August 31, 2015 - The Israel Police and the future of “internal” security



This week, Alpher discusses why a huge controversy has erupted over the appointment of former IDF brigadier general, Gal Hirsch, to head the Israel Police; the legacy of the 2006 Second Lebanon War; what justifies rehabilitating Hirsch and promoting him by two ranks and why can’t the police produce a suitable commander from within its own ranks; where the security consultancy industry enters the picture; the future role of the police vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue and Israel’s security;


Q. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan wants to appoint a former IDF brigadier general, Gal Hirsch, to head the Israel Police. A huge controversy has erupted over the appointment. Why?

A. The proposed appointment seems to have thrown salt on a number of open wounds in the Israeli security psyche, dating back to the 2006 Second Lebanon War. It has spotlighted the organizational malaise affecting the police force and the establishment’s difficulty in monitoring Israel’s vast security consultancy industry. Perhaps most significantly--even if this is the issue least talked about--it highlights the present and particularly the future role of the Israel Police in maintaining the country’s security as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved and festering.


Q. Let’s start with the 2006 legacy.

A. Hirsch was the northern division commander on whose watch Hezbollah, on July 12, 2006 ambushed an IDF patrol, snatched two soldiers and, by provoking an ill-prepared Israeli response, launched a war that ended up with heavy casualties and what was criticized at the time as an indecisive outcome. He then proceeded to command his division in the fighting inside Lebanon. When the smoke cleared and inquiries were launched--first by the IDF itself, then by a government-appointed commission--Hirsch was severely criticized for faulty command skills. These included murky terminology his troops could not comprehend and managing combat “from a plasma screen”. He was told he could not again command troops in combat and responded by resigning from the military.

Until that war, Hirsch had been one of the IDF’s most promising officers, a highly praised commando and combat veteran described as a possible future chief of staff. He was known to be extremely intelligent, innovative and dedicated but also highly egotistical and seemingly over-intellectualized. One former staff college instructor of his described Hirsch in terms that say it all: “He is in my view the most poetic and most creative officer I have met in years. That’s part of his tragedy: that no one understands him”. Typically, when his new appointment was announced last week Hirsch responded with the lofty language (“Here am I. Send me!”) used by the Prophet Isaiah when God told him to warn the Children of Israel regarding their sins. Not much modesty there. . .

Since leaving the service in 2007, Hirsch has labored and lobbied mightily to rehabilitate his image, even as families of the soldiers kidnapped on July 12 and of others who died in the ensuing fighting have continued to hold him responsible. Accordingly, the first and most emotional lobby to oppose his appointment to head the Israel Police are members of some of these families, along with most of the senior officers and commission members who investigated the war and found Hirsch at fault.


Q. What’s wrong with the Israel Police that seemingly justifies rehabilitating Hirsch and promoting him by two ranks (from the police equivalent of brigadier to lieutenant general) to take over the police? Why can’t the police produce a suitable commander from within its own ranks?

A. The Israel Police has in many ways become the sick man of the security establishment. In the past year or two, half a dozen police generals have been forced to resign due to allegations of sexual harassment and illicit relations with policewomen under their command. Another police general committed suicide against a backdrop of complex relations with a powerful rabbi who had shady underworld connections. The height of incompetence in terms of both intelligence processing and operational skills seemed to have been reached a few weeks ago when the police, charged with ensuring the safety of a LGBT parade in Jerusalem, enabled a clearly recognizable ultra-orthodox bigot--who had just been released from jail for attacking a similar parade a decade ago--to launch a knife-slashing frenzy within the parade that killed one person and injured others.

Erdan had already begun his search for a new police chief when the Jerusalem incident took place. Understandably, it pushed him one step closer to seeking an outsider capable of shaking up police ranks, training and procedures. But so bad is the force’s image that a series of retired police and IDF major generals turned down the job.

By the time Erdan got to Hirsch and the latter accepted, the scene was ripe for a chorus of protests to erupt, led by serving and retired police generals and retired IDF generals. The police generals make little impression on the public and on Erdan insofar as they represent a failed force and certainly bear a portion of the blame for its failure. The IDF veterans, who claim to know Hirsch and his drawbacks, have to be listened to.


Q. Where does the security consultancy industry enter the picture?

A. Selling security expertise and equipment to countries all over the world has become a lucrative Israeli niche industry run primarily by retired IDF officers and Mossad and Shin Bet personnel who exploit Israel’s global security reputation to make money. Inevitably, the primary clients who need this expertise are political and security leaders in less-developed countries. Inevitably, too, these consultancy dealings often involve bribes. The Ministry of Defense has an agency charged with licensing and policing these deals but it is hard put to guarantee that the business remains clean and above board.

When Gad Hirsch left the IDF in 2007 he went into the security export business. As his candidacy to head the Israel Police emerged eight years later, it revealed a trail of at least two complaints from other countries regarding shady deals he may or may not have been involved in. The immediate upshot is that Erdan, even as he weighs allegations regarding Hirsch’s professional leadership qualifications, has now been obliged to extend the temporary appointment of the current interim police chief, Bentzi Sau, until the ethical complaints against Hirsch as security consultant can be investigated.


Q. And the future role of the police vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue and Israel’s security?

A. This, in my view, is the real elephant in the room when it comes to assessing the skills that will increasingly be required of anyone heading the Israel Police. I doubt Erdan, who is a talented young Likud minister but has zero security background, has even considered it in his search for a new chief of police.

In its domestic roles inside sovereign Israel, the Israel Police with its 30,000 or so personnel has for long been notoriously understaffed. Note that in Israel, a single police force does everything from patrolling for traffic violations to investigating both petty and organized crime, apprehending presidents, prime ministers and chief rabbis accused of wrongdoing, all the way to dealing with terrorist attacks and maintaining safe borders. There has long been a mixed police-IDF unit, the Border Patrol, for dealing with the latter task.

Yet increasingly, as West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements proliferate, a two-state solution becomes more distant and unlikely, and Israel and the West Bank slide down a slippery slope toward some sort of ugly apartheid-like reality, police and military tasks in the Palestinian sphere are merging. The resultant reality was illustrated in recent days by one incident that received international coverage and another local report that barely caused anyone to blink.

The incident that went viral on the web involved a soldier in the West Bank charged with apprehending a 10-year old Palestinian stone-thrower. The soldier ended up being “ambushed” by a mob of Palestinian women and children hitting and pulling at him. He avoided the use of force and eventually extricated himself and beat a hasty retreat, but not before an embarrassing clip made the rounds and Palestinian anti-occupation circles celebrated a new poster boy. Why was a soldier doing police work with unruly Palestinian civilians protesting the occupation, work for which he is totally untrained?

The ignored report concerned a moshav in the Negev where some 50 homes and farms have been burglarized in recent weeks. The perpetrators are apparently Israeli Bedouin and southern West Bank Bedouin, all free to roam across a wide-open southern West Bank border with Israel. Where is the IDF? Where are the police? Whose responsibility is it to catch the perpetrators? The moshav families are helpless and at wit’s end to protect their property.

Sadly, the next chief of the Israel Police has to address this slippery slope wherein Israel and the West Bank increasingly merge, settlement “hilltop youth” attack Palestinian families, the IDF does police work and the police take on quasi-military tasks. In this increasingly ugly political and operational context, appointing a creative former commando like Gal Hirsch may not be a bad idea. But it would only address the tip of the political-security iceberg created by failure to resolve the Palestinian issue.