It’s unclear what is more disturbing over the last couple of days: the unprecedented Jewish vs. Arab riots and violence taking place throughout the country, or the impotency of the police to take control of the situation.
Unfortunately, it’s not a new story, but an ominous repeat of continuing failures by the Israel Police and the Public Security Ministry led by Minister Amir Ohana to strategize ahead of planned potentially troublesome events, to show up promptly when unexpected events occur and to perform their primary functions: protecting the public and preventing criminal activity.
Let’s review some very recent examples.
Late last month, police in Jerusalem placed barricades outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate in order to stop young east Jerusalem Arabs from congregating there and instigating violence against police and Jewish passersby during the month of Ramadan.
The move was seen as a catalyst for days of protests and riots by Arabs that plagued the capital last month, as well as retaliatory acts of violence by Jewish extremist groups. Only when the situation seemed to be getting out of control, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai ordered the removal of the barricades.
Continuing with the Jerusalem Old City tensions, at the beginning of this week, with clashes raging on the Temple Mount following the court hearing on the eviction of Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah from their homes, the annual Jerusalem Day flag march by Israeli nationalists through the Old City beginning at Damascus Gate was still allowed to go ahead. The march has long been seen as an unneeded provocation against the Arab residents of Jerusalem and coming at such a sensitive time, it was a no-brainer to either divert the route or call off the festivities.
Only at the last minute, as marchers had started moving, did the police announce a change in the route to avoid the Muslim Quarter. According to KAN News, Ohana opposed the move.
A week before that near debacle, a bona fide disaster occurred when 45 people were killed and more than 150 injured at Lag Ba’omer festivities on Mount Meron.
In an interview with N12 following the tragedy, Shabtai acknowledged that the police were aware of the dangers of allowing such a mass gathering but they were helpless to prevent it.
“I could say ‘ok, I’m banging on the table and saying this event will not take place’ but would the event really not take place?” he asked. “It’s like saying the Temple Mount or the Western Wall plaza will be closed tomorrow.”
He also told N12 that Ohana had instructed him not to send a letter to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit demanding the establishment of a state commission of inquiry as he had originally intended to, and he ultimately chose to follow his advice.
“I don’t want to go into the dirty laundry of words like guilt and blame,” Shabtai said, adding ”My conscience is clear; I’m not going to resign. Various forces are making this difficult for the police, and I will not allow them to turn us into scapegoats.”
For his part, Ohana admitted that he was responsible overall for safety at the gathering, “but responsibility does not mean guilt.” Ohana said. “The whole chain of command has done its job. I am ready to face any scrutiny and answer any question.”
Which takes us to the riots this week, amid the current Israel-Hamas conflict, that have taken place in Lod, Tiberias, Acre, Bat Yam and other cities, pitting Arab and Jewish residents against each other.
Numerous reports from residents as well as video footage during the riots point to a woeful lack of police presence and a total lack of preparedness for a flashpoint for altercation that should have been expected following the earlier riots in Lod, which left one Arab assailant dead at the hands of a Jewish resident who says he shot at a mob approaching his home in self-defense.
None of the above examples are normative for a well-functioning police force. Whether Shabtai and Ohana are guilty or merely responsible is irrelevant. Both of them should draw the necessary conclusions and do the right thing by leaving their offices and enabling a different public security minister and police chief to attempt to restore confidence in their institutions and law and order on the street.