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World Perspective | Security

Class Helps Border Police Cope With Israel's Splintered Society

March 04, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEAR MAALE MIKHMAS, West Bank — Israeli border guards look on as their commander chats with a young Arab boy. Suddenly, the commander begins to kick and slap the boy. The border guards applaud.

How do you think the boy feels now about Israeli authorities?

This was one of several scenarios and questions posed to a new class of soon-to-be commanders in Israel's border police, the 9,000-member paramilitary force assigned to guard the country's frontiers.

Often on the front lines of conflicts involving everyone from Palestinians to Orthodox Jewish settlers, the border police have long been accused of excessive violence and routine abuse of those they confront.

In response, an upcoming crop of commanders is undergoing an experimental crash course in sensitivity training. Organizers hope the pilot program, which is sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, can serve as a model for a wide range of Israeli institutions forced to grapple with a diverse society increasingly fragmented along ethnic, economic and religious lines.

The Israeli army, some hospitals and state schools have or will introduce similar programs, ADL officials said.

Within the border police, the challenge is especially difficult. Many recruits are not particularly well educated and find themselves thrust into tense, hostile situations such as evicting settlers or screening Palestinian workers entering Israel from the West Bank. In recent years, guards have been implicated in dozens of beatings or other abuse.

"We want to give them the tools to respond to situations not only from the gut but from the mind," said border police Supt. Hedva Schenkolewski. "Unlike the army, we have no clear-cut 'enemy.' The assignments are very different. The level of friction with the civilian populations is very high, as is the level of frustration."

Schenkolewski was leading the "tolerance workshop" held the other day here at a meandering border patrol training base in a part of the West Bank still under Israeli control. Inside a prefabricated building, 15 future commanders sat in a circle, their M-16 rifles placed under their metal chairs, and discussed stereotypes, stigmas and how hatred spawns violence.

"The public is not aware of the fact that the border police does all the dirty work; we are always seen as the bad guys," complained Galit, a talkative and sharp 19-year-old, one of only two women in the class. "People always ask me, 'So, how is it in the border police? Do you beat Arabs with clubs?' "

"There are still people who join the border police with the notion that they will get to beat up Arabs," added another soldier, in his mid-20s and wearing a kippa to signal his religious observance. "This is what they see on TV; this is the prevalent perception.

"The photograph will always catch the guy with a raised hand," the soldier said, "but the picture cannot capture the second before, the reason, perhaps, for the raised hand. The provocation."

The four-hour session focused not just on Arab-Israeli tensions but on strains within Jewish Israel. It looked at prejudice against Russian and Ethiopian Jews, against women in the military, against the overweight and the disabled.

The program is an outgrowth of workshops started in schools in Los Angeles, Boston and other U.S. cities, ADL officials said. But organizers acknowledge that the short sessions can only begin to scratch the surface of bigotry and intolerance.

"We hope to spark something in them, start the conversation, shake them up a bit," said Aaron Goldberg, special projects coordinator in Jerusalem for the ADL. "Of course, it's not enough. We can only open their awareness."

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