An eyewitness to the carnage at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured over 100 yesterday, said that “it was like a scene from Tel Aviv or Baghdad or Pakistan”. But while Tel Aviv and many other Israeli cities have seen more than their fair share of deadly bombings over the past decades, there have been no successful attacks on athletic events here or at any other major public event. What is it that Israel gets right?
Every public event here receives a matching, specially-tailored security operation, coordinated by the police. Chief Inspector Micky Rosenfeld, spokesman for Israeli Police and formerly an officer in the elite Yamam counter-terrorism unit (Israel’s homegrown SWAT), outlined how that works. “The planning begins with comprehensive intelligence and threat analysis,” he said. “Those, alongside the unique characteristics of each event, dictate the sort of operation required. For example, an event in Tel Aviv would usually be deemed as less dangerous than a similar one in a West Bank settlement.” A game plan is drawn up, and forces are allotted: policemen, special forces and medics on site with additional emergency forces in waiting. Each and every threat – be it a bomb placed on the ground, a suicide bomber, a car bomb, etc. – is given more than one operational response.
The Israeli security doctrine is one of concentric circles, designed to eliminate threats as early and as distant from the event as possible. For major events, the wider circles might reach as far as Palestinian cities in the West Bank, where security is tightened prior to the event, especially if there is intelligence indicating specific threats from terrorist groups. Closer to the events, barriers and routine inspections are placed, while the closest circle is the one most tightly secured with numerous patrols and undercover cops, alongside volunteers and private security companies.
Races, especially marathons, hold their own special challenges and require particularly large numbers of police officers so as to secure the entire route. Last month’s Jerusalem marathon, with a hilly course that even includes a segment in the Old City, required about 3,000 officers (during President Obama’s recent visit over 5,000 officers were spread throughout the city). The police used social networks to request that non-participants refrain from hanging around the marathon’s route.
A special emphasis is placed on a truly rapid response to any emergency, a product of extensive planning and years of experience. All emergency forces and hospitals respond directly to the ranking police commander’s orders, so as to minimize chaos on the scene. Additional police are called to the scene while others immediately raise alertness levels all over the country, to help cope with the threat of simultaneous attacks.
Twenty years ago, Chief Superintendent (ret.) Michael Cardash, formerly the deputy head of Israeli Police’s Bomb Disposal Division, was called to dispose of an explosive container in a building in Nablus. Cardash couldn’t neutralize it, and detonating it on the spot would endanger everyone in the vicinity and so he lugged the highly-dangerous container over 150 feet to a clearing, where he detonated it. For this he was awarded Israel Police’s Medal of Bravery. He has since been on the site of more terrorist attacks than almost anyone else in Israel. Retired from the force, today he is a senior counselor at ASERO and analyst at Terrogence.
Some of Cardash’s advice is common sense; garbage cans here are all emptied ahead of events so that police sweeping the area can quickly see if suspicious looking objects are placed in them. In the end, though, it all comes down to a combination of successful prevention and high-profile deterrence. Cardash pointed out that attempts to attack sporting events were foiled in the past. In 2004, a would-be suicide bomber with explosives sewn into a pair of underwear, was arrested when he tried to enter Israel from the Gaza Strip. His target was a Saturday night soccer game at Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium. But it’s also fair to posit that the sheer mass of security personnel at sports events here are a discouraging factor for terrorists. “We spend a whole of money on security here, it is very evident to everyone. People see it and know it. Abroad, things are different,” Cardash said. “We’ve shared our doctrines, but no one implements them to the extent we do. However, you have to remember that in the end it’s all a question of threat assessment.”
The threats here, particularly to athletics events, are painfully clear. One of the few instances where Israel willingly forfeited the ability to protect the security of its own citizens – the security of the 1972 Munich Olympics’ village was under the sole responsibility of German authorities – ended in the hostage and massacre of 11 Israeli athletes. Decades of bombings in the streets have taken their toll. The threats that suspicious objects pose to Israeli life are part of the urban geography here. Thoroughfares in cities and towns are dotted with covered “security pits”, where specially trained police officers can dispose of bombs without causing harm or damage. But more so, such threats are hardwired into the Israeli psyche.
Dr. Boaz Ganor still remembers when policemen visited his preschool when he was very young to educate children on the dangers of innocent-looking bags and packages. Today, as the head of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center’s Counter-Terrorism Institute, he says that public awareness of dangers is critical, particularly during large events which are difficult to keep entirely sterile. “If something similar to what happened in Boston were to occur here,” he said, “even if all the other security circles had failed, there’s a good chance that abandoned, suspicious-looking objects would have quickly attracted attention and been taken care of by the police.” Similarly, such awareness might have been helpful in the aftermath of the explosions. The Times reported that “many spectators dropped their backpacks and bags as they scattered to safety, and investigators had to treat each abandoned bag as a potential bomb.” While due to the chaotic nature of such events, that has happened here as well, public awareness helps brings it to a minimum.
Dr. Ganor says that the public awareness so prevalent here isn’t just a product of the long Intifada years, but of top-down education, of the sort he was exposed to in preschool. “It’s a process that takes time, but public awareness can and should be taught,” Dr. Ganor said. “Americans need it more than most people do, because they are more threatened than others but at the same time they’re also more complacent.” This is of particular importance because yesterday’s bombing seems to him to have been planned and carried out by a “lone wolf”, acting independently of a larger organization. In such cases, better intelligence – the secret to the vast majority of Israel’s counter-terrorism successes – would probably not have picked up on any early warning signals.