The last line of defense

‘In our profession, we are always searching for the next threat,’ says Ch.-Supt. Maoz. On patrol with Israel’s busiest police bomb squad.

Jerusalem Police bomb squad 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem Police bomb squad 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Last month’s Jerusalem terrorist bombing brought back bad memories for residents of the capital. It reminded many of the dark days of the second intifada, when two suicide bomb attacks could occur on a single day, a time when the news was dominated by stories of violent death, blood, mourning and fear.
Jerusalemites had become accustomed to the calm that prevailed in recent years, and were happy to put the days of frequent terror attacks behind them – but the officers of the Jerusalem bomb squad, one of the largest in the country, and the busiest, have remained on constant alert throughout the years.
From 2000 to the present day, 330 terror attacks (including shootings) have occurred in Jerusalem, killing 228 people and wounding 1,800. A total of 114 explosive devices have been used against civilians in the city, including 12 car bombs and 31 suicide bombs.
“Almost everywhere I look in this city, I can recall an attack,” said Jerusalem Police bomb squad officer F.-Sgt. Haim (last name withheld), as he drove a large police van carrying a variety of counter-explosive technologies down Jerusalem’s busy streets last week during a patrol.
A police bomb squad forms the last line of defense in Israel against terrorist plots. Civilians are protected by three main security circles that extend outward from Israel into the West Bank and Gaza.
In the outermost perimeter are the IDF soldiers and intelligence services, operating deep in the Palestinian territories to interrupt terror cells, away from Israeli population centers.
In the middle ring, IDF checkpoints and the security fence form a second protective layer, in areas surrounding the Green Line and east of Jerusalem.
The last circle of defense, the smallest, is inside Israeli cities, where the bomb squads operate. The units’ officers depend on the vigilance of civilians to attract their attention to suspicious activities, as well as carrying out preemptive scans of high-profile potential targets like markets, sports stadiums, the Knesset, religious sites and busy shopping areas.
Haim was one of the first responders on the scene of the September 2003 Café Hillel suicide bombing. He quietly recounted the horrors of that evening as he navigated the van through the city center.
Haim had been completing paperwork on another incident in the vicinity of the bombing.
“The computer broke down. I was writing out a report by hand when I heard a large explosion. I rushed to the bombing scene, and saw a terrible sight. Bloodied bodies were strewn next to injured people crying out for help,” he remembered.
As paramedics evacuated the casualties, Haim put on his protective gear “and began to work,” he said.
When arriving on such a scene, the first task of a police bomb squad officer is to figure out whether the blast came from a suicide bomber or from a planted explosive, and to ensure that there are no additional threats.
“We have to rule out the possibility that a second terrorist is waiting to blow himself up near emergency responders, or that a second device was planted nearby,” said Haim.
“I identified the dismembered body of the suicide bomber at the entrance to the café, and began scanning the remainder of the area,” he recalled.
Meanwhile, as in all attacks, backup police forces sealed off the scene and evacuated members of the public from the area, to allow bomb squad officers and paramedics undisturbed access to the site.
After preliminary field work is completed, what remains of the explosive devices are taken back to a forensics lab, where bomb specialists learn about the latest devices used by Palestinian terror groups to kill and maim civilians. The results of the tests are quickly shared with the intelligence services and the IDF.
Bomb squad officers are involved in an ongoing war of minds against Palestinian explosives engineers.
From the primitive devices of the 1980s, to more sophisticated bombs hidden in guitars (as used by the Sbarro pizzeria bomber in August 2001, an attack that killed 15 people and wounded more than 130), to explosives placed in watermelons, computers and suicide vests, bomb squad officers must stay on top of the latest enemy designs. They must also think several steps ahead, and predict how the bombs could develop in the future.
FIGURES THE squad has gathered show the extent to which the March bombing has frayed the public’s nerves.
Before the March attack, bomb squad officers were called out to an average of 30 incidents a day. Most calls are responses to reports by members of the public about suspicious individuals, vehicles or objects.
After the bombing, the calls spiked to over 100 a day.
The officers stress that they are glad the public is calling them with reports.
Asked how he coped with the emotional toll of his job, Haim said, “The tensions are big. Even in routine times, there is a constant tension. We have workshops where we talk about these things, and trips to natural spots in the country to unwind a little. But what help us the most are our families.”
Frank conversations with family members form the best support system, Haim added. “Through these chats, I can share what I’m feeling,” he said.
Still, Haim said, he is occasionally haunted by scenes of carnage he has witnessed at bombing sites.
A former IDF Engineering Corps officer who carried out controlled demolitions of some of the army’s last remaining positions in southern Lebanon during the 2000 withdrawal, Haim said he never regrets his decision to join the unit.
“We are like family in this unit. We’re always helping one another where we can. The level of professionalism is very high,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to work with the other officers.”
Haim’s commander, Jerusalem bomb squad head Ch.-Supt. Maoz (last name withheld), said only officers who are highly adept at remaining calm under the immense pressure of their duties are recruited.
“Officers need to be cool-headed, reasonable, and to be able to quickly analyze the dangers. They have to be pragmatic and technical, and to select the techniques that are needed to deal with an incident, while constantly evaluating the situation,” Maoz said.
“In our profession, we are always searching for the next threat,” he added.
Indeed, on that same day, some members of the Jerusalem bomb squad took part in a district-wide police exercise simulating a number of threats. Meanwhile, Haim’s patrol van received a radio call on a potentially real unfolding situation.
“We’ve received a report of a suspicious object near a shoe store,” said the voice of a female bomb squad dispatcher over the radio speaker. Haim radioed back to say he was coming to the scene, and tapped his onboard computer screen to get further details as he steered the van toward the store.
“It’s a bag left outside the premises,” he said, before putting out a second radio transmission, this time on a frequency used by all Jerusalem police units.
“Begin evacuation of the area,” he said, directing his call to Traffic Police and Border Police units.
By the time the police van arrived at the shoe store, the shopper who had forgotten the bag that caused the alert had returned to claim it, and Border Police had reopened the road to traffic.
After a brief talk with the Border Police, Haim drove on. Within a few minutes, a new message crackled on the radio.
“We have a report from a bus driver about a suspicious passenger,” the dispatcher said.
A bomb squad officer close to the scene responded. After a few more minutes, a third call came over the airwaves.
“Suspicious object near the central bus station,” said the dispatcher.
Haim’s van drove off in the station’s direction, parked halfway on the sidewalk, and headed to the location on foot. On his way to the scene, he walked past the kiosk and bus station that were targeted in last month’s bombing. The station was once again teeming with passengers waiting for their buses.
Haim launched a thorough search of the area, but found no suspicious items. He was able to carry out his search on foot without needing special gear. But when operating away from the city center, in east Jerusalem and its outskirts, the officers must drive in armored vehicles and wear bulletproof vests and helmets due to the threat of being shot at. They are armed with M-16 rifles and a personal handguns to ensure they are able to defend themselves if they come under fire.
The unit is equipped with a variety of robots, which broadcast images from several cameras to a control system on board the van. The robots are able to scan devices, shatter windshields to gain access to the interiors of suspicious vehicles, and neutralize explosives with a firearm.
The robots also have a movable Stanley knife, designed to tear clothes from suicide bombers who have been neutralized by security forces but who still may carry explosives on their bodies.
Despite the latest attack, the residents of Jerusalem hope that the bad old days of terrorism are behind them. Their last line of defense, the Jerusalem Police’s bomb squad officers, continue to work around the clock to make sure that a response is ready in case their hopes are dashed.