Amid pandemic, Israel Police must balance between enforcement, support

Israeli police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on September 29, 2020. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Israeli police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on September 29, 2020.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
As a result of the government’s vacillation between reopening some parts of our country while limiting others, Israel Police now face extreme challenges during the pandemic era.
While in the first wave, the public’s top concern was the disease itself, in the second wave, its fears have turned to its economic well-being. Meanwhile, the pandemic has provided a stage for political and social crises. Political paralysis and instability preceded the pandemic, and have been intensified by it.
This has caused state systems to suffer a significant shake-up, and ultimately, the police find themselves in the role of the responsible adult, forced to act as a mediator in society – between Right and Left, the desire of ultra-Orthodox to enter synagogues and the desire of protesters to crowd together in demonstrations and manifest their democratic rights.
This trend is accelerated by the fact that vast sections of the public are facing personal financial hardships and the failure of their businesses.
When a crisis hits, it is the police that must bear the brunt. Currently, they find themselves having to handle the pandemic’s extraordinary aftershocks, while at the same time continuing to combat crime, deal with traffic accidents and fight the war on drugs. As they conduct these missions, the police now must also enforce mask wearing, social distancing and engage in situations where otherwise law-abiding citizens gradually enter into a state of civil disobedience.
As they do so, the police cannot decrease its anti-crime, counter-terrorism or traffic operations.
The scope of this challenge is only growing.
The fact that the police entered this situation with an acting commissioner, not an appointed commissioner, does not make things easier. A commissioner must be appointed as soon as possible, and the government’s procrastination in getting this done is causing real damage to the police’s ability to act in an organized and effective manner.
At the same time, it is worth noting that the acting commissioner, Motti Cohen, is executing his role in a very professional manner, and is taking correct operational decisions during one of the police’s most difficult hours.
With time, the police are slowly learning how to enforce the new public health laws, but those are changing and being updated frequently, leaving the force to adjust each time, something that makes enforcement even more difficult.
In terms of the relations between police and the ultra-Orthodox population, it is vital to point out that this sector is not monolithic, and is made up of various streams. Most haredi citizens have a full understanding of the dangers posed by the pandemic and have abided by the law. There are, however, a number of elements in this sector that explicitly ignore regulations and present an enormous challenge to the state’s efforts to break the chain of infection.
The police have, despite the myriad challenges, been able to build strong relations with the haredi sector. It employs community policing techniques, has drafted women investigators from the haredi world, and managed to build bridges to the community. The police have ultra-Orthodox volunteers, and work closely with haredi paramedics and with the ZAKA emergency response teams.
Despite these positive attributes, there are extreme streams that disregard national laws, and these provocations end up at the police’s door.
The police are also learning to deal with the risk of their own officers becoming infected with the virus when policing mass demonstrations and events. Hundreds of police officers have been infected so far, and thousands have had to go into isolation. When the number of missions it must conduct is examined, it becomes clear that police have too few personnel and too many missions.
And yet, the Israel Police are managing to conduct enforcement that is smart and appropriate.
Israel in general is lacking when it comes to communicating with the public on enforcement and public health rules that are designed to prevent infection. This creates an additional layer of challenges that officers on the ground must deal with.   
Still, with time, the world will exit the pandemic crisis, either by learning to live with it or by defeating the virus. The police must therefore think about the day after the public crisis of confidence in the state and its authorities and consider how to rehabilitate the collateral damage to trust it has suffered.
Israel Police have an enormous role in our national resilience. While they must conduct determined enforcement against disturbances or blatant public health violations, law enforcement must also see things from the perspective of a civilian. A civilian who has lost his or her job, or perhaps lost a loved one to disease, is fearful and often faces extreme pressures. The police must know how to contain that, and to be sympathetic to such civilians.
Ultimately, in such an unusual, challenging time, the police will not be able to bridge all gaps. Extreme times bring about extreme actions. These are not normal times; it is critical for police to be smart, and to avoid incidents in which officers have to activate force against young children in synagogues or schools, for example.
The police must enforce public health laws with economic sanctions, and receive assistance from other sectors of the state, since provocations against the law are ultimately directed at the state itself, not only at police.
Ultimately, for the police, successfully navigating these challenging times requires striking the balance between determined enforcement and supporting the population they are here to serve.
The writer is a publishing expert at MirYamInstitute.Org and a former deputy commissioner of Israel Police.