Israel has been struggling in recent years to defend itself against suicide bombings that have killed scores of people on buses, in restaurants and in other crowded public places. So this week 33 senior law enforcement officials from the United States and Canada -- including D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer and top FBI officials -- came here to learn how authorities deal with the violence and the public's reaction to it.
"It is the epicenter of terrorism, and we're learning how to apply what the Israelis have learned, based on their experiences," said Van. A. Harp, head of the FBI's Washington Field Office, who is among those attending a four-day law enforcement conference. The conference ended today.
"To me, it has magnified the need for leadership and cooperation and partnership, and the importance of getting information out -- not only so law enforcement can react quickly and effectively, but so the community can, too," Harp said.
For Shlomo Aharonishky, Israeli National Police inspector general and host of the conference, those are some of the main elements of good anti-terrorist police work. "I call your civilian population a strategic asset in the fight against terror," he said. In Israel, he said, public awareness and cooperation are critical tools in thwarting attacks.
Last year, more than 350 Israelis died in 1,776 incidents categorized by Israeli authorities as terrorism, he said. During the same period, about 1,000 Palestinians died in Israeli military operations and other killings, according to monitoring groups.
"Citizens have to feel that they're partners," Aharonishky said. "That gives them the motivation to live a regular life and maybe even stop the next terror attack."
On a visit to Jerusalem, during which the group met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Gainer compared the complexity of the terrorist threat in Washington to that in Jerusalem. In Washington, Gainer said, "we draw a lot of diverse groups, too, and that raises the pressure on an open society. And we also have concerns whether we could be the target of suicide bombers."
Gainer said he was impressed that Israelis get on with their lives, despite the daily threat of attacks. Under similar circumstances, "I'm not sure we're ready for that," he said.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, said that during the recent sniper attacks in the Washington area, "we had that sense of fear. . . . For 20 days, we felt what it was like to live here in Jerusalem."
This week's conference grew out of a trip Aharonishky made to Washington last spring, arranged with help from Wexler's group. During that trip, Aharonishky talked to U.S. authorities about the need for versatile police forces that are able to deal with terrorism investigations and intelligence gathering, as well as more traditional police activities.
Then, on May 7, Aharonishky was sharing a platform with Ramsey, who was giving a speech, when Aharonishky's beeper went off, alerting him to a suicide bombing in a pool hall in Israel that killed 15 people, according to Wexler. "At that point," Wexler said, Aharonishky "looked at us and said: 'You need to come to Israel. I'd like to show you what we're up against.' "
In some U.S. communities, questions have been raised about the attendance of their police officials at the conference. Critics worry that participation could indicate a leaning in favor of Israel in the 28-month-old Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Ramsey said the concern was unfounded. "That had absolutely nothing to do with it," Ramsey said. "We're here to learn."
Gainer agreed. "This is . . . police getting together, trying to analyze the best way to prevent and respond to terrorism," he said.
Another topic discussed during the conference was the importance of good communication and cooperation between police agencies. As Aharonishky put it: "Terrorism has no borders, and neither should the police who deal with it."