Tour of duty

Lost wallet? Lost group member? Lost in east Jerusalem? The Tourist Police officers and volunteers are at your service.

tourism police 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tourism police 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Wait a minute! Where's your wallet?!! It was in your pocket a second ago, when you were admiring that kid's collection of postcards on the Mount of Olives. But now it's gone, and so's the kid, along with any vestige of a pleasant visit to Jerusalem. Relax. There's hope. And while you didn't notice them, they were there all the time: the Jerusalem Tourist Police, dedicated to ensuring that visitors to the capital aren't ripped off, lost, mistreated or otherwise abused. After a short chase, the scoundrel's been nabbed, the wallet returned and the holiday resurrected. While they may be few in number - just eight officers, augmented by 19 volunteers - the force's members feel they're making life safer for visitors, while gaining the enduring thanks of those they've helped over the years. And with some 2.3 million tourists to the city last year, according to the Tourism Ministry, if you're one of them, this force will be with you. Whether it's the Mount of Olives, Garden Tomb, Garden of Gethsemane, Via Dolorosa, Sherover Promenade, Ein Kerem or other sites, the Tourist Police stands ready with a personal touch and a desire to serve visitors. "It's very important to make tourists feel as safe here as possible," says unit commander Uzi Zait. "This is our main goal, to make tourists feel as secure here as any place in the world. The best situation is that they won't need us - that they will notice we're around, but won't feel Israel is more unusual than any tourist site in the world." Mixing a combination of motorized and foot patrols, the Jerusalem Tourist Police not only makes visitors feel safer, but boosts merchants' business. And while most days pass uneventfully, as fully trained members of the police force, Tourist Police officers and volunteers never know what the day will bring. Founded in 1987, the Jerusalem Tourist Police grew out of earlier efforts and units aimed at handling burgeoning post-Six Day War Jerusalem tourism. The original Yasham (Yehidat Shotrim Meyuhedet or Special Police Unit) was comprised mainly of former Palmah and Hagana members who offered help as early as 1969, according to Ch.-Supt. Bob Mountwitten, who heads the Sunday night patrols of what evolved from that group into the Tourist Police and today's Yehidat Shotrim Mitnadavim, or Special Police Volunteer Unit. His volunteers operate separately from the Tourist Police, but share the role of being the face on the street tourists often encounter. "There was a lot of extra patrolling to be done, new parts of Jerusalem and so on, so they volunteered," Mountwitten, from Sydney, recalls. Then-mayor Teddy Kollek was also concerned the about reports of rip-offs of tourists at their hotels. Today Mountwitten's volunteer unit contains many English-speakers, who patrol mainly in west Jerusalem. Similar units handle tourists' problems in Netanya, Tel Aviv and other popular destinations, but they're part of neighborhood police operations. "We're the only ones who have a special dedicated unit," says Tourism Police Coordinator Eldad Ben-Nun proudly, as we set out one hot June morning on a motorized patrol of Jerusalem's trouble spots for tourists, with Ben-Nun and veteran volunteer Pinni Yosef, who stashes his rifle behind him as we take off. OUR FIRST stop is the Mount of Olives, known as a hotbed for pickpockets, where busloads of Christian tourists are beginning their day. Says tour guide Adrienne Bernstein: "The first time I ran into pickpockets, I was quite a new guide, in 1999. I was on the Mount of Olives, and I was guiding some Nigerian pilgrims. I was so naïve I didn't even think things like this existed. This gentleman in my group came running up to me terribly upset and said someone had grabbed his wallet, and the others had seen him, so they tried to wrestle with him, but by that time he had passed the money on to someone else." That's why Tourism Police officer Zion Mahalev and his partner David Revivo are walking determinedly along behind a handful of early morning visitors to the Chapel of the Ascension, deterring those who prey on those who come to pray. Mahalev, eyeing the locals around him, says he is there so that the tourists "don't get ripped off by pickpockets who come up as if to sell postcards," like the fellow whose expensive camera was snatched, but later returned by a local, many of whom he says resent the thieves' impact on their business. "The tourists are happy, and just like I wouldn't want to be ripped off abroad, the same is true here," says Mahalev, who's been on the force for four years. "There are relatively few tourists right now," says Ben-Nun, checking on his men. "This is one of the first places they come. We know that the problem is here during the day; in the afternoon, in Ein Kerem." "Our main goal is prevention," says Ben-Nun, briefly joining the foot patrol. "We patrol the sites; we make our presence felt. And we adjust it according to information we receive about where there are more incidents." On average, the Tourist Police handle "four or five" serious incidents a week, he says. The Mount of Olives observation point, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Sherover Promenade at Armon Hanatziv, Ein Kerem and the city's hotels are the main trouble spots, he says. Besides the pickpockets, there are unlicensed guides who try to rip off the tourists. When caught by the Tourist Police, they are turned over to the Tourism Ministry - which also does its own checking - to be fined. This morning, however, the bad guys are not in sight. "When we're here, they're not here," says Mahalev proudly. "We know who they are and have help from the locals. It's their livelihood, and I try to help as much as I can." Tour guide Doron Heiliger talks about having to deal with "aggressiveness" by locals on the Mount of Olives. "Before it was terrible, terrible, especially on the Mount of Olives and down near Gethsemane and near the Garden Tomb." Thanks to the Tourism Police presence "the pickpocketing problem is much reduced." While he and other guides complain they'd like to see even more of a Tourist Police presence, "when they are around it helps a lot," he says. BACK IN the patrol car, we drive down Palm Sunday Road, a narrow lane leading from the Mount of Olives and the Chapel of the Ascension to the Garden of Gethsemane, used regularly by tourists like those walking alongside us, the golden towers of the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene gleaming in the sunlight. "We've always got four eyes out," says Ben-Nun, scanning the scene for signs of trouble. A special squad that handles the holy places - the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall among them - takes care of incidents there, while the David District branch inside the Old City also sometimes deals with tourists' problems. More often than not, however, it's those squads who are calling the Tourist Police, seeking help with one of the city's biggest problems regarding visitors: tourists who've strayed from their flock, and are occasionally attacked. "The most frequent incidents that we encounter and deal with are tourists who get lost," says Ben-Nun as we drive through east Jerusalem, on our way to the Garden Tomb. "These are usually visitors who come here with a group and in one of the alleyways of the Old City, they lose contact. The most difficult cases involve tourists who come to us and the tour leader didn't even notice he was missing anybody." This frequently happens with groups who come here for a day, usually via the Taba crossing. "Using our connections with the Tourism Ministry and tour offices we know work with these people, we find them. A Russian tourist came to us who had entered via Taba and then to Jerusalem. His guide didn't notice he was missing. With the help of a similar group, we were able to locate the guide, and they were already on their way to Eilat. With the help of the tour company, we put him on another bus and made the guide wait at the Taba crossing, as the group had already crossed," says Ben-Nun, who's sometimes up into the wee hours of the morning until the problem is resolved. Not all cases end neatly, however. When tourists are assaulted or robbed, the unit's officers and volunteers go to where the incident occurred. "Our goal is to limit the suffering of a tourist who has been victimized," explains Ben-Nun. While in such incidents tourists are not always required to appear at a police station, in cases when they are, "we accompany them back to their hotel. And if a group is traveling, we get them back to the group so they can continue on their way. If they have to testify in court, we bring them there until the completion of proceedings." COMMON VICTIMS of such attacks are tourists wandering around on their own, like a few seen during our patrol outside the Russian Orthodox church, explains Ben-Nun. "They get mugged, their money or wallets are stolen... They're lost, confused and afraid, because in most cases they lose their credit cards, contact numbers, sometimes their passports. They feel very hopeless at that point. It's very important that the person who approaches them knows their language, what steps to take to get them back to where they want to be... that the tourist knows that eventually he will end up with his group or his hotel." "There was a case of a woman heading down toward Gethsemane whom two guys tried to sexually assault," recalls Ben-Nun as we drive by a series of hotels on Nablus Road, which the units visit early in the morning to prevent any thievery as the tourists board their buses. "She started shouting to get the attention of people around her, but there was nobody there. She couldn't see a living soul around her, and sat on the road and started crying. Just then we came down the road on one of our patrols. We saw her sitting there sobbing, and when she saw us, she said it was like God had sent her two angels to help her. We comforted her, gave her water, calmed her down, and reported it to other forces to look for her attackers." Sometimes the urge to help leads to strange places. Zait recalls a Romanian woman robbed a few months ago, "who came here as a tourist, who had a daughter married to someone local, so you can say she was half a tourist. She was robbed at Gethsemane. A man tried to run her over and drive off in a car, but a security camera at the site had taken a picture of this event, and it was very easy to track him down." Finding the victim again, however, proved more difficult. "Someone had taken her phone number, but it was wrong," recalls Zait. "So the only clue we had was where we took her after this incident - to the Romanian church on Rehov Hanevi'im. I went there, spoke to the nun and luckily she had the number of her family, and we succeeded in bringing him to justice." The several hundred security cameras around the city, which allow for on-screen monitoring of tourist sites, also help the Tourism Police, and may have saved one man's life. "About two or three years ago, there was a missing tourist report filed," recalls Ben-Nun. "The group called in at 7 p.m. that a guy was missing; he had disappeared somewhere within the Old City walls. After a good amount of time passed and he hadn't contacted anyone, we got worried. Usually a lost tourist will approach a policeman... We found him in the Old City via the cameras. He had been robbed and was dazed and ended up somewhere where he turned up on screen. Some policemen found him and took care of him, and I think they also caught those who attacked him." OUR PATROL car pushes on to the Garden Tomb, occasionally plagued by serious theft problems in the narrow road leading up to its entrance and on the adjoining streets. Tour guide Bernstein remembers how "a young Arab boy came toward our group flashing postcards, and I didn't realize anything happened; it was so quick, but my driver saw him grab something from one of the tourist's pockets - a very small digital camera. It was tiny, no one could have noticed it, but the kid was 14 or 15 and knocked this man slightly aside, and barged through our group, whipped his hand into the man's pocket and grabbed the digital camera before he knew it." Ben-Nun and Yosef, 49, - a veteran security officer at the US Consulate who stresses "lots of patience" as one of the most important pieces of equipment he carries - check in with Sammy Yagmour, who says he has helped look after the site since 1969. "When they are here, you can't see any robbers. It's happening, you know, but not like at other places. They help the tourists, the municipality, but they also help me," he says. His words are echoed by a merchant selling souvenirs to a group of tourists at the Mount Scopus lookout, our next stop. "When the tourists see the police, they trust us," the vendor says. "They know we are on the level and not trying to rip them off. It's good for my business to have them come by." "One guy said: 'It's a blessing that you are here' when he saw us pull up," says Yosef. "There are those who are at the tourist sites to make a living and therefore treat the tourists well, because it's their living, and there are those who come to steal," says Ben-Nun, glancing around for familiar felonious faces. "The peddling is just a cover-up. They don't come for too long, just long enough to steal something and disappear. We've gotten help sometimes from the legitimate peddlers, or guides who had contacts with them." "One tourist from Nigeria lost his wallet and since we have some relations with the peddlers at the sites, one of them came here and turned it in," recalls Zait. "There was about NIS 1,000 in it, and it was nice to find the tourist and give it back to him, and see how happy and appreciative he was, and to show that you do have some control of the area because the peddler could have taken it and no one would have known, but we had established a relationship with him." There's also another element to the unit's work. Yosef recognizes that his and his colleagues' actions might color a tourist's entire attitude about Israel. "Each tourist who is victimized might keep dozens, if not hundreds, of others from coming because of the bad experience. Unfortunately, these incidents happen, but if he is treated by the official representative of the state adequately, it will be just a minor memory." The team also occasionally runs into people suffering from "Jerusalem syndrome," in which they've been overcome by the spirituality of the place and are hallucinating a bit. "For instance, a guy would come and say he's Jesus Christ, and when you talk to him, he even has a business card printed up in that name," says Yosef. "Others think it's an act of God that they reached a particular tourist spot. But usually they're not violent to others or themselves, they just act strangely." THE MOST common dodges used by those who prey on the unsuspecting tourists are the aforementioned distraction by showing them books or accordion postcard collections while an accomplice picks their pockets or steals their bag, sometimes cutting it off their shoulders with an Exacto knife; the selling of "gold" items in shops which turn out to be anything but later on; and money changing, with tourists given incorrect amounts or NIS 100 bills "long out of circulation," says Zait. Which brings us to what particularly bugs him: stupid tourist tricks that make them easy prey. "One of the things that annoys me is to hear that someone was pickpocketed and had $5,000 in his wallet. Why do you have to carry so much money around? And if you do, then carry it in a fanny pack. Secondly, sometimes people don't watch over their things - don't leave them, don't forget them. Put things in the hotel safe. And do be alert - that's the best advice I can give, especially in east Jerusalem. Keep your guard up and your stuff close to you and don't wave around wallets that have lots of money in them." As one tour guide leader overheard a pickpocket say: "I hate Americans because they only carry credit cards; Europeans carry around lots of cash." Bernstein advises "keeping a few dollars in your pocket, and that's all." Our patrol car heads back to unit headquarters at the Russian Compound. Nothing beats the foot patrols, during which volunteer George Lamm, 68, a former Melbourne resident who's been with the unit for seven years, proudly recalls how he did manage to catch a thief. However, besides occasionally still pounding a beat, Lamm also provides another important function: helping to translate documents, like those filed by the Armenian and Orthodox churches over various disputes. "Usually at the time they celebrate Christmas, there's a fight over who's allowed into the Church of the Nativity. There are certain agreements about who can have it on which day, and these things are usually violated. So they send a letter to the Tourism Police, and I do the translating from English to Hebrew, as I do for other units as well," Lamm explains. Unit volunteers, who know a range of languages, are also summoned when required. "I'm doing something; I'm showing the better face of Israel and the police," says Lamm of his Tourist Police work. "And people come to thank us for the attention and everything we did, and instead of complaining about the police, they thank them." THAT'S CERTAINLY the case during an early morning Old City foot patrol by Ben-Nun and Yosef. Anna Pelkov, standing near the Citadel, watches them pass and says she and her husband Marin from South Bend, Indiana, "were surprised and pleased when we came with the bus, and two times the Tourist Police were around us." As the tourists arrive at Jaffa Gate, clutching cameras and water bottles and following their leaders, the policemen stay close as they head towards Via Dolorosa. Clad in protective vests, Ben-Nun and Yosef walk around a man carrying pitot on his head, past shops offering anything from candles to leather goods to beads to T-shirts emblazoned with the photo of US President Barack Obama sporting side-curls and a shtreimel reading "Obama - don't worry, be Jewish!" until they reach the Seventh Station of the Cross, where Gabi Carmi, a local man who works at the site, stops them to shake hands. "I work for the church here," he explains. "These policemen have a hard job. I want to bless them, that they have an easier time, and that we should all live in peace... Their being around helps a lot." Those sentiments are echoed by a group of American tourists getting an explanation from their guide at the Third Station. "We're able to enjoy the setting, taking in the sights that we've read and learned about, without having to worry about someone pulling on their wallet," says Mike Leonard, 54, of Orange, Texas. "Overall I'm happy to see them out." "It's an added layer of comfort having them here," says Mindy Pope of Washington, DC, as the group heads towards the Fifth Station, Yosef and Ben-Nun checking the perimeter. As Tom Koehler of Clearfield, Utah says of the possibility of being ripped off even in the Holy City, "There's unholy people everywhere, so it's nice they're here." His wife, Marina, agrees: "I like just knowing that somebody's got my back." Heading back out via Jaffa Gate, the two tourist policemen's presence also makes it easier for Jerri Benjamin, visiting from Dallas, to "rest easy, knowing that they're watching out for us. It allows me to focus on the beauty and the spiritual things" Jerusalem has to offer. That's the best reward, agrees Ben-Nun, heading back to headquarters: "The gratitude expressed by the tourists and on the faces of the guides," he says. "When they see us around, it increases their confidence that things will be okay... When you've dealt with something successfully, and the person involved is satisfied, I'm also satisfied. I go home feeling good, and I come to work the next morning happy." Any tourist who wishes to reach the Tourist Police in Jerusalem can call (02) 539-1263.