Jerusalem — Three Arab Israelis opened fire last Friday on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a holy site for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Two Israeli policemen were killed, as were the attackers. For the first time in decades, Israel closed the compound on a Friday, Islam's holy day. By Sunday it had reopened, with security cameras in place and temporary metal detectors to screen worshipers.
As this article went to press, Palestinian protests against the new security policies were escalating, with three reported dead. But this violence and the terrorism that sparked it are both notable for their rarity. 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.
"Anyone can chase down and arrest terrorists. That's the easy part," he tells me through a translator, though he speaks some English. "Denying terrorists the civilian support they crave and need to operate is a far tougher challenge." 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.
The numbers are impressive. In 2015 there were 43 terrorist attacks in Jerusalem; the Temple Mount shooting was only the ninth so far this year. Two years ago there were 33 stabbings in the city and six deaths due to deliberate car-rammings; this year those counts stand at six and one, respectively. The number of stone-throwing incidents has dropped 15% this past year alone. Government figures that include the neighboring West Bank are equally encouraging. The year ending last September averaged 38 major attacks a month in what Israel calls Judea and Samaria. That's down this year to 10 a month, a 73% drop.
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."
To supplement Gen. Halevy's efforts, the government has installed more surveillance cameras on roads and at sensitive sites in Jerusalem and other cities, according to Gilad Erdan, Israel's minister of public security. To help the police track stolen cars, which terrorists often use in attacks, the government plans to install some 500 cameras that read license plates. And to help detect suspicious activity in public places, the government has installed expensive new facial-recognition cameras—some at Damascus Gate, for instance, where Malka was killed. In addition, the police have doubled their Muslim ranks in the past year, to 4% from 2%. (About 17% of Israelis are Muslim.)
Palestinian officials are unimpressed by such changes. Violent incidents may be down, but tension on the ground is rising, says Elias Zananiri, a policy adviser and media consultant for the Palestinian Authority. "We are partners with Israel in combating terrorism, which threatens us all," he tells me. "But we're losing ground because there are ultimately no military solutions to terror. . . . Terrorism and violence are side effects of the disease, which is the absence of hope for a peaceful political solution."
On Monday, three days after the Temple Mount attack, Palestinian, Jordanian and Muslim religious officials condemned the metal detectors and other security measures as an effort by Israel to change the site's political status quo and consolidate control. At least three Palestinians were reported killed Friday when protesters hurled bottles and rocks at police in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Gen. Halevy has not backed down. He is focused not on politics, he says, but on fighting terror through effective policing. Counterterrorism will be "a generation's work," he says, particularly in the internet age and in Jerusalem: "In no other city can you cross a national border on foot in 10 minutes."
As we leave his office, Gen. Halevy silently inspects a group of young police and border-patrol officers donning flak jackets and loading their weapons in preparation for patrol duty. The responsibility, the commander sighs, is a heavy one. To remind the police of that duty, a Hebrew banner hangs in their assembly hall: "Generations have dreamed of coming to Jerusalem. We have the honor of protecting it."