amazing children.
It’s an extraordinary place, but full of life and life-threatening surprises, amazing advancement and extremely complicated politics. Israel’s people have hearts of gold and unyieldingly unique characteristics. My dream and my hope today is a trust that we can all strive to live together in peace, and that a testimony of my kind never needs to be witnessed again.