- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

These cops knew it was coming. Four days ago, the bloodshed resumed after a six-week lull in Palestinian suicide bombing attacks inside Israel.
An Israeli police officer working the heart of Wadi Ara was killed when he confronted a suicide bomber hoping to board a bus in the predominantly Arab area between Hadera and Afula straddling the West Bank.
At morning roll calls, police officers had been warned to be extra alert. "Be aggressive," watch commanders told them. "The autumn offensive has begun."
In Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city and its capital of commerce and culture, police squads from four subdistricts prepared for the unthinkable but all too inevitable. Heavily armed officers from the Special Patrol Units (SPU) knew what to do.
During "normal" times in Israel, the job of the SPUs was to provide a tactical edge to the regular patrol force, whether executing narcotics warrants or serving as first responders to terrorist incidents. In these days of the Palestinian terror campaign, their job is clear cut to hunt down and stop suicide bombers before they can strike.
As the Special Patrol Units moved through the crowded streets of Tel Aviv, monitoring radios and pagers, another call came through Thursday: All units respond to Allenby Street. Confirmed reports of a suicide bombing, numerous casualties and heavy damage reported.
Officers of the Yiftach SPU had been through it so many times before the radio call, a mad rush to the targeted area, and then a walk through a crime scene of unfathomable carnage to search for more devices while bracing for additional attacks.
They knew what to expect and what they had to do. Elements of the SPU sped to the scene in Ford vans while advanced patrol sections, riding high-performance Kawasaki motorcycles, crisscrossed congested arteries.
Police and rescue personnel raced through gridlocked alleys and streets to reach the blast site. So did elements from the Tel Aviv bomb squad, since the smoldering remains of the bombers had to be checked for other explosives.
A police helicopter flew in to help secure the area because a favorite tactic of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad is the "bombing double-tap" two suicide bombers on a single target.
The tactic is diabolical: The first bomber blows himself up amid an unsuspecting crowd, hoping to kill dozens. A second bomber, equipped with a much larger device, moves into the kill zone just as police, fire and medical personnel reach the scene.
The second blast is designed to kill those wounded by the first, as well as to take out as many emergency workers as possible. In 1995, a Palestinian double-tap bombing north of Tel Aviv killed 22 and wounded more than 200.
There would be no double-tap this warm afternoon, when six were killed and about 50 wounded.


Origins of the units

Carnage has become a landmark of the Tel Aviv skyline. But the notion of the small, tactically proficient SPUs did not grow out of a need to battle terrorists, nor even to go after heavily armed drug gangs. SPUs were designed to help local patrol officers maintain order, especially during political demonstrations.
The first SPU was established in the early 1990s in Jerusalem, as a mobile response force to control large rallies and keep them from escalating into riots something that Israeli politics is known to produce.
SPU officers, trained in tactical operations, and equipped with assault rifles and other special-operations equipment, would also patrol high-crime and sensitive areas in visible foot patrols. They would initiate operations against narcotics traffic and other crimes.
The notion of the Special Patrol Units caught on in other police districts, and each began to field elite units.
The Tel Aviv district, located in the center of the country, covers Israel's largest and densest metropolis a city that likes to boast that it never sleeps.
Covering 15 miles along the Mediterranean coast and with 1.5 million residents, the district embraces most of Israel's major corporations and foreign embassies as well as political party headquarters, military command centers and security services. It is organized into four subdistricts, each with its own SPU; the busiest of these is Yiftach, in what is known as South Tel Aviv.
Yiftach is also one of the most difficult beats to police. It covers some of Israel's poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods, Arab slums used as conduits for narcotics and terrorist operations, and the city's central bus station considered by many to be the busiest transportation hub in the Middle East.
On any shift, any day of the week, officers of the Yiftach SPU are out in patrol vans as a high-visibility deterrent in places where criminals are active or where terrorists are known to strike.
"We want to be out in the street, on patrol, making arrests," says Officer S., one of the unit's most energetic officers who, for security reasons, cannot be fully identified. "But nowadays, we can go from searching a vehicle that we know to be carrying grass or heroin and suddenly be summoned to a scene right out of hell."


Remember the Dolphi
The Friday midnight shift begins in the early evening at subdistrict headquarters in an old Turkish police station in Jaffa.
Six officers working in a patrol van check their weapons, protective gear and other equipment stored in the back. At any point, the unit could be summoned to stop a large-scale riot or storm a bus seized by terrorists.
Friday night is party night in Tel Aviv. Restaurants, discos, nightclubs and pubs are packed with teenagers, soldiers home on leave and couples enjoying a night on the town. Drug dealers are out in force. In the wee hours, violence is common.
The officers, all combat veterans from elite infantry and airborne Israeli Defense Force units, head toward the shantytown at the bus station. There, Romanian and Nigerian workers are getting drunk on cheap beer and spending what few shekels they haven't sent home on one of the many brothels in the area.
The officers will conduct numerous tactical vehicle stops. Checking vehicles deemed suspicious allows them to counter terrorism while arresting drug dealers, drug users and thieves heading to and from their scores.
All Israelis are required to carry identity cards. Background checks, radioed in by officers from the vehicle stops, reveal whether an individual is wanted on an outstanding warrant or whether the ID is a fraud a possible tipoff to a terrorist.
Officers also patrol restaurants and discos. Ostensibly, they are on the lookout for drugs, but their mission takes on a sense of added and immediate urgency. Crowds of teens lingering outside clubs, where the pounding cadence of decibel-blasting music assails eardrums and disrupts concentration, are ideal targets for terrorists eager to kill scores of innocent revelers.
Officers from the Yiftach SPU rushed to the crowded seafront Dolphi disco at 11:30 p.m. June 1, 2001, after a young Palestinian operative from Islamic Jihad blew himself up at the entrance, killing 20 and wounding many more.
Officers helped administer first aid to the young people, many with horrific injuries, then suited up and fanned out along the beach, and into neighboring parking lots and streets in search of additional bombers.
As dawn broke on the Tel Aviv skyline, the Yiftach SPU was in full riot gear, battling hundreds of angry protesters assembled on the bloodstained pavement outside the disco and shouting, "Death to Arabs."
The mob, which tossed bricks and bottles at police, was determined to set fire to a nearby mosque. The beleaguered and exhausted SPU officers were all that stood in the way.
SPU officers tend to pass the Dolphi disco before every patrol partly out of reverence for those killed, partly as a reminder of their important duties. Those assigned to Tel Aviv's Yiftach SPU know that at any moment a routine patrol can turn into a battle of life and death, anywhere in the city's giant precinct.


'This is war'
It is just after 3 on a hot September morning on the bustling Ayalon Highway that connects Tel Aviv with the northern part of the country. As the Yiftach SPU conducts vehicle searches in slum neighborhoods, the Dan SPU mounts high-profile roadblocks at choke points for entering and leaving the city.
They are looking for the next weapon in the suicide bomber's arsenal car bombs crammed with more than 1,000 pounds of explosives.
Less than three weeks ago, police in the north intercepted an attempt by the Islamic Jihad to smuggle a car laden with 1,300 pounds of high explosives into Israel.
The terrorists' objective is clear and pronounced to topple a skyscraper in the city center in a September 11-like attack. The roadblocks are designed to stop all vehicles and to search those deemed suspicious, or those driven by Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
Should a driver attempt to break through, specially trained officers armed with M16s and Mini-Uzi submachine guns are ready to give pursuit.
The work is exhausting and not too pleasant. Israeli motorists, unaccustomed to traffic tie-ups after a night out partying, hurl verbal assaults at the cops. Israeli Arabs who are stopped complain of racial profiling.
But Chief Inspector Namir, unit commander, is undaunted.
"This is war," he says while searching a Ford sedan carrying Arabs from an area to the north. "This is a city that is known for its nightlife, its beach and its freedom. We are under siege, and we cannot let the terrorists win."
Whether the SPU officers keep an eye on the red-light district of southern Tel Aviv or man roadblocks at the northern entrance, they never know how many attacks they have deterred.
"We are at war," Detective S. says, echoing his commander as he returns to base to wash blood and flesh off his shoes and drink a strong cup of Turkish coffee. "And we have to realize that anytime tomorrow, now, whenever the enemy could attack inside this city.
"Forget going after drug dealers, pimps and thieves," the detective adds. "We are no longer cops in the traditional sense of the word. We are frontline combatants."
Grabbing a cigarette and checking on a cut he got from broken glass, Officer G. calls his wife on a cell phone. He looks at a photo of his 3-year-old daughter pasted inside his locker.
"I used to look at life through the eyes of someone with long-term goals," he says. "Now I take life and death day by day, hour by miserable hour."

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