JERUSALEM — The gas station in the French Hill neighborhood looks much like any other, but it stands at one of the main flash points between the city’s Jewish and Arab populations.
That is why, on a dirt hilltop just beyond the carwash and gas pumps, the Israeli border police have set up a permanent lookout post.
It is an attempt, they say, to keep the peace.
From the Israeli settlement of French Hill, the security forces have a bird’s-eye view into one of East Jerusalem’s most volatile Arab neighborhoods, Issawiya. It is a place of angry protests against Israel, and it has produced more than a handful of militants.
For Palestinians, the border police, with their distinct dark-green uniforms and armored police jeeps, are the ones causing the tension. Critics say that their patrols are antagonistic and that the checkpoints they set up at a moment’s notice are an infringement on freedom of movement.
They are a clear symbol of Israel’s occupation, Palestinians say.
For Israelis, though, the units, stationed at friction points such as this one and others around the country and in the West Bank, are the brave heroes of what many have termed a “knife intifada,” and the number of young Israelis wanting to join their ranks is growing.
For the past six months, as Palestinians have carried out hundreds of stabbings, shootings and vehicular attacks against Israelis, the border police have found themselves in the line of fire. More than 175 have been injured — some seriously — and two officers have been killed as they worked to protect civilians.
Even during periods of quiet, the police units face a difficult challenge, monitoring border crossings and tumultuous checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank.
Assisting the Israeli police and the army in law enforcement and counterterrorism operations, the units often face sharp criticism for being too harsh or heavy-handed with Palestinians.
Since a new wave of violence began Oct. 1, at least 180 Palestinians have been killed, more than half of them carrying out attacks against Israelis. The rest were shot dead during clashes with the Israeli military or border-police units. About 29 Israelis and four foreign nationals have been killed by Palestinians.
Despite the risks, the number of new recruits to the unit was the highest it has ever been, Israeli media reported last month. They arrive via Israel’s universal military draft even though they are part of the police force.
“I chose this unit because I wanted to contribute to my country,” said Chen Cohen, who after completing her compulsory service volunteered for extra time. “I knew it would be hard, but I wanted to see action.”
She said not every job available for women in the Israeli army would give her a chance to be this close to the action.
“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I wanted to be out in the field,” said Mor Hadad, who is still fulfilling her military service. She was close friends with Hadar Cohen, a new recruit who was fatally shot in Jerusalem in February.
“I signed up knowing that it would be dangerous, but it’s what I wanted. Now, when I go out, I think about Hadar,” she said.
Their motivation is high, and their motto is: “Attack us, not civilians.”
“I don’t think all Palestinians are against us, but there is a large group of people who pose a danger to French Hill,” said Alon Velan, a resident of that neighborhood whose home sits on a street close to the entrance of Issawiya. “They want to harm Jews, and the only thing that stands between us and them is a small unit of policemen.”
Abu Khalid, a Palestinian who washes Jewish- and Arab-owned cars at the French Hill gas station, said the presence of the border police and their impromptu checkpoints create frustration and spark the violence.
“Every morning there, is congestion here. It is collective punishment,” he said. “What they don’t understand is that there are good and bad people everywhere; not all our people are bad.”
A group of youths on Issawiya’s main thoroughfare said the border police make their lives miserable.
“They come in and raid our village. They say that young people in Issawiya are throwing rocks at them, but not one of the recent operations came from here,” said Shaheen, 20. He has spent two years in an Israeli jail for security offenses.
“They come here and provoke us,” said his friend Mohammed, 19. Both declined to give their last names, saying they were fearful of the police. Mohammed points out pockmarked walls on nearby buildings. “That’s where they shoot at us.”
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and commentator, said the border police have “become a symbol of the occupation.”
“It’s a misnomer to call them border police,” she said. “They are not protecting any border, but they are present in the heart of occupied Palestinian territory and often use the worst tactics to go after Palestinians.”
Shaul Shay, previously head of the army’s military history department, said the border police get a bad rap because they are stationed in these tense areas, their actions are under intense scrutiny and what they do often appears in a negative light.
“On one hand, they are fighting terrorism. On the other, they have become the victims and the targets,” said Shay, a lecturer at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. “Many of the attacks have been against the border police officers, but there is no other choice because civilians cannot deal with this challenge. It is the task of a country to protect its civilians, and the border police are the best trained to fight this type of war.”