Working in Jerusalem: Tour de force

Retired British police officerspends six days a week on the streets of Palestinian cities.

colin smith 224 88 (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
colin smith 224 88
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
From Belfast to Basra, Baghdad and Ramallah, Colin Smith has policed a lot of mean streets. Today, the retired assistant chief constable of Britain's Hampshire Constabulary - a rank equivalent to brigadier-general in military parlance - is based in Jerusalem on a two-year contract. In diplomatic language, the London-born Smith, 57, is head of mission of EU COPPS (European Union Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support). As such, Smith is the senior adviser to the 33-man multinational European Union force helping the Palestinian Authority bring law and order to the anarchic areas - controlled over the last century by Ottoman Turkey, Britain, Jordan and Israel - where the PA hopes to establish an independent country. Driving six days a week to Ramallah, Jericho and elsewhere in the West Bank, Smith is deliberately non-partisan and non-political. He nevertheless has some startling observations about crime and violence in the Middle East. "It depends what you call 'law and order,'" Smith says of policing in the Gaza Strip in an interview at his home in Yemin Moshe. "There's no judicial process." Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in a coup last year, Smith and his 17-nation team have not been allowed back in Gaza by EU operating orders. At least, officially. While if in Gaza there is neither judge nor jury, the situation is somewhat better in the Area A parts of the West Bank under Palestinian autonomy, he insists. Earlier this month the PA police were deployed in Jenin, triggering gun battles in the streets of the city. "The Palestine [Palestinian Authority] police force is not a failed police force. The skill level is very high," he says of 8,000 police officers in the West Bank. "They have the capability, but not the capacity." Prior to the Hamas coup last year, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah government had an 11,000-man force stationed there. But the PA police are hampered in the West Bank too. "There, the criminal justice system is flawed. The prisons are full and overflowing," Smith says. With the courts not functioning properly, an astonishing 88 percent of prisoners in the PA are incarcerated while either waiting for trial or sentencing, he continues. "A lot of prisons are sub-standard," he says with classic British understatement. Smith is also an adviser to 800 Arab police officers currently undergoing public order training in Jericho. He is especially impressed with Hazem Ataalah, who in March was appointed the PA's chief of police. "He's young, he's intellectual and he's charismatic," Smith says. But Ataalah and his boys in blue are limited by their equipment - and lack thereof. "They need some support and resources. Smith explains that "There is no fingerprint powder, and no forensic lab to send the fingerprints to." Corruption isn't the problem it once was, he continues. "I'm pretty satisfied that the money that comes to the [Palestinian Authority] police goes to police. The money is well accounted for." Underfunding remains a crucial problem, he notes. "If they don't have a car, what good is advanced driver training?" Mobility is more than wheels, however. "The criminals can move between [Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled] areas, but the police can't. And that's something we're desperately trying to improve." To that end, Smith recently arranged a meeting at a Jerusalem hotel between 25 Israeli traffic police and their Palestinian counterparts to discuss the trafficking in stolen vehicles. "Joint patrols are something we'd like to see. The Palestinian people want to be free of crime." Notwithstanding the challenges of his Palestinian Authority posting, Smith finds life in Jerusalem incomparably better than in Iraq. "There were incidents with suicide bombers," he says matter-of-factly, adding that the head of his eight-man security detail was killed there recently. In contrast, Smith's life in Jerusalem includes enjoying the German Colony's cafés, the view of the Old City from his balcony, and the duty-free goods and liquor sold at the UN's Jerusalem canteen - located in the former palace of the British Mandate-era high commissioners. On his infrequent days off, he likes to go to the Dead Sea. Mostly it's work, and more work, he sighs. "Always paperwork. It's the curse of my life." If there's one thing about life here that irks the senior police officer, it's the drivers he encounters in Jerusalem, Ramallah and on the way to and from the Beit El checkpoint. "The driving is unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it. 'Aggressive driving' is the polite term. People seem to think traffic lights are optional. It's indicative of respect of the laws. "More people die on the roads in Israel and [in the Palestinian Authority] Palestine than [from] terrorism." Smith takes a broad perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing a comparison to his 15 years in once-violent and now peaceful Northern Ireland. "Belfast has been transformed. You wouldn't recognize it today from 30 years ago. I think it's the same here." "This place should be an absolute gold mine. There's so much to do and see. Economic development is crucial. Things that separate you become less important [when people have jobs]. People want employment, schools for their children, a home and a good standard of living." Still, there's the "irritant of security. It slows down movement." And Smith isn't just referring to traffic.