Israel Police key to Jerusalem security, regional security - opinion

Jerusalem has always been the issue that could blow up the region. It’s the volcano that’s always smoldering and the Israel Police is the lid on that volcano.

 PALESTINIANS WAVE flags and banners at al-Aqsa Mosque, on the holiday of Eid al-Adha, in July.  (photo credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)
PALESTINIANS WAVE flags and banners at al-Aqsa Mosque, on the holiday of Eid al-Adha, in July.
(photo credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)

In the wake of a deadly wave of terrorism that hit Israeli cities beginning in March 2022, the IDF launched Operation Break the Wave to reduce the threat and it has been ongoing since then.

Operations focused at first on the northern West Bank city of Jenin and later Nablus, where the core hubs of Palestinian terror activities are presently located.

Throughout the security escalation, it seemed reasonable to believe that mixed Jewish – Arab cities including Ramle, Lod, Jerusalem and Acre could, from one moment to the next, erupt in violence just as they did so dramatically and disturbingly in May 2021, as Israel fought Hamas in Gaza in Operation Guardian of the Walls.

The spark for that conflict was lit in Jerusalem, where clashes between Palestinians and the Israel Police on the Temple Mount, together with subsequent incidents of violence, provided Hamas with the pretense to fire rockets from Gaza. Islamist agitators used the violence to incite unrest among Arab-Israelis.

In mid-October, violence once again tore through eastern Jerusalem, only this time it was rapidly quelled by police without spreading to new arenas. While it has resurfaced on occasion as the month progressed, police have so far kept the flames low, preventing them from spreading out of control.

 WAVING HAMAS flags after Ramadan prayers on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, April 22. Occupationalists seems to side with Hamas and not with peaceful Muslim worshipers. (credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90) WAVING HAMAS flags after Ramadan prayers on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, April 22. Occupationalists seems to side with Hamas and not with peaceful Muslim worshipers. (credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)

That development is a reminder of a core principle that underlines regional stability: the key lies in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem has always been the issue that could blow up the region. It’s the volcano that’s always smoldering and the Israel Police is the lid on that volcano. If the volcano blows, it takes the West Bank with it and as recent events have shown, Gaza and Arab areas inside Israel, as well.

Jerusalem is under the exclusive territorial jurisdiction of the Israel Police, meaning that it and no other agency has the main say on how to respond to the daily challenges that arise there.

Policing Jerusalem is a constant balancing act between the need to be forceful in the face of Palestinian aggression and attacks on Israeli police and Jewish residents of eastern Jerusalem, and the need to pull back and push for calm. Much is at stake and depends on the good judgment of police commanders on the ground who are always walking a tightrope.

The Israel Police achieves this balance by deploying top-level commanders to the front lines to take direct charge of policing operations. These commanders do not leave the Border Police and other units on their own to deal with the difficult issues that land at their doorstep.

This means directly overseeing orders on when to open fire in cases where lives are at risk and when to deploy non-lethal crowd control means, including smoke bombs and stun grenades to deal with disturbances in a controlled manner.

During October’s rioting, Palestinian youths hurled firebombs and rocks and launched fireworks directly at security forces, as well as at buildings in which Jews reside. Such attacks are potentially lethal but police nevertheless employ careful consideration when responding.

Equipping riot police with the most advanced protective gear makes personnel feel safer and prevents them from choosing the fiercest responses in such situations, police have learned.

Dealing with such intense rioting and dispersing the rioters is a full profession, and the Border Police and the special patrol units excel in it.

The fact that there are members of Knesset who knowingly come to the area to take part in provocations only makes life more complicated for the police, which must deploy larger numbers of forces to the scene to prevent such situations from spinning out of control or being further inflamed.

INTELLIGENCE PLAYS a critical role in both containing and thwarting such incidents. In 2021, the police, the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency and the IDF discovered that intelligence coordination between them was lacking. Since then, they have taken steps to optimize intelligence-sharing and have significantly improved their capabilities not just in Jerusalem but throughout Israel.

Police made dozens of arrests in mid-October and were able to significantly calm the situation down, reflecting a satisfactory performance and one that has improved from past years.

The eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat, where a terrorist gunman exited a vehicle and shot dead an Israeli Border Policewoman on October 8, represents a unique operational challenge.

The terrorist (who was later killed after opening fire outside another Israeli community in the West Bank) fled the scene, compelling police to place the area under a local, temporary closure to facilitate the search for the gunman.

Despite these incidents, prayers at the Western Wall went on as normal and visitors continued to ascend the Temple Mount. Tens of thousands of Jews prayed at the Western Wall and tens of thousands of Muslims worshiped at al-Aqsa Mosque. The police’s ability to enable such mass religious activities, while proactively tackling rioting in neighborhoods a stone’s throw away from the religious sites is an exceptional achievement that cannot be taken for granted.

During this month of unrest, the Border Police flexed a new muscle that it received as part of the lessons learned from the events of 2021. Known as the Israeli National Guard, the Border Police called up reserve companies as means to help deal with personnel requirements. These forces are heavily focused on counter-rioting and counter-terrorism missions, and this is their specialty.

Throughout the month, police followed up on intelligence to thwart attacks, swarmed hot spots in large numbers, made arrests based on accurate information, and were able to home in on inciters and rioters. This included fishing out the main agitators on social media and arresting those using online platforms to instigate violence. All of these actions helped create deterrence.

Frequent situational assessments are carried out by the Jerusalem District of the Israel Police to keep its organizational finger on the pulse of events, together with the Shin Bet and the IDF. These assessments resulted in decisions such as placing police officers along the streets of the Old City just tens of meters apart, creating a high degree of security.

The Israel Police finds itself facing the most sensitive decisions regarding Jerusalem, including those that touch on the Temple Mount. The area’s sensitivity, especially around the Mount, is so great that many of these decisions are brought to the attention of the government and the prime minister.

The past two years have demonstrated beyond any doubt how internal security is critical. While external threats are major, Israel has invested far more in dealing with them than it has in domestic security. Yet the threat within is clear to all.

Adding a few hundred extra police officers to the force won’t solve the problem. Police must receive additional support from the government, such as increasing the size of the force substantially, equipping it with better technology and boosting its presence in the Arab sector, where police can provide a better service, and enforce sovereignty and law enforcement. Failure to implement these steps will have dire future consequences for the entire country.

The writer is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. He was a combat helicopter pilot in the Air Force and later served for 34 years in the Israel Police, concluding as deputy commissioner, in 2019. He is head of the National Resilience Department at Ono Academic College.