Police Official: From 70 Rapid Response Teams, We Now Have 900 Teams With 10,300 Volunteers

By Aryeh Stern

Members of the emergency squad of Tzfas seen during a drill, Nov. 30, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

​The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, chaired by MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionism), convened on Tuesday for a debate at the request of one-third of the committee’s members, on the topic of “Private civilian initiatives to form civilian policing forces with political orientation and without authority.”

MKs Yoav Segalovitz (Yesh Atid), Gilad Kariv (Labor), Karine Elharrar (Yesh Atid), Mansour Abbas (Ra’am-United Arab List), and Ofer Cassif (Hadash-Ta’al) wrote their request, following an investigative report on Channel 11 News: “This report shows that there are civilian groups that take the law into their own hands and turn themselves into an independent policing force that is not subject to the Israel Police, without authority. This is a very worrying phenomenon, particularly when the groups in question are given a clear and declared political orientation.”

Committee Chair MK Rothman said, “Certainly at this time, I would like to support the Israel Police and the law enforcement agencies. Many police officers have laid down their lives, and we all stand with you and behind you in your everyday work. I’m certain that I speak here for all the committee members.

“The truth must be told, until those rapid response security teams were formed — and also, during the Operation Guardian of the Walls period, when the operating doctrine and the cooperation with the local community was different, and when the police were in shock and didn’t operate — it created many problems. I experienced this in the city of Lod when people were told not to take action independently but the police didn’t take sufficient care, and this caused great discontent. Today we’re in a different situation, and we should welcome the progress, but we should remember that many people were forsaken. People called the police hotline and said that their shop or their house was being burned or vandalized, and there was no response,” said MK Rothman.

He said that he had visited the security control center in Netivot, “and I think this represents an amazing model. We have seen how many people owe this model and this force their lives, as they defended bodily against the Oct. 7 attacks. There are models that are more or less successful, but certainly this should be regulated and given proper attention,” the committee chair said.

MK Elharrar, one of the debate’s initiators, said, “The State of Israel is a state of law, and what was described is more like a state of Phalanges militias, and that is something we cannot allow. I would like to know what the findings of the law enforcement agencies are, and what they intend to do.”

Supt. Yisrael Shmerling of the Israel Police said, “I have checked how many complaints were filed against the ‘Guardians of the Land,’ and there is an entire series of complaints on specific activity and an investigation has been launched. Regarding Herzliya, I spoke to officers at the Glilot station, and they told me in clear terms that this never happened. The station commander, Chief Supt. Erez Katabi, said that about 1,700 volunteers approached them, and that a large share were made into police volunteers, some were sent to rapid response security teams and some couldn’t be used and were referred to volunteer activity under the municipality. The person in the report is known, and there is a concern that this was part of the campaign for the upcoming municipal elections.

“As for Harish, the reality is different. We don’t see this as a phenomenon, but rather as a pinpointed occurrence. The police stands with its full force against these events; the station commander spoke with them all individually on the issue of the powers and made it clear that the firearm license would be revoked from anyone who acts without authority. The police have zero tolerance on this matter. The issue is handled with the full severity of the law,” said Supt. Shmerling.

Adv. Ori Narov of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) said, “In the investigative report that was aired, it was clearly shown that the armed policing groups that have been formed in several of Israel’s cities operate without authority, but are also identified with racist worldviews that see every Arab as a suspect. The existence of these initiatives has to be prevented immediately.”

Dr. Yael Litmanovitz of the Israel Democracy Institute said, “These groups are a danger to the State of Israel’s national security and governance, so it must be examined what has been done, which legal tools the police have to act and prevent the groups [from operating], and how the police coordinates its activities in order to avoid life-endangering incidents in general and in mixed cities in particular.”

Moran Maimoni of the Abraham Initiatives said, “I would like to shed light on what these de-facto militias are doing to Jewish-Arab relations. In Harish, a municipal worker was suspected of being a terrorist simply because he was an Arab, and this created panic within the Jewish population and also in Arab society, and it generates a great deal of tension. The feeble response of the authorities resonates. When there is a proper response as in Harish, it’s a very important act. A sharp response by the police can greatly help. It’s important to strengthen the police so that it can do its job properly.”

Chief Supt. Nir Carmeli, project manager for the rapid response security teams, who came before the Knesset for the first time, said, “The police learned lessons from Operation Guardian of the Walls in a way that led to high readiness in the current event. When we talk about learning lessons from Operation Guardian of the Walls, you have to understand that the police officers and commanders did the best with what they had.

“At that time the police force was in a very difficult state, and so we became accustomed to living in a situation in which you operate with what you have, and this education is in our DNA. Accordingly, on Oct. 7 police officers didn’t wait for rifles or flak jackets, they came out of the house in flip-flops and rushed at the enemy with what they had. Is that the correct situation? No. The Israel Police has to be strong, because we know that internal security is very important.

“The Israel Police began within a few days to form rapid response security teams, because there’s a demand and a desire to shoulder the burden. From 70 rapid response security teams, we currently have 900 rapid response teams with 10,300 volunteers, along with the ‘Bnei Hamakom’ project [in which reservists were drafted by emergency orders for civilian security missions], some of whom will be discharged soon, and we are trying to recruit them because they have expressed willingness to be volunteers. We want to reach 20,000 volunteers. Along all this, the police and the ministry are purchasing equipment, the likes of which has never been seen. This is a project on the scale of another police force.

“It’s clear that if the police didn’t take responsibility, more phenomena such as these would arise, and it’s clear that this must not happen. We’re a state of law. There is one agency here that is supposed to be in charge — the army is in charge of security and we are in charge of law enforcement in Israel, and there will not be an element that takes the law into its own hands.

“If a person wants to volunteer for a rapid response team, he has to meet police criteria. He can’t invent rules and laws for himself, and he undergoes training. Other bodies that don’t operate in accordance with the police rules, under one sovereign, under one commander — as far as we’re concerned they don’t exist and aren’t legal. There are complaints that are under examination and investigation,” said Chief Supt. Carmeli.

A Ministry of Justice official said, “Any use of powers by one citizen against other citizens creates a very great difficulty, it is complex and requires governmental supervision in order to ensure that there is no overstepping of authority or unlawful use of authority. In the past months, we have held discussions with the army and the police, and guidelines were given in order to ensure that the operation of the rapid response security teams is done in a cautious, proportionate, and supervised fashion.”

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