Terrorists Have Become More Sophisticated
Police Maj. Gen. Yoram Halevi resigned from the Yamam when the Wachsman
rescue mission was not assigned to his unit. Today he commands the Border
Patrol, which fights crime as if there's no terrorism, and fights terrorists
as if there's no crime
Amir Rapaport 26/11/2012
Police Major General Yoram Halevi made one of the most significant decisions
of his life in the wake of the failed attempt to rescue abducted IDF soldier
Nachshon Wachsman in the village of Bir-Naballah near Jerusalem, on October
Wachsman was being held by Hamas terrorists on the outskirts of the village.
In a brilliant intelligence coup, the Shabak succeeded in locating the
terrorists' hideout a house barricaded on all sides. The late Prime
Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, authorized a rescue attempt. The success of the
rescue operation depended on the ability to break into the house in a split
second so as to rescue the abducted soldier before the terrorists could
recover from the initial shock and kill him.
Unfortunately, the break-in stage was delayed for a few precious seconds.
The rescue attempt ended with the deaths of Wachsman and Captain Nir Poraz,
from the Sayeret Matkal team that stormed the house. The terrorists were
killed, too, but that was no consolation.
Halevi was the operations officer of the National Police specialist
counter-terror unit Yamam. He was furious after the rescue mission was
assigned by the IDF to Sayeret Matkal (Ehud Barak, the IDF Chief of Staff in
those days and present Defense Minister, had been one of the commanders of
Sayeret Matkal) rather than to the Yamam whose primary mission and raison
d'etre is hostage rescue. Halevi did not think twice and submitted a letter
of resignation, leaving the Yamam immediately thereafter.
To this day, he believes that the Yamam could have executed the rescue
mission more professionally and possibly even have succeed, whereas Sayeret
Matkal had failed. Matkal is a specialist military unit with an extensive
range of assignments, of which hostage rescue is only one of many
specializations, but the Yamam focuses exclusively on and trains
continuously for this specific type of mission.
Could a similar situation, where a hostage rescue mission would be assigned
to Sayeret Matkal rather than to the Yamam, should such a situation arise,
happen again today?
"It is hard for me to believe that it would happen again. The professionals
in this field are fully aware that there is only one suitable unit," says
Major General Halevi. "This does not mean that other units are not qualified
or do not possess the operational competence to execute a takeover mission,
but the Yamam is the only unit that never neglected this competence and
never stopped developing methods and resources around its hostage rescue
capability. For this reason, it is regarded as the unit best qualified and
capable of resolving such situations. Naturally, other units realized that
the Yamam is the hostage rescue unit, and moved on to other activities,
developing other capabilities that the Yamam does not possess.
"However, one should bear in mind that even the Yamam cannot always provide
a solution to incidents on every scale. A hostage situation may involve a
building so large that even four units would not be able to address it. In
that case, there are other military units that possess takeover capabilities
(in addition to Sayeret Matkal and the naval commando unit), and can work
cooperatively with the Yamam. In recent years, cooperation has developed
between team leaders and unit commanders, who understand that these units
should work together.
Numerous exercises were conducted with full cooperation. Sometimes, a
complete unit was attached to the Yamam and vice versa. The various units
possess the joint capability required in order to handle a single incident
as well as split incidents. The state can therefore provide a solution to
any such incidents."
Generally speaking, do you think that a hostage scenario and the "classic"
management of hostage situations with barricaded terrorists are still
"History has taught us that a hostage situation occurs once in many years.
If we consider the trauma such an incident generates, then we should,
undoubtedly, be prepared for it. Take, for example, the incident last August
of the terrorists who broke through the fence on the Egyptian border and
entered Israeli territory. The IDF eliminated the terrorists from the air,
but such an incident could have very quickly developed into a hostage
situation. If that group of terrorists had rushed into a settlement and
split up, with each terrorist capturing just one house, then you would have
an unplanned hostage situation.
Accordingly, the need we face, as a state, to develop knowledge and maintain
a unit capable of providing solutions to such incidents, is mandatory. In
the present situation, the units should perfect and refine their skills and
Are hostage situations around the world becoming more complex?
"Firstly, I do not believe that any future incident would have the same
characteristics as past incidents. This assumption stems, first and
foremost, from the class of terrorists we face, their disposition, the
resources they possess, the training they have been receiving in recent
years from around the world and their ability to confront skilled specialist
forces. Today's terrorist, if he chooses this kind of attack of abducting
hostages for negotiating purposes must possess capabilities on a much
higher level than those the terrorists possessed in the past.
"I do not believe we will ever encounter a terrorist group that would decide
to execute such an attack and whose armament would consist of knives only,
or that would come out of the villages without a specific plan. They will
arrive, quite naturally, with training, know-how and resources that are far
more sophisticated than those we have previously encountered. As far as our
side is concerned, I would say that we too have not remained committed to
the doctrines and tactics of the past. We too have perfected our methods of
operation as well as our weapon systems which are now more accurate and
more lethal and improved our ability to distinguish between friend and foe.
Our methods will be much more aggressive, sharp and precise. I sincerely
hope that within this equation, we will have the upper hand, as we had in
Does the abduction of Gilad Shalit - who was taken into the Gaza Strip and
rendered us without the option of attempting to rescue him until he was
eventually exchanged for hundreds of terrorists - indicate that our side
cannot always have a solution?
"As I said, all of the parties involved improve over time those who do the
abducting and those assigned to rescue, those who attack and those who
In this case, the attackers may have had a superior ability to keep the
abducted soldier hidden and could counter the other side's intelligence
Would the Yamam or other units be capable of rescuing him in the event that
specific intelligence had become available? That is another story. It is a
highly complex question of risks versus gains, which involves issues that
are much more professional and can only be related to on other levels. The
case of Nachshon Wachsman taught us that rescuing a single hostage can be
far more complex and problematic than rescuing numerous hostages. The
chances of a 100% failure in a situation of this type are high. If you
failed to get him out alive regardless of what you did and how close you
came you would have a 100% failure. On the other hand, in a situation
involving numerous hostages, even if 10% were hit, you would still have 90%
who were rescued which would count as a success. Consequently, this type
of situation is highly complex and addressing it in retrospect today would
not be right."
Against All Odds
When major general Yoram Halevi speaks about the Yamam, his emotional
attachment to the unit comes through, and for good reason. His career is
profoundly associated with the unit, and it evolved in a very irregular and
unorthodox manner. Halevi, 48, grew up in a family of 12 siblings in
Jerusalem. He began his military career as a trooper in the 202nd battalion
of the IDF Paratroopers brigade, participating in combat operations during
the first Lebanon campaign of 1982.
After his discharge from the IDF, he accompanied a friend who wanted to join
the Yamam to the police recruiting office. His friend was not accepted, but
with no previous intentions of doing so, Halevi was somehow persuaded to
join the unit. He was sent to the officers training school and in 1988 found
himself as one of the troopers who took over the "Mothers' Bus" that carried
female employees of the Nuclear Research Facility near Dimona. Terrorists
who had entered Israel from Egypt hijacked the bus. The terrorists, along
with three of the passengers, were killed during the rescue.
Yoram Halevi believed he was heading to civilian life on the day he resigned
from the Yamam, following the failed attempt to rescue Nachshon Wachsman.
Instead, he was persuaded to assume command over the Border Patrol
undercover counter-terror unit (Yamas), which operates primarily in the
Judea and Samaria district. Subsequently, he commanded yet another elite
police unit, the "Gideonim," which executes special operations in the
Jerusalem area. Halevi was then appointed to head the Jerusalem Police
regional unit (Yamar), served as commander of the "David District, in charge
of the Old City of Jerusalem, commanded all of the Border Patrol forces in
Jerusalem and then, surprisingly, was asked to return to the Yamam, 12 years
after resigning from it this time as its commander. Halevi, carrying the
rank of a police major general, served as the head of the division in charge
of volunteer activities and community relations before he was appointed to
his present position commander of the Border Patrol. In this capacity, he
is responsible for all police special units subordinated to the Border
Patrol, including the Yamam.
Major General Yoram Halevi admits, in a special interview with
IsraelDefense, that Israel's Border Patrol is an unusual unit: it belongs to
the National Police, but one half of its manpower consists of compulsory
service recruits a far cry from the literal meaning of its name, which
relates, first and foremost, to the defense of Israel's borders.
The Border Patrol was established in 1953 as 'The Frontier Corps', and the
name was subsequently changed to The Border Patrol'," says Maj. Gen.
Halevi. "In those days, it actually operated along the borders. That was its
original assignment. In recent years, the Border Patrol has converged more
and more into the cities, and increasingly deals with anti-crime
assignments, hand in hand with the 'blue' police. "Today, it can no longer
be regarded as the classic 'Border Patrol' the resources, as well as
personnel selection and quality, are geared more toward the anti-crime
field. We operate more intensively in the rural sector, where we also deal
with the various aspects of agricultural crime.
"The present Police Commissioner, Yohannan Danino, determined that his first
year in office would be 'The Year of Change' regarding police conduct in an
extensive range of fields. Numerous changes followed as a result, and the
Border Patrol took this year of change a few steps farther.
"Over the last year, we underwent dramatic changes with the establishment
of the units known as '101' (units made up of 100 policemen with only one
commander), which change the sense of security and everything that has to do
with community police work; we established all of our volunteer units a
rather innovative project. Only recently have we conducted an exercise where
the district commander mobilized his volunteers and executed an operation in
the southern part of the country, and we only supervised. This is unique to
the Border Patrol. We established a school that trains all of these
"We introduced other changes inside the Border Patrol: we changed our
uniforms for a new appearance, and we drafted a covenant that each commander
in the Border Patrol had to sign. By signing this covenant, he/she commits
to the Commissioner's policy to serve the civilians and look after the
policemen's welfare. This covenant covers an extensive range of subjects,
and every commander is a signatory. These revisions were the result of 'The
Year of Change' called for by the Commissioner."
Nevertheless, one half of your manpower is still based on compulsory service
recruits. I assume they deal more with classic routine security, in the
Judea and Samaria district and in the area known as 'around Jerusalem', than
with anti-crime activities?
"Everyone is doing everything. We have a very interesting interaction on a
large scale, which only takes place in the Border Patrol. About 50% of the
corps is made up of compulsory service recruits. In fact, they serve
together with career policemen, officers and compulsory service policemen.
If we have a three-trooper team, it will include a compulsory service
policeman, a career squad leader and sometimes an officer as well. This is
the interaction of the Border Patrol.
The Border Patrol is a highly versatile corps. It has the most extensive
variety of personnel qualities and capabilities. At one end of the spectrum
you can find the Yamam, which is one of the best hostage rescue and
counter-terror units in the world. Then we have the undercover units that
operate in the Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem and Southern districts three
units possessing the highest combat capabilities and executing complex
assignments. Then we have the recently established anti-crime units, and
units dealing with riot control the Border Patrol is the only organization
that specializes in riot control. The 'commando units' of the Border Patrol
are mainly the riot control units, along with the units assigned to routine
security operations. Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, we have the
routine security patrols that operate primarily in the Judea and Samaria
district and in the area known as 'around Jerusalem' border patrol and
routine security units. To all of this you may add the rural-agricultural
sector, and you will have a highly complex and very interesting Corps, with
personnel on the scale of about 8,000 combat troopers, which is about one
third of the total manpower of the National Police. This force is
complemented by 7,500 volunteers and about 1,600 reservists. It is a huge
corps that has a dramatic influence on the routine security of the entire
country and on the entire activity of the National Police."
Are the Mistaarvim - undercover units that masquerade as Arabs still
relevant? Do you think that this trick has been exhausted?
"Apparently, it is still relevant. Some arrests are still made by the
undercover units. Naturally, their activity should be perfected and refined.
No operation is like any other. We must not be complacent, as the difference
between success and failure often depends on a single word, a single phrase,
a gesture or a gaze that may change the whole picture. Their assignments are
highly relevant and always involve a high level of risk, where authorization
must come from the highest echelons. Each and every operation must be
authorized by a general officer or a division commander empowered by a
general officer, so the activity is never routine. These units are in
operation all the time. As the commander of such a unit, you must always be
aware of the fact that the scene changes. The characters change and the
potential of being exposed is very high. So, even if you carry out four
undercover operations during the same day, you must never allow complacency
to take over."
How do the undercover units of the Border Patrol rate in comparison with the
undercover unit of the IDF -"Duvdevan"?
There is excellent coordination between the units. There is a coordinating
officer at divisional HQ who knows how to assign the missions, so that there
are periods when you hardly have time to breathe, and there are periods when
you fight over each mission, so it goes up and down. At present, we are
going through an interim period, so we fight a little over the missions."
Do you feel that the security situation in the Judea and Samaria district is
heating up a little?
"Recently, the tension has decreased somewhat, although by our standards, a
decrease does not mean no activity. We regard a few dozen operations per
month as routine. A tense period, if you want to compare, can produce four
to five missions per day."
Do you still have effective coordination with the Palestinian Authority in
the Judea and Samaria district? Has it declined in recent months?
"Coordination is maintained at a high level. It normally takes place between
senior officials. At the field levels, there is understanding, as well as
coordination and trust between the parties."
Are you very active in the urban areas?
"This activity goes on all the time. There are areas where riots are a
regular affair, and every time we have casualties, for example in places
when there are regular protests against the construction of the partition
fence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Other riots break out
following arrests. Every arrest we make in the territories generates riots
throwing of stones, Molotov cocktails and our forces have casualties.
"Naturally, we refine our resources because of this. We arrive on the scene
with better protection and with a more agile and more effective response
capability. Your ability to move fast and return fire is not a trivial
matter, especially if you are armor protected. You do not want to just stay
in a secured spot, you need to chase the suspect and apprehend him, not just
use gunfire against him. Here you must be light and agile, to find the right
balance between armor protection and agility. If you use a protected
vehicle, then it would not be right for the troopers to wear body armor,
too. So you say okay, at this point in time the troopers should be
protected, and when it becomes possible to give chase instead of firing
then they should unload fast, give chase and catch the suspects. After the
suspects are arrested, Molotov cocktails start flying around, so the
troopers should return into the protected vehicle. The ability to change
identities, in the context of the undercover operations, and change the mode
of operation from the one employed in Palestinian territory to a different
one employed inside Israeli territory is required as well.
Have there been any developments in the field of non-lethal measures?
"Numerous resources have been developed in recent years, like the 'Shout' or
the 'Venom', which is, in fact, a set of smoke grenades launched from a
Jeep. We are currently develop robots that would get closer to the riot
areas and launch these measures instead of the troopers."
What about the public image of the Border Patrol? What has been done to
"We are aware of the damage that a kick or a slap delivered by a Border
Patrol trooper to a Palestinian or to anyone else present at a point of
friction can make. On the other hand, we have no way to operate in areas
where riots take place without employing real people. Our education
advocates understanding and tolerance and proper manners and the straight
personal approach towards human beings. We have a school that educates our
people how they should behave. We have a training school that each Border
Patrol trooper goes through, and we have an education system adapted to the
needs of the military. All of these resources should condition our troopers
to respond better, but I fully understand that this is one loophole we could
never be able to hermetically seal. That it can still happen, and even if it
does one should understand that all it comes down to is an isolated
incident. All that I ask of the civilian is that before he passes judgment,
he should try to see the broader picture. These youngsters who join the
Border Patrol are our children. We train them and send them to face these
situations. We present them with very difficult dilemmas that even we, as
commanders, do not always know how to resolve. I am very proud of this
corps. The quality of its personnel is improving and the demand by recruits
wishing to serve with us is increasing from year to year."