Frontier justice

Tired of thieves and of police who act too late, Negev residents began fighting crime themselves.

frontierust888 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
All Kyla Bergman saw as she opened her eyes was an arm reaching for her work bag, including her purse, computer and files. She roused her husband from his sleep, and he tried to pursue the intruder, but the man slipped out the back door of the Bergmans' house and left Kyla's bag in the middle of the living room. Since that July morning, Bergman feels unsafe everywhere. Her neighbor Faye Bittker knows the feeling; her house has been broken into twice. The first time, the thieves stole a television, stereo and VCR and even left the freezer open - apparently, they were looking for meat, Bittker says. The second time, they stole her car and her bag. Then, while Bittker was making arrangements concerning her stolen car, her wallet was stolen from her office and several thousand shekels in purchases were charged to her credit card. "It's there, it's constantly in the background... You always know it's there," she says, referring to crime around the town of Omer, an upscale community near Beersheba. When police couldn't stop the thievery plaguing Omer, the community took matters into its own hands: it set up an internal security force to combat and deter the common crime that so many residents had experienced first hand. The internal force began as a modest security project, but over the years has expanded its presence and is now "the most active thing in the community," according to Omer spokesman Nir Nissim. The members of the security group, who are armed and work in close cooperation with police, are hired by a private security company and receive a salary from the local council. Crime, says Nissim, has decreased significantly. Last year, 334 crimes against property were reported - down from 422 in 2004. "Today, a resident who is robbed or hears a noise calls the municipal dispatch center," he explains. "He doesn't call the police. Why? Because the police take time to arrive, [whereas] the internal force takes half a minute to come. It's the best solution there is." Having a security team moments away in an outlying area like Omer "makes you feel sort of safe," Bergman says. It's a feeling that more rural residents are seeking from private sources - especially in the South. THE TOWN of Meitar, near Omer, is a model of how such a community can be successful in dramatically reducing crime. Besides a police presence, Meitar has its own internal security department made up of about 25 residents who have served in IDF combat units. The security unit is mostly made up of students in their 20s studying in universities or other academic institutions. Operated by the Economic Company for the Development of Meitar, the unit provides security and emergency services throughout the town, around the clock, at the cost of about 75 shekels per household per month. Meitar's internal security unit was first created in the early '90s and has evolved over the years to include a hierarchy on each shift, additional weapons for the unit and uniforms for the guards, explains Arnon Shikma, Meitar's security officer. While other communities have internal security departments, they usually use outside security companies that hire and screen the guards. "Every municipality has its security department, but the main difference between us and the other security departments is that the same unit that gives us security for the municipality is our unit, it's part of the municipality," Shikma says. "All the guards live here in Meitar. This is one of the things that I check. When I want to take someone to work here, I check to see if he's living here." Then, continues Shikma, "I train him. I do all that's necessary to teach him." Meitar also has 180 volunteer civilian guards, who are supervised by police and conduct vehicle patrols mostly in the evening hours along with foot and bicycle patrols. Residents not only know the community better than nonresidents, but also have a real stake in the security of the community, local officials say. Security is not just a manpower issue, though. The town is also fortified with a range of large physical barriers. Around the town, checkpoints, gates and obstacles such as boulders, cement slabs and steps prevent vehicles from entering or exiting from just any location. During the evening hours, vehicles are able to enter and exit only through one electronic gate, a step that prevents car theft and other crimes. Security lights are also installed around the town near the houses at the edge of Meitar. In addition, each institution of the town, including schools and the local council itself, is protected by alarms and connected to a 24-hour emergency dispatch center of the private security company Arazi in Beersheba. The Arazi Group, a family-owned security company of some 450 workers, is a success story in its own right. It has grown over the last eight years from 1,000 to 5,000 Negev clients, consisting of an equal number of homeowners and business owners, says Kfir Arazi, the group's general manager. The growth of his Negev business in recent years, Arazi says, reflects a real need to guard against crime. While there has been a decrease in business break-ins in recent years, house break-ins has seen a slight increase, he says. In Meitar last year, only 48 crimes against property were reported. The number has dropped from 78 in 2004 and was as high as 105 in 2000, when crime there reached a peak. RESIDENTS HAVE noticed the changes and are grateful. But there is still room for improvement, and some - like one resident, nameless because he fears reprisals from criminal elements - even hope the internal security department will add more guards. About six years ago, the man's home and business were both broken into in the same week. He woke up in time to scare off the burglar in his home, but merchandise was taken from his store. "The situation has improved a bit. It has improved," the resident says, still wary of thieves. "Today there isn't a 'protection' racket. There were a lot of thefts, but the security also improved the situation. There are house break-ins, but few." "Protection" is a problem largely tied to local Beduin, residents say. They have threatened residents, hinting that the new homes they were building would be damaged if they didn't pay a security fee. Since the threats were veiled as job offers to protect one's home - a "proposition" that is not against the law - the police's hands were tied, Shikma says. The local council, though, urged residents not to give in to the demands. Instead, the security unit carefully monitored the homes that had been threatened, and confronted suspicious visitors there. Shikma says he even had his car torched and his family threatened in retaliation. Today, though, the problem of "protection" is basically a non-issue, he says. "It was a real war, until we finished it," Shikma says. "It wasn't easy, but we finished it... At the time, we were the only place in the south, the only town in the south where there was no 'protection.'" This year, Shikma and the municipality have plans to establish a municipal security center that will be connected to a surveillance camera system in the town. They also plan to have a permanent ambulance stationed in Meitar and train first responders to man the ambulance. "The police does what it can but we need to guard ourselves," says Salomon Cohen, the head of Meitar's local council and chairman of the board of directors of the Economic Company of the Development of Meitar. "[Police] have a lot of assignments. We need to guard ourselves from theft... because there isn't anyone that would do that for us." It is the coordination of efforts between the local council and its security unit, with police, and the private security company that have allowed Meitar to successfully combat crime, Shikma says. "There isn't one thing" responsible, he says. "Only the integrated actions of many sources and many kinds of actions can provide the answer." Protecting the olive branch In the scruff and crags of the West Bank, wide open spaces complicate the already difficult task of preventing and prosecuting crimes such as the destruction and theft of olive trees that happened this winter. "It's not a simple issue," says Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. "The army is busy all the time in guarding people's lives from terrorist acts," he says, and can not patrol the area to prevent agricultural crime. However, officials say they hope a new investigative committee established by the Defense Ministry will help solve the problem. The committee, which is made up of members of Shin Bet, the police and the army, was prompted by the realization that more needed to be done in the wake of increased attacks. "It shows the public that we are dealing with this issue and it raises the level of treatment of this problem," Dror says. Police have opened several investigative files concerning the destruction of olive trees, notes police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, and treat the matter no differently than similar crimes in other areas. However, Israeli law enforcement in the West Bank is complex, since Palestinians living in Israeli-controlled areas often do not feel comfortable entering Jewish settlements to make a report to security forces. In addition, many Palestinians believe their complaints will go unheeded or will be treated differently, human rights groups say. "It's a relatively large area, and of course the police are understaffed, so the police need to depend on the army to detain suspects until police arrive on the scene," said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the rights group B'Tselem. "Having to depend on the army means that suspects aren't detained in many cases," she explains, since the army tends to see its role as defending settlers rather than enforcing the law. "I think the deepest issue on a basic level is there has been blatant disregard of the severity and seriousness of attacks by settlers on Palestinian civilians." Dror says the army has an employee at each district office who handles Palestinian concerns and issues, and that each is taken seriously. Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Yosef Mishlev, who is heading the investigative committee, has reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with the Judea and Samaria Police's handling of the olive tree crimes, for which the culprits have not been caught. The new committee is expected to allow security officials to more aggressively tackle the problem by dedicating additional resources from security units to the problem. Farmer Sharif Ishtayeh of the village of Salem near Nablus is pinning his hopes on the committee to investigate crimes against olive trees. In November, Ishtayeh says, his family members were approaching their field when they saw about 10 settlers using power saws to destroy about 300 trees. Instead of confronting the settlers, they returned to their village and contacted Palestinian authorities, who in turn contacted Israeli authorities. It wasn't the first time his olive trees had been attacked, Ishtayeh says; some of his trees had previously been burned. "Frankly, they're criminal attacks against humanity and the tree," Ishtayeh says in a telephone interview. "What fault does a tree have? Did she hurt them?" While some olive tree incidents are clearly attacks by extremists for nationalistic reasons, some incidents are cases of theft. Either way, Dror says, Israel has an interest in halting the phenomenon. "No one wants to see the property of anyone damaged," he says. "Who knows where it can lead? If someone damages property, they can also injure a person." A common problem gets some special attention While fighting crime is always a challenge, doing so in the country's rural areas poses its own set of difficulties. "The challenges are in terms of the time factor, being able to reach the scene as quickly as possible," explains police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. "Geographically, the areas are far more open - especially down south, where there are large extensive areas - if it's guarding the yishuvim or the kibbutzim... The time factor for us is a challenge, and making sure we are there as quickly as possible." Six special Border Police units are now working in rural and agricultural areas all over the country with regular police units to combat crimes such as theft, burglaries and vandalism. It has taken some start-up time, but these special units have demonstrated efficiency and efficacy in recent months, Rosenfeld says. "Their importance lies in the capabilities they have in reaching the open areas, in terms of the vehicles they have and the technology they have," he says. In the Negev, the special Border Police unit called "Dekel" uses four-by-four vehicles to negotiate the tough desert terrain, and utilizes special optical equipment to aid their rural patrols. "We have all the latest technology that we use both day and night," Rosenfeld says. THE STEPS are necessary to help cattle breeders, for example, who have had enough. In the past two years they have lost nearly 3,000 cattle to thieves, says Haim Dayan, director of AMBAL, the Beef Cattle Breeders Association. The breeders face a direct loss of NIS 5 million and an indirect loss of NIS 15 million a year due to the problem, he says. "I don't think Israel had ever gotten to that point where so much cattle was stolen in such a short period of time," he says. "I think this happened because of the way the police were handling the situation and the way the courts were handling the situation." That's why Dayan has met with government and police officials in recent months, asking them to do more to prevent the thefts. Following requests from AMBAL, the Attorney-General's Office of the Northern District began to file lawsuits against suspected cattle thieves, rather than leaving that job to police. Lawsuits filed by the Attorney-General's Office are more professional and reflect greater seriousness than those filed by the police department, Dayan notes with satisfaction. "I came to the courts and told them that the state has to do something about this... that it influences the cattle raisers quite a bit, that it hurts their living," he says. "It can't be that we've come to a situation where the state of Israel doesn't help us guard our territory." Since the AGO's involvement, cattle thieves are for the first time being detained until the end of their trial - which can take up to four months. It's a new and important step in dealing with the issue, Dayan says. AMBAL is also working to encourage the Attorney-General's Office in the Southern District to file lawsuits against cattle thieves. In addition, the courts are now beginning to mete out stricter punishments. A couple of weeks ago, one cattle thief was given a reportedly unprecedented 33 months of jail time. In another recent case, a cattle thief was given 21 months of jail time by a district court after he appealed his 18-month jail sentence - an exceptional incident that shows courts are beginning to handle such cases differently, Dayan says. Until now, fines of NIS 1,500 or NIS 2,000 and short periods of detention had been the norm. OTHER COMMON agricultural crimes include theft of tractors, beehives, and fruit and vegetables. The special units created to combat crime in rural and agricultural areas are making progress, however, and Dayan says he believes there has been a slight decrease in cattle theft in recent months. The work these units does is especially important since police stations often do not prioritize or understand agricultural crime, he adds. The Border Police units work with police helicopter units and regular ground units on a daily basis to deter crimes and catch suspects, Rosenfeld says. Helicopter units are especially useful in rural areas, he notes, because they can reach open areas quickly and give immediate guidance to ground units. The measures are already bearing fruit: In January, police carried out a large operation to stop the theft of metals, including monuments. About 30 arrests were made, and most of the stolen materials were recovered in rural areas. But sometimes, these special units are taken away from their main purpose to address other issues, Dayan says. For example, "Dekel" was taken away to help with the disengagement in Gaza, and only returned to its main mission a few months ago, he says. "We have to apply pressure all the time so these units will act in the field of agricultural crime," he says. Volunteers also play an important role in combating crime by patrolling and looking for stolen vehicles, Rosenfeld says. Today, there are 71,000 trained volunteers throughout Israel who work with various police units around the country, including in rural areas. "They are a very important factor in supporting the police, both on regular patrols and on police missions that take place on a regular basis and in rural areas," he says.