Mea She'arim and senseless no-go zones

Declaring places like Mea She’arim as no-go zones is a mistake. What police ought to be doing is entering with force and making widespread arrests of those engaged in violence.

Mea Shearim 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Mea Shearim 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A police representative announced in court last month that Jerusalem’sMea She’arim neighborhood has become a no-go zone for the men in blue.Every time police enter, the official explained, they encounterviolence from ultra-Orthodox extremists. And that is why they failed toarrest a criminal suspect for over a month despite knowing exactlywhere in the neighborhood he was.
Noris Mea She’arim the only place where police face such problems. ManyArab towns and neighborhoods have similarly been declared no-go zonesbecause police operations there routinely spark violence. Jewishextremists in the West Bank seem to be trying to gain the settlementssuch status as well: They regularly attack soldiers and policemenenforcing the planning and building laws.
But the police’s decision to deal with this problem by simply throwingup their hands and staying away is unconscionable. First, it’s abetrayal of the very people they are sworn to protect - the decent,law-abiding citizens who comprise the vast majority of residents in allof these locales. As Kalansua Mayor Mahmoud Hadija complained inOctober after his brother was killed, criminals “know that whateverthey do, the police won’t investigate,” leaving ordinary citizensdefenseless against them.
Moreover, by proving that violence works, this response merelyencourages other groups of extremists to adopt the same tactic. As aresult, more and more of the country is becoming a no-go zone.
Nor can police credibly claim to have no alternative. In fact, despitecertain obvious differences, there’s an applicable model that hasracked up stunning success right here in Israel over the last decade:the Shin Bet security service’s approach to the second intifada.
When the intifada erupted in 2000, there was a fierce debate betweenthe army and the Shin Bet over how to deal with it. The armyessentially accepted the dogma that it makes no difference how manyterrorists you kill or put behind bars, because the supply ofreplacements is endless. In the popular phrase of those days, it’s liketrying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.
But then-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter insisted otherwise. He argued thatthe more terrorists you capture or kill, the more potential recruitswill decide that the risks outweigh the rewards and that terrorismdoesn’t pay. Thus arresting or killing terrorists not only reduces thenumber of current terrorists; it also dries up the supply ofreplacements.
Every Israeli knows who won this argument: Terror-related fatalitiesfell from a peak of 450 in 2002 to just 13 by 2007. It turns out youreally can empty that ocean.
Police, of course, don’t have the option of killing the violentextremists who have turned places like Mea She’arim into no-go zones.But killing actually played a minor role in Israel’s counterterrorismstrategy. At most, around 3,000 terrorists were killed during the intifada (not counting civilian deaths). In contrast, the Palestinian Authority claims that70,000 Palestinians were arrested at some point during those years(Israel publishes no statistics on this issue). And even if that numberis exaggerated, the true figure is certainly in the tens of thousands.
Today, 11 years after the intifada began, Israeli jails still hold anestimated 6,000 to 7,000 Palestinian prisoners. Yet most of thosearrested have already been freed: They were either briefly detained forquestioning or convicted of crimes carrying relatively short sentencesthat have long since expired.
Widespread arrests clearly are within the police’s capability; all ittakes is enough boots on the ground to make it happen. And here, too,the intifada provides the model. When Israel launched itscounterterrorism offensive in March 2002, it flooded the West Bank withtroops. But by last year, Israeli troop levels in the West Bank were attheir lowest point since the first intifada began in 1987. With theterrorist ocean having largely been emptied, high troop levels are nolonger needed.
Thus instead of declaring places like Mea She’arim no-go zones, whatpolice ought to be doing is entering with massive force - enough notonly to protect themselves, but to make widespread arrests of thoseresponsible. They then need to prosecute significant numbers of thosearrested (bringing cameramen to document the violence might help). 
Initially, widespread arrests and prosecutions might well inflametempers and lead to even more violence. But if police persist with thismethod of massive troop levels, large-scale arrests and multipleprosecutions, would-be extremists will eventually conclude thatviolence doesn’t pay, just as Palestinians in the West Bank did. Andthen, it will possible to bring manpower levels in these areas back tonormal. In contrast, if those arrested are simply let go, theextremists will conclude that violence carries no price, giving them anincentive to escalate it in the hopes of getting the police to back off.
Moreover, such an effort would reduce the risk of other Israeli groupsadopting similar tactics. Most of those who use violence againstpolicemen, whether in Arab towns, settlement outposts or ultra-Orthodoxneighborhoods, don’t do so because they are addicted to violence orbecause they are martyrs willing to be jailed for their cause, butbecause they have seen that it effectively deters the police fromdemolishing illegal homes, arresting neighborhood residents, conductingautopsies or whatever the cause de jour without the perpetrators payingany serious price. If people instead see that not only aren’t thepolice deterred, but the perpetrators end up going to jail, the numberof Israelis willing to consider using violence to achieve their goalswill rapidly decline.
Clearly, however, a policy that entails massive manpower levels, ashort-term rise in violence and large-scale arrests cannot beimplemented without political backing. Thus ultimately, solving theproblem of these no-go zones is the government’s responsibility. Andgiven how little interest most Israeli politicians have shown inlaw-and-order issues, it’s likely to be a long wait.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.