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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - February 26, 2007

Questions are on the resignation of Israel's Chief of Police, and 300 Darfurian refugees who are in Israeli jail.

Q. Why has Chief of the Israel Police Moshe Karadi resigned, and what does the scandal tell us about the condition of Israel's security forces?

A. Karadi's resignation last week, coming hard on the heels of the resignation of IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, amplifies the sense among the Israeli public that the country's security services are suffering from a serious malaise.

The two resignations reflect very different circumstances. Halutz departed under criticism for his role in the less-than-successful management of last summer's war in Lebanon and in anticipation that the Winograd Commission, due to present its interim report within weeks, would in any case hold him responsible. Karadi was held partially responsible by another semi-judicial ad-hoc body, the Zeiler Commission, for a scandal in the Southern Command of the Israel Police in which organized crime elements infiltrated the police; Karadi was commander of the Southern Command when the acts under investigation took place. Of particular concern to the public was the comment by retired judge Vardi Zeiler, who headed the commission, comparing what he uncovered in Beersheva to the situation in Sicily.

There are additional significant differences and comparisons between the cases of the IDF and the Israel Police. The IDF began drawing lessons from the fiasco in Lebanon the moment the war ended; the Winograd Commission will soon add its recommendations. Lebanon was not the first IDF failure; historically, the Israeli army is good at learning from its mistakes and improving in anticipation of the next round. The Israel Police, on the other hand, have never really been reformed effectively and the current instance is liable to be no different than the aftermath of previous scandals.

Nor is the scandal necessarily over. Minister of Internal Security Avi Dichter (Kadima) responded to Karadi's resignation, which he solicited, by appointing a veteran officer, Yaakov Ganot, to replace him. Ganot is currently head of Israel Prisons, where he has reportedly done outstanding work, as he did prior to that appointment in stints as head of the Immigration Police and the Border Patrol. But 13 years ago, Ganot himself was sharply condemned by the High Court of Justice for corruption. It is not at all certain that his new appointment will withstand scrutiny by a special civil service review board and the High Court.

Here another contrast with the IDF's problems suggests itself. The new IDF chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, served as commander of the Northern Command during the crucial period of 2000-2006 that the Winograd Commission is reviewing. Conceivably he could be singled out by the commission for criticism for not having dealt aggressively enough with Hizballah during his tenure in the north. But PM Olmert and Defense Minister Peretz reportedly checked with Justice Winograd before making the Ashkenazi appointment official, and got a green light.

Perhaps most significantly, while the police force undoubtedly needs qualitative improvement--it also needs more quantity. The Israel Police has the smallest force per capita of all the advanced nations, yet it confronts far more tasks, including dealing with terrorism and border infiltration and protecting holy sites, than any modern western police force. Just 10 days or so ago, for example, the police had to divert 2,000 of its 26,000-strong force to guard against riots generated by the archeological dig and planned bridge-walkway at the Mughrabi Gate to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

A 50 percent increase in police ranks would not be an exaggeration. Yet the stultifying nature of Israel's coalition politics prevents any significant budgetary increase for the police because various coalition partners would demand similar across-the-board increases for their own ministries. In contrast, it is usually easier to find additional budgetary allotments for the army in times of security crisis, if only because the public is sympathetic and the politicians are afraid to say no.

Perhaps one of the reasons the Israel Police looks so inadequate compared to the IDF--and here I permit myself a totally subjective psycho-historical comment, only marginally tongue-in-cheek--is that Israelis still have difficulty reconciling themselves to high crime rates in a Jewish state, whereas it is taken for granted that we have to defend ourselves against our non-Jewish neighbors, the Arabs and Iranians.

Q. Speaking of one of Israel's more distant neighbors, what are 300 Darfurian refugees from Sudan doing in Israel? Why has Israel put them in jail?

A. The story of these refugees says a lot about the tragedy of Darfur, Egypt's role or lack thereof in dealing with it, the wide-open Israeli-Egyptian border and Israel's concerns with militant Islamic terrorism.

The Darfurians, almost all young men and a few women and children, fled genocidal acts perpetrated by the Janjaweed Arab militias with the support of the Sudanese army. Their stories are remarkably uniform. They are survivors of massacres who made their way to Khartoum. There they were harried and arrested by the police, so they fled north by boat and train and on foot to Egypt, where they requested refugee status. Many thousands of them were herded by the Egyptian authorities into primitive camps. Then the Egyptians began sending them back to Sudan, a move the refugees vehemently opposed. In one incident, Egyptian police opened fire on rioting Sudanese, killing an unknown number. UN refugee officials in Cairo were overwhelmed, largely because there are few countries willing to accept large number of Darfurians.

This is the backdrop to the desperate decision on the part of some of these refugees to make their way across the Sinai Desert to Israel. They paid a lot of money to Bedouin guides who often abused them and generally left them in a state of exhaustion on the border.

The Sinai-Negev border has in recent years witnessed increasing attempts to infiltrate terrorists and ordnance, alongside more "traditional" Bedouin smuggling pursuits (hashish, cigarettes) and in recent years the smuggling of prostitutes from Eastern Europe. A few weeks ago, a suicide bomber from Gaza crossed into Sinai and then into the Negev, where he ended up killing himself and three Israelis in Eilat. Israel has responded to this epidemic of terrorist and criminal smuggling by reinforcing border patrol units; it is contemplating building a full-fledged security fence, like the West Bank barrier, along the Negev-Sinai border. For now, however, the fence, where it exists, is barely one meter high and budgetary resources are scarce.

The Darfurians, upon entering Israel, are either intercepted by border patrol units or walk to the nearest moshav and ask for help. But their troubles are not over. They are enemy aliens, entering Israel illegally and from an Arab country that has no relations with Israel and that at various times over recent decades has had a cosy relationship with militant Islamists like Osama Bin Laden. Nor do the Israeli authorities have any way to verify the Darfurians' stories; it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a few are terrorists masquerading as refugees. Hence the Darfurians are put in jail, most recently in the Ketziot camp in the Negev. They are held separately, enjoy privileges not permitted to regular prisoners and are allowed to apply to the UN for refugee status.

But this is a long and arduous process that involves locating a third country that will accept them. Meanwhile, human rights groups in Israel are protesting their treatment. Israel, they argue tellingly, should know better how to treat survivors of genocide. The kibbutz movement, to its lasting credit, has offered to provide them temporary housing and benefits in return for work. Not all of the refugees can adapt; so far about 60 out of 300 have been allowed to leave prison and live in kibbutzim.

Recently I spoke by cell phone with one of the Darfurian refugees in Israeli jail. His story was horrific and typical: Janjaweed raiders murdered his family, raped his sister and burned his village; he fled to Khartoum, then to Egypt, then to Israel. I couldn't locate his village in an atlas, but that is hardly surprising.

Who knows, perhaps one or even ten out of these 300 refugees are not authentic. The others are victims of an act of Sudanese Arab genocide that is thoroughly ignored by all the other Arab countries. Strangest of all is the attitude of Egypt: scarcely a few decades ago, Cairo still claimed sovereignty over Sudan; it continues to cite its strategic interests in a country that straddles the Nile, Egypt's historic lifeline. But it seemingly has nothing to say about Darfur. Indeed, the authorities in Cairo are far more burdened with terrorism much closer to home, in Sinai.