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The Middle East | COLUMN ONE

Mission: Intercept Suicide Bombers

Specialized Recon units patrol the streets, malls and clubs of Israel looking for bulky coats, sweaty brows and other suspicious signs.


ORANIT, Israel — Terrorized by human bombs, Israel needs human shields.

That's why Sgt. Elinor Uzan volunteered for the Recon 7 unit of the Israeli border police. Her specialty: subduing suicide bombers.

The baby-faced Uzan has freckles, orange-blond curls and an irrepressible smile. Armed with a Jericho semiautomatic pistol and wearing street clothes, the 19-year-old patrols malls, nightclub districts and other public places that are the bloodstained home front of the Mideast conflict.

She scans crowds for a heavy coat, a sweaty brow, whitened knuckles and other signs of an imminent confrontation with walking death. When the moment comes, she will do the opposite of what most people would do. She will attack, trying to overpower the bomber before he or she turns her into another victim.

"Either you respond or you freeze," Uzan said. "A lot of people are depending on you. It's very hard to train for this. How do you train for something like that? You work mainly on your mind, how fast you are, how alert you are."

A barrage of bombings last month gave the unit an extensive dossier of carnage to study. Training intensely for close-quarters combat, the officers also learn everything they can about the nihilistic psychology and sophisticated methodology of the enemy. And sometimes, intelligence from informants in the West Bank helps.

A suicide bomber killed eight people on a bus near Haifa on Wednesday, ending a weeklong lull in bomb attacks on civilians during Israel's military offensive in the West Bank. Israel says it launched the operation in Palestinian territory to stop an onslaught of suicide bombings against civilians that killed 85 people and wounded 672 between Jan. 22 and April 1.

In today's Israel, the border is everywhere. Arabs and Jews live close together, glaring at one another across boulevards, walls and barbed-wire fences. Street checkpoints, military foot patrols and cruising police cars have multiplied in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other cities.

To beef up defenses, the national police force has yanked detectives, supervisors and cadets off assignments and sent them on street patrol. And the border police, a force with a two-fisted reputation, is changing roles.

The border agency has never patrolled international boundaries in a conventional sense. Rather, it has been a paramilitary force responding to demonstrations and riots by Arabs, as well as handling rural law enforcement and occasional military duties.

Instead of facing stone-throwing youths, units such as Recon 7 rove the internal front line with the ultimate--and unenviable--tactical challenge of detecting and intercepting suicide bombers.

Uzan belongs to one of a number of specialized units that work around the nation. Sometimes in uniform and sometimes in plainclothes, her 40-officer unit patrols an area north of Tel Aviv that encompasses Netanya, the coastal resort where a bomber killed 27 people at a Passover dinner in a hotel--and triggered the military drive into the West Bank. The units work in teams of three or four officers.

The mission makes being a member of the SWAT team or the bomb squad seem relatively safe. At least bombs don't struggle and explode themselves at will; and gunmen can only kill one person at a time.

"If a terrorist comes to a scene and shoots, there is a firefight," said Superintendent Shlomi Abukasi, the commander of the unit. "You have a couple of seconds of shooting. But in the case of a suicide bomber, you don't have that window of time."

Some Have Volunteered

Abukasi, 36, is of Jewish Moroccan descent. Like U.S. Border Patrol agents, about half of whom are Latino, the Israeli border police force attracts working-class immigrants. The officers who trained Tuesday with pistols and M-16s at a firing range in a rock quarry in this semirural area east of Tel Aviv came from a variety of backgrounds, including Ethiopian, Kurdish and Druze Arabs. Some officers in Recon 7 have volunteered for the duty, but not all.

Sitting on a rock by the firing range, the lean and quiet Abukasi looked unwaveringly alert. Asked about his mind-set on the street, he said: "It's imagination and memory. My imagination and memory work together. I imagine a terrorist exploding, the damage that's done. When I go after a terrorist, I imagine what will happen when I blow up. And my memory recalls all the experiences from the calls I have worked on, the little pieces of bodies everywhere."

Although suicide bombing seems individualistic and anarchic, each attack is the product of a network. Experts prepare exploding belts and vests in secret laboratories, 15 of which have been discovered by Israeli troops during the West Bank operation. Accomplices often drive bombers into Israeli cities from Palestinian areas.

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