How to counter lone wolf attacks - opinion

The role of the Israel Police in the national agenda must be strengthened and enlarged as part of finding a new balance between defending the nation’s borders and building up internal resilience. 

 POLICE OFFICERS at the scene of a shooting and stabbing attack in Jerusalem’s Old City last November.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
POLICE OFFICERS at the scene of a shooting and stabbing attack in Jerusalem’s Old City last November.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

The recent escalation in terrorist incidents in Israel has shed light on the critical role of the overstretched Israel Police and Border Police.

The number of terrorist attacks has been on the up since the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza in May. Many of the attacks have occurred in Jerusalem, and this is no coincidence, due to the centrality of the city in fanatical Islamist rhetoric – rhetoric that is at odds with traditional Islam. 

Armed with knives or firearms, many of the terrorists perpetrating the latest attacks have pounced on their victims in east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah region, as well as the Damascus Gate area of the Old City.

The dynamics of this latest trend are not complicated. Intense online incitement falls on attentive ears, and some of the audience, often in mental and sometimes economic distress, decide to act. 

They have been promised 72 virgins in paradise if they become martyrs, and they decide on their own to stab or shoot civilians. 

Israel Border Policeman Oscar Vasilikhin at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem with Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai after he was injured in a car-ramming terrorist attack, October 15, 2021. (credit: ISRAEL POLICE SPOKESMAN)Israel Border Policeman Oscar Vasilikhin at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem with Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai after he was injured in a car-ramming terrorist attack, October 15, 2021. (credit: ISRAEL POLICE SPOKESMAN)

Instead of an organized system of terror cells being activated, individuals get up in the morning and say to themselves that the time has come to kill Jews. They use the simplest of weapons – and due to these factors, preventing their actions becomes very complicated for security forces. 

Still, most of these incidents end with the attackers neutralized in little time, with civilians injured in some cases, and killed in others. The speed of the reaction of security forces means civilian deaths and injuries are minimized. 

When intelligence is lacking, readiness, alertness, and rapid response abilities are what is left to deal with terrorists. 

Police saturate known hot spots, such as the Old City and Sheikh Jarrah, with officers, and as a result, those forces are not available for crime-fighting and other missions elsewhere. 

The officers’ determination to bravely engage terrorists saves lives. They must operate under difficult, crowded conditions, where civilians could easily be hit. 

On December 4, Border Police officers engaged a terrorist armed with a knife, who had stabbed an Israeli civilian, shooting him before he was able to carry out his murderous intentions. A public storm has since raged over that incident, as the two officers involved were immediately called in for questioning by the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department, and their weapons were confiscated. Ultimately, the right decision prevailed, and the investigation ended quickly without needing to rebuke the officers. The PID will need to rethink its protocol for cases in which members of the police acted heroically to save lives, and its decision to confiscate weapons automatically was fully unnecessary. 

The officers should have been given a little time to process the incident, to meet with commanders, and if necessary, to receive psychological care, after just having prevented a terrorist murder. 

The backing that they received from police command and the government was fully appropriate in this case. 

Israel Police, and the Border Police, which is a part of it, face challenges unlike those faced by their counterparts in many other countries. 

In the State of Israel, the police have officially been responsible for domestic security and counterterrorism since 1974, in addition to classic policing missions, from crime-fighting to traffic enforcement. 

There are no other police forces in the world that within a period of just one month neutralized six terror attacks on the streets. This demands resources and attention that takes away from other sectors, such as personnel availability and training. 

The Border Police are at the forefront of this mission. While the regular blue police also play a role, each police district has Border Police companies operating with it, and these units have a semi-military orientation.  

The green Border Police include both conscripts and career officers, and it is subject to the commands of police district chiefs under whom they operate. 

Thus, the Border Police can receive specialized missions, such as controlling riots, tracking down Palestinians who have entered the country illegally, or protecting farmland from theft. 

These units can go from one district to another, and this is in fact what they are forced to do because the police force suffers from chronic personnel shortages. When police send thousands of reinforcements to the Jerusalem District, the Tel Aviv District is left exposed. 

ONE QUESTION that has arisen over the years is whether this modus operandi is the right one. Instead of splitting up thousands of Border Police personnel, perhaps focusing them en masse on a single mission would lead to its rapid completion. For example, sending thousands of Border Police to take on illegal marijuana farms run by Bedouin in the Negev region could stamp out the issue in a single swoop. 

Aside from such specialized missions, the Border Police could also be assigned to the role of being uniquely responsible for emergencies, freeing up the Israel Police for its classic missions. This would follow the model of the National Guard in the United States, or the Carabinieri in Italy – a military force with law enforcement powers. 

In the West Bank, the Border Police play a critical role in riot control as it is better trained than the IDF to deal with such incidents. The military’s focus is on defeating enemies with firepower, and not on breaking up rioting in the streets.  

Israel is in a tough neighborhood, surrounded by Hezbollah, Syria, Hamas in Gaza, ISIS in the Sinai peninsula, and threatened by Iran to the east. The Iranian axis’s threat to the Israeli home front is considerable, and it is on the home front and not along the country’s borders that the next war will be fought. 

This means that the Israel Police and the IDF Home Front Command are at the forefront of dealing with this threat. 

With this being the situation, Israel’s national resilience – and not only its national security – becomes paramount. Israel’s ability to win the next war will not just depend on buying more F-35s and missiles, but also on investing more in the police, in firefighters, hospitals, the ability of authorities to communicate effectively with the public, and the entire collective resilience system. 

The role of the police, the Home Front Command, the National Security Council, the National Emergency Authority, and others must be clearly defined now so that when the emergency arrives, the nation’s resilience will be optimal. 

As part of that new clarity, the place of the Israel Police in the national agenda must be strengthened and enlarged significantly, including through greater allocation of resources, as part of a new balance between defending the nation’s borders and building up internal resilience. 

This week’s murderous shooting attack in the northern West Bank, in which Palestinian terrorists shot dead Israeli citizen Yehuda Dimentman and wounded two others, makes clear that what begins with a wave of lone attacks does not end with sporadic incidents, and that Hamas’s incitement to hate, together with the “inspiration effect,” continues to nourish terrorists. 

The resilience of a country is based on the resilience of the individual, the society, the community, and the local authority. The ability of a country to continue onwards is based on its resilience and not only on its tactical capability. 

The writer, a retired assistant-chief, served for 34 years in the Israel Police. He concluded his service as deputy commissioner in 2019. He is a publishing expert at The Miryam Institute.