Senseless no-go zones

It is an absurd situation when our men in blue cannot enter certain haredi and Arab neighborhoods because of extreme violence they encounter.

Mea Shearim barrier 311 (photo credit: Yehudah Mirsky)
Mea Shearim barrier 311
(photo credit: Yehudah Mirsky)
A police representative announced in court last month that Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood has become a no-go zone for the men in blue. Every time police enter, the official explained, they encounter violence from haredi extremists. And that is why they failed to arrest a criminal suspect for over a month despite knowing exactly where in the neighborhood he was.
Nor is Mea She’arim the only place where police face such problems. Many Arab towns and neighborhoods have similarly been declared no-go zones because police operations there routinely spark violence. Jewish extremists in the West Bank seem to be trying to gain the settlements such status as well: They regularly attack soldiers and policemen enforcing the planning and building laws.
But the police’s decision to deal with this problem by simply throwing up their hands and staying away is unconscionable. First, it’s a betrayal of the very people they are sworn to protect – the decent, law-abiding citizens who comprise the vast majority of residents in all of these locales. As Kalansua Mayor Mahmoud Hadija complained in October after his brother was killed, criminals “know that whatever they do, the police won’t investigate,” leaving ordinary citizens defenseless against them.
Moreover, by proving that violence works, this response merely encourages other groups of extremists to adopt the same tactic. As a result, more and more of the country is becoming a no-go zone.
Nor can police credibly claim to have no alternative. In fact, despite certain obvious differences, there’s an applicable model that has racked up stunning success right here in Israel over the last decade: the Shin Bet security service’s approach to the second intifada.
When the intifada erupted in 2000, there was a fierce debate between the army and the Shin Bet over how to deal with it. The army essentially accepted the dogma that it makes no difference how many terrorists you kill or put behind bars, because the supply of replacements is endless. In the popular phrase of those days, it’s like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.
But then-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter insisted otherwise. He argued that the more terrorists you capture or kill, the more potential recruits will decide that the risks outweigh the rewards and that terrorism doesn’t pay. Thus arresting or killing terrorists not only reduces the number of current terrorists; it also dries up the supply of replacements.
Every Israeli knows who won this argument: Terror-related fatalities fell from a peak of 450 in 2002 to just 13 by 2007. It turns out you really can empty that ocean.
Police, of course, don’t have the option of killing the violent extremists who have turned places like Mea She’arim into no-go zones. But killing actually played a minor role in Israel’s counter-terrorism strategy. At most, around 3,000 terrorists were killed during the intifada (not counting civilian deaths). In contrast, the Palestinian Authority claims that 70,000 Palestinians were arrested at some point during those years (Israel publishes no statistics on this issue). And even if that number is exaggerated, the true figure is certainly in the tens of thousands.
TODAY, 11 years after the intifada began, Israeli jails still hold an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Palestinian prisoners. Yet most of those arrested have already been freed: They were either briefly detained for questioning or convicted of crimes carrying relatively short sentences that have long since expired.
Widespread arrests clearly are within the police’s capability; all it takes is enough boots on the ground to make it happen. And here, too, the intifada provides the model. When Israel launched its counter-terrorism offensive in March 2002, it flooded the West Bank with troops. But by last year, Israeli troop levels in the West Bank were at their lowest point since the first intifada began in 1987. With the terrorist ocean having largely been emptied, high troop levels are no longer needed.
Thus instead of declaring places like Mea She’arim no-go zones, what police ought to be doing is entering with massive force – enough not only to protect themselves, but to make widespread arrests of those responsible. They then need to prosecute significant numbers of those arrested (bringing cameramen to document the violence might help).
Initially, widespread arrests and prosecutions might well inflame tempers and lead to even more violence. But if police persist with this method of massive troop levels, large-scale arrests and multiple prosecutions, would-be extremists will eventually conclude that violence doesn’t pay, just as Palestinians in the West Bank did. And then, it will possible to bring manpower levels in these areas back to normal. In contrast, if those arrested are simply let go, the extremists will conclude that violence carries no price, giving them an incentive to escalate it in the hopes of getting the police to back off.
Moreover, such an effort would reduce the risk of other Israeli groups adopting similar tactics. Most of those who use violence against policemen, whether in Arab towns, settlement outposts or ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, don’t do so because they are addicted to violence or because they are martyrs willing to be jailed for their cause, but because they have seen that it effectively deters the police from demolishing illegal homes, arresting neighborhood residents, conducting autopsies or whatever the cause du jour without the perpetrators paying any serious price. If people instead see that not only aren’t the police deterred, but the perpetrators end up going to jail, the number of Israelis willing to consider using violence to achieve their goals will rapidly decline.
Clearly, however, a policy that entails massive manpower levels, a short-term rise in violence and large-scale arrests cannot be implemented without political backing. Thus ultimately, solving the problem of these no-go zones is the government’s responsibility. And given how little interest most Israeli politicians have shown in lawand- order issues, it’s likely to be a long wait.

The writer is a journalist and commentator. This article is also available on our website’s Premium Zone.