Abraham's Tent

A SMOTJ Web Magazine

How Jerusalem's Top Cop Keeps the Peace

An ongoing goal of "Abraham’s Tent" is to seek a clearer understanding of the three monotheistic faiths in the Mideast, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. How to build bridges between those belief systems is part of that objective. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal touched on one step taken in that direction: The development of successful techniques of Israeli police in dealing with their Palestinian neighbors, actions that include respect, sympathy and better understanding. Excerpts from that article follow.


The edited article is as follows:

In a region beset by war and political turmoil, Israel and its capital in particular have remained relatively calm. That’s thanks in part to radical changes in counterterrorism policing led by Maj. Gen. Yoram Halevy, 54, commander of the Israeli Police’s Jerusalem district.

One of the force’s most experienced officers, Gen. Halevy has for the past 17 months overseen the police’s counterterrorism mission in Jerusalem, including roughly 5,000 officers of the Israeli Police and the Border Police. A Jerusalem-born son of Iraqi Jews, he speaks fluent Arabic and has worked undercover in Arab communities. In an interview only days before the Temple Mount attack, he discussed some of his reforms publicly for the first time and explained why he thinks they are reducing both violence and civilian tolerance of it.

The most effective way of mitigating Palestinian hatred, he adds, is to “empower the silent civilian majority, which is sick and tired of the violence, but afraid to say so.” That, he says, is his overarching goal.

Gen. Halevy meets me in his office, which adjoins the Western Wall, a symbol of the eternal Jewish presence in this disputed city. Tapping the plaster wall near his desk, he observes that Judaism’s most sacred stones lie just beneath. His window looks down on the pilgrims from around the world who come to pray and tuck notes into gaps between the thick slabs of ancient limestone. On the other side of the historic divide are the tens of thousands of Muslims who pray at the Temple Mount each Friday—numbers that swell to as many as 240,000 during the month of Ramadan.

“There are extremists on both sides of this wall,” Gen. Halevy says, referring not only to Islamist terrorist groups like Hamas but also Jewish zealots like the one that killed former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “But the law applies to all equally.” He has worked to instill that ethos in his overwhelmingly Jewish force. In the past when Palestinians attacked Israelis, he says, officers considered the suspects “enemies,” even after they had been cleared of wrongdoing. Questioning by police often meant gratuitous humiliation for men whose culture prizes honor: “Fathers were interrogated and berated in front of sons; sons in front of fathers.” Through police retraining, Gen. Halevy has worked to end what he calls the “system of humiliation.” Now officers are taught how to minimize personal dishonor during questioning. Suspects who are cleared receive an explanation of why they had fallen under suspicion—and, if appropriate, an apology. Then, in what Gen. Halevy describes as “phase two” of an interrogation, the police ask: “How can I help you?’ ” Officers under Gen. Halevy’s command make a point of getting to know the community. In the past, too many Jerusalemites, especially Palestinians, never encountered the police until after a protest, stone-throwing or other attack. Those encounters tended to produce hostility, even though Palestinian merchants, government workers and civilians have the most to lose when violence triggers closures.

Now, he says, thanks in part to the changes in policing, “people are increasingly speaking out against the violence and signaling a lack of support for such attacks.” Last month after Hadas Malka, a 23-year-old sergeant major in the Border Police, was fatally stabbed near Damascus Gate before the final week of Ramadan, Jerusalem remained calm. Military and police special forces were deployed to prevent further attacks, but “there were no riots or protests in the city,” Gen. Halevy recalls. “Nor were there celebrations or glorification of the three Palestinians who killed her and were then killed themselves. It was the quietest Ramadan in Jerusalem on record.” Gen. Halevy has opened a police unit within a new community center that serves Palestinians by issuing permits, identity cards and driver’s licenses and provides fire, ambulance and other essential services. Two or three more are expected to open in the coming year. The first “combined civilian service center” is in the Shuafat refugee camp, on the border between Jerusalem and the West Bank—traditionally a difficult area for Israeli law enforcement. Many Palestinians who never would approach a police station are willing to seek help at these community centers, Gen. Halevy says: “Last week a woman was hysterical because her son had not come home.” Officers drove her around the neighborhood for hours until they found him.

The police also tried to ease the security burden on Palestinians who came from the West Bank to Jerusalem for prayer during Ramadan. Before Gen. Halevy took command, those who lacked blue Israeli identity cards endured grueling checks at the city limits. At the request of the Israel Defense Forces, during this Ramadan the police, working with the Palestinian Authority, began conducting security checks in Ramallah and Bethlehem, then transporting Palestinians to Jerusalem by bus. “They go straight to the Temple Mount,” Gen. Halevy says, “arriving without agitation, frustration or the humiliation sometimes inflicted at the outskirts of the city.” He adds that no one who entered the city on a prayer bus has perpetrated a terror attack.

If Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents are now treated with greater respect, they also know that their community will pay a heavy price for terrorism or violence: “Whenever stones or firebombs are thrown at Israeli forces, traffic on that street is stopped and shops are closed,” Gen. Halevy says. “Merchants and homeowners near the incident are questioned. People in that neighborhood know they have a lot to lose.” After Sgt. Malka’s murder, Israel canceled all permits for Palestinian family visits in Jerusalem during Ramadan, affecting between 100,000 and 300,000 people. That was in addition to Israel’s usual practice of prohibiting males age 12 to 40 from visiting the Temple Mount during the holy month.

Punishment can be particularly severe for a terrorist’s relatives. In addition to sealing or destroying the family home, the police now bring the full force of Israeli law to bear against anyone in the terrorist’s hamula—extended family—who celebrates the murder of Israelis or contemplates attacks to avenge the dead kin. “We think that collective punishment does not stop terror,” Gen. Halevy says. “But if, after monitoring family members, we conclude that some relatives are determined to incite more violence or plot revenge, we delay their permits to open a business or insure homes or property. We fine them and their property for minor infractions of rules and take other legal steps to let the community know that inciting or committing violence will be punished.” What Israeli police are not permitted to do is confiscate a suspect’s Israeli identity card. “That would be an effective deterrent,” Gen. Halevy allows, “but it is not legal.” The goal of retribution, he says, is “predictability”: “We want the community to know that the police will protect them when needed, and punish them when warranted. Consistency leads to public trust in the system.”

Jeffrey Peter Agnes
LTC Thomas P. Curtis II
Contributing Editors
Rev. Michael P. Forbes
David D. Fautua
Readers are encouraged to write in letters to the editor with questions and observations at the following address: tent@smotj.org

Judaism is a monotheistic religion, with the Torah as its foundational text (part of the larger text known as the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible), and supplemental oral tradition represented by later texts such as the Mishnah and the Talmud. Judaism is considered by religious Jews to be the expression of the covenantal relationship God established with the Children of Israel.

Islam is a monotheistic and Abrahamic religion articulated by the Qur'an, a book considered by its adherents to be the verbatim word of God (Arabic: Allāh) and by the teachings and normative example (called the Sunnah and composed of hadith) of Muhammad (c. 570 BC – c. 8 June 632 AD), considered by them to be the last prophet of God.

Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and oral teachings of Jesus as presented in the New Testament. Most Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, fully divine and fully human, and the saviour of humanity whose coming was prophesied in the Old Testament. Consequently, Christians refer to Jesus as "Christ" or the Messiah.