A Terror Tour of Israel

The Human Problem
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 14 2008 7:23 AM

A Terror Tour of Israel

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JERUSALEM—Spending a week on a tour of terror is not particularly relaxing. After a week listening to briefings on terrorism, our mood had darkened. As we walked past the cafes of Jerusalem, we found ourselves staring suspiciously at large backpacks and at people with their hands in their pockets.

A simple stroll through Jerusalem became a constant reminder of terrorist attacks over the years: There's the intersection of King George Street and Jaffa Street—just a few blocks from our hotel—where, on Aug. 19, 2001, a suicide bomber entered a crowded Sbarro restaurant, setting off an explosion that killed 15 and wounded 130. Even small cafes now employ a security guard to check bags and watch for suspicious behavior.

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As we walked through the streets of Jerusalem on our final day, we wondered why Israel had been so quiet over the last year. This question went to the very heart of our counterterrorism tour: the notion that Israel has somehow figured out how to win, or at least hold at bay, the "war on terror." Over the course of the week, we had heard many explanations for the lull in attacks: the wall, the layers of security that protect key sites, and the legal system, which allows Israel to quickly lock up suspected terrorists.

But Roni Shaked, a former commander in Israel's Shin Bet, gave us what he felt was the real explanation behind Israel's success. "The main, main reason why it's quiet, I think, it's just because of the Israeli security service," Shaked had told us on the first day of the tour. "Because during those years, we understood how to fight against the new kind of terrorism, how to fight against the new phenomenon of terror, the suicide bombers who are in Israel."

According to Shaked, Israel's success rests on several decades' worth of experience infiltrating Palestinian society. Shaked even brought with him living proof: Sami, a Palestinian collaborator from Hebron, who had worked with Shin Bet for more than three decades. (Even though Sami's identity is well-known in the West Bank, we were asked to use only his first name for this article.) It did not particularly surprise us that Israel had collaborators (during one lecture, we were told that one-third of Palestinian prisoners were informers). But finding one who would want to speak to our group—whose tour guide lectured us on the "Arab mindset," the "myth of the Palestinian people," and even the evils of the "Arab goat"—was slightly surprising.

Still, for nearly an hour, Sami, the only Palestinian (and the only Muslim) to speak to the group during the tour, politely answered our questions. He said he first started working with Shin Bet after witnessing a grenade thrown near a holy site in Hebron in 1969. He was outraged by the disregard for innocent civilians. He eventually became a trusted agent, he recounted, even penetrating a terrorist cell to provide intelligence to Israel.

It was also not difficult to understand why a Palestinian would be outraged by the indiscriminate nature of terrorism or even cooperate with the Israeli government, but Sami's story could hardly be called typical. Even when the Israeli army accidentally killed one of his children, Sami's allegiance remained with his handlers. "Two weeks after what happened, Hamas sent me people and said, 'Look what the Jewish people did to your son. Come and work with us.' I told them that I choose my way, and my way of life." What happened to his son, he told us, was God's will.

After numerous death threats, Sami eventually fled with his family from Hebron to Jerusalem. Now retired in Israel, and with Israeli citizenship, he told us that he receives a modest pension from the government. In the West Bank, he's a wanted man.

Sami is one part of how Israel has fought terrorism: infiltrating the West Bank and its terrorist organizations. But in Jerusalem, particularly the Old City, the police have gone one step further, creating a sort of Panopticon, where visitors and residents are under persistent surveillance by closed-circuit cameras, military observation posts, and police patrols. Riot police are always on alert, and plainclothes officers patrol the maze of medieval streets while oblivious tourists enjoy their falafel.

On our last day, our group paid a visit to Mabat 2000, a monitoring station at police headquarters in the Old City, just behind the Jaffa Gate. We were ushered inside the high-tech command post, where uniformed personnel watch a bank of TV screens and a "big board" that can zoom in on different points of interest inside the city. More than 300 cameras are installed at different points around the Old City in addition to sensors and listening devices. Directional cameras can zoom in on suspicious individuals, vehicles, or objects. Alarms and digital pings made the place sound like a 1980s arcade.

The Old City, to state the obvious, is a high-risk area. Four traditional communities—Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, and Christian—are crowded within its walls. And in addition to the profound emotional and political pull it exerts, the place is a magnet for god-botherers and end-timers as well as tourists. The police have a dedicated unit for the Temple Mount, where the Second Intifada kicked off in 2000. The commander showed us some of the surveillance tape of the uprising. As in the opening credits to The Wire, the video concludes with a Palestinian bashing the lens of the closed-circuit camera with a well-aimed paving stone. Eventually, someone shimmies up the pole and rips the battered camera loose from its housing.

It's a costly setup and one that has some obvious cracks at the seams: It depends on people. As anyone who has seen the Transportation Security Administration at work knows, watching security cameras can be a stultifying job. But this is Jerusalem; we were just a few hundred yards from the city's holiest sites, which are supposed to be guarded by the most alert, aggressive, and watchful security force. As we watched the commander give his presentation, one of the young officers on duty—a draft-age Israeli with a close-cropped haircut—quietly dozed off at his post. Head resting on hand, he slid into his chair, oblivious to his commanding officer standing behind him.

At first glance, Israel is the ultimate high-security state. And the main purpose of the Ultimate Counter-Terrorism Mission was to sell U.S. security professionals on Israeli know-how and technology. Many of our stops and lecturers—including Sami—make frequent appearances on itineraries for visiting delegations. Israel boasts of its security: the fence, the seemingly impregnable Ben-Gurion airport, and a legendary intelligence network. But it comes at a price that Americans may not be ready to accept: metal detectors at the entrance to shopping malls, military courts, and conscription.

In the meantime, Israel's war on terrorism is hardly peaceful. The military recently stepped up raids on the Gaza Strip, another spike in ongoing operations inside the Palestinian territories. There are constant nightly incursions: a terror suspect arrested one night, a rocket lab discovered on another. Suicide bombings have dropped precipitously, but rockets from Gaza now rain down on southern Israel, and, tragically, the temporary lull in terror attacks has done nothing to solve the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the plight of Palestinians. What, then, does Israel's fight against terrorism teach the United States?

We contemplated that question on Saturday morning when Talia Adar, a reserve police officer, took us on a tour of the Old City while most of our group took off for a day at the Dead Sea. After a walk through the four ethnic quarters, we followed Adar through the security checkpoint that leads to the Western Wall—regarded as one of the highest-risk areas in the Old City. We walked through the metal detector, manned by two bored-looking guards. We dutifully emptied our pockets and placed our bags on the conveyor belt of the X-ray machine.

One guard chatted on the phone, the other watched impassively as Adar, dressed in civilian clothing, walked through the detector with her gun concealed under her jacket. The alarm didn't go off; neither guard asked for her ID. After passing through the checkpoint, Adar turned back around to face the guards. "Why didn't you stop me?" she demanded, pulling out her police ID.

Adar upbraided the guards for a full minute, as they meekly made excuses. ("Well, he's on the phone …" one protested.) As she lectured them, we thought about all the barriers, cameras, and sensors; we thought about the intelligence agents and informers; and we thought about all the wizardry, gadgetry, and gimmickry that Israel puts into stopping terrorism. Yet it could all come down to this: two bored guards at a checkpoint.

"Why didn't it go off?" Adar demanded, pointing to the mute detector, topped with a blinking red light.

"The alarm is broken," one guard replied sheepishly. "They haven't fixed it yet, but we're watching the light."

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