Forget crimefighting, maintaining the quality of life, or protecting property. The mission of the Israel National Police in the two years since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifadah has been to prevent Palestinian terrorists from Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Fatah, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Hezbollah and the PFLP-GC from perpetrating suicide bombing attacks inside the confines of Israel’s metropolitan areas.
Since September 28, 2000, when the Palestinian war officially erupted, there have been more than 85 suicide bombing attacks against Israel’s cities and towns. In all, over 500 Israeli civilians have been killed in these, and other, attacks. The attacks are indiscriminate and almost always target innocent civilians. A favorite Palestinian target has been the country’s buses; however, hotels, cafés, markets and thoroughfares have not been spared from attacks.
The notion of small, tactically proficient, special patrol units (SPU) grew not out of a need to battle terrorists, or even go after heavily armed drug gangs, but rather as a force to assist the local patrol cops to maintain order— especially during political demonstrations. The first SPU was established in the early 1990s, in Jerusalem, as a mobile response force to deal with handling large-scale political gatherings and keep them from escalating out of control into full scale riots— something that Israeli politics was known to produce when parties of differing opinions expressed their viewpoints.
The Israeli capital was the scene of countless rallies and protests, and the SPU was tasked with ensuring that such gatherings remained peaceful, as well as safe from possible terrorist attacks— 10,000 people marching on the Knesset promoting one cause or another would be a tempting target for a terrorist eager to launch a grenade or gun attack, as well as someone determined to blow himself up.
The SPU officers, trained in tactical operations and equipped with assault rifles and other special operations equipment, would also patrol high-crime and sensitive areas in very visible foot patrols and initiate anti-crime and anti-narcotic operations. The notion of the Special Patrol Units soon caught on to other police districts and each began to field elite units of their own.
Yiftach is the busiest sub-district in Tel Aviv— if not all of Israel— with one of the highest crime rates in the country. The sub-district encompasses what is known as South Tel Aviv. The area encompasses a mosaic of neighborhoods, industrial zones, beachfront property and slums, including: the old and new central bus stations, a prime terrorist target as well as a ghetto of dilapidated housing, illegal rooming houses for foreign workers and many of the city’s lower end brothels; and, Jaffa, a mixed Arab-Jewish area of the city known for its high-crime and narcotics.
The Yiftach sub-district is one of the most difficult beats in Tel Aviv— and Israel, for that matter— to police. The area covers some of Israel’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods, Arabs slums that are often used as conduits for narcotics trafficking and terrorist operations, and the city’s central bus station— considered by many to be the busiest transportation hub in the entire Middle East.
Working lengthy shifts, the 25 officers in the Yiftach sub-district SPU are tasked with patrolling the streets and neighborhoods of the area, mounting intensive tactical anti-crime patrols, and serving as first responders to any terrorist acts committed in the district and the city. SPU officers are the first special weapons and tactics element capable of dealing with a suicide bombing or a drive-by shooting attack in the city. They are equipped with automatic rifles and submachine guns as well as heavy protective ballistic gear.
In the event of a bus hijacking or a hostage-taking incident, the SPU is tasked with, alongside Border Guard district tactical units, securing a perimeter until the Ya’ma’m, the national police counterterrorist team, can resolve the ordeal. But, in case there simply is no time to wait for the specialists from the Ya’ma’m to arrive— especially since the unit is heavily involved in dealing with tactical operations against Palestinian terrorist factions waging the Intifadah— and terrorists are shooting hostages, units like the Yiftach SPU routinely train in tubular assault techniques and hostage rescue operations.
Much of the Yiftach counterterrorist assault training, it should be noted, is carried out on the frequent high-risk arrest and narcotics warrants that the unit executes each week. While drug raids might not be akin to storming a bus hijacked by suicidal Hamas operatives, the warrants are executed against heavily armed Arab and Russian gangs who show no hesitation when it comes to resisting arrest.
Life in the Yiftach SPU, like similar units throughout Israel, is defined by patrol. During any given shift, seven days a week, officers from the SPU are out and about in their patrol vans providing a high-visibility anti-crime deterrent to areas where criminal activity is high and in areas where terrorists have been known to strike. Officers volunteer into an SPU because they are proactive and innovative.
During the course of an evening’s patrol, the officers in the SPUs will also conduct numerous tactical vehicle stops. The car stops serve both an anti-crime and counterterrorist objective. Checking vehicles deemed suspicious allows the officers to arrest drug dealers, drug users, and thieves heading to and from their scores. All Israelis are required to carry identity cards, and background checks, radioed in by the officers from their road stop locations to headquarters, can often reveal if an individual is wanted by police for an outstanding warrant, or if the ID is a fraud and perhaps he is an operative from a terrorist organization.
When the al-Aqsa Intifadah commenced and Tel Aviv and its surrounding suburbs became one of the prime targets of the terrorist groups, the same proactive and preemptive approach was applied to the war against the suicide bombers. They cannot search every vehicle entering the city in search of suicide bombers, but they can surprise them, initiate action, and see what it is they are able to find.
They might in the process of setting up a tactical roadblock uncover a facilitator driving in a suicide bomber, or even find a stolen car. The imperative to remember is to initiate action, to surprise, and to put the terrorists as much off guard as they put law enforcement off their regular routine. It’s a chess game and if they lose, women and children die.
One by one, oncoming traffic is forced to slow down as officers, armed with M4 5.56mm carbines and Mini-Uzi 9mm submachine guns, carefully check out the drivers and passengers. Are the drivers Arabs? Do they look nervous? Does the car appear to be stolen? Is it booby-trapped? Profiling, what has become an unspoken word in the politically correct universe of American law enforcement, is an essential part of Israel’s law enforcement counterterrorism efforts.
Just picking out the Arab motorists, whether they are a Palestinian working in Israel illegally, or an Arab citizen of the State of Israel with full legal rights, the fact of the matter is that 99% of all acts of terrorism perpetrated against Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv and other cities, has been perpetrated by Arabs, so it is natural that they focus their attention on this group of people, according to a SPU sergeant.
Police and rescue personnel race through the gridlocked alleys and streets of the city to reach a blast site, as do elements from the Tel Aviv bomb squad— the smoldering remains of the bombers have to be checked for additional explosives. A police helicopter is also sent to assist in securing the area, because a favorite Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad tactic was known as the bombing double-tap— the use of two suicide bombers on a single target.
The tactic is diabolical. The first bomber blows himself up amid a crowd of unsuspecting victims hoping to kill dozens. A second bomber, one equipped with a much larger device, moves into the kill zone just as the police, fire and medical personnel reach the blast area. The secondary blast is designed to kill those wounded by the first explosion, as well as to take out as many of the emergency first responders as possible. In 1995, a Palestinian double-tap bombing north of Tel Aviv killed 22 and wounded over 200. There would be no double-tap this warm afternoon. Only six dead and some 50 wounded. Carnage had become a landmark of the Tel Aviv skyline.
Samuel M. Katz has written more than 20 books and 100 articles on Middle East terrorism and special operations. He lectures to law enforcement agencies around the United States and the world on Palestinian and Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organizations and Israeli counterterrorism.