The ‘most polite police officer in the world’ — and what he stands for

A video showing an Israeli Border Police officer demonstrating admirable professionalism and politeness in his interaction with activists has gone viral in recent days. But behind this purportedly exemplary civility is a much grimmer reality.

The two-and-a-half minute clip shows a Border Police officer, who introduces himself as Alon Tiff, interrupting a verbal altercation between a security guard and a minivan full of Ta’ayush activists wielding video cameras at a checkpoint near Jerusalem that leads deeper into the West Bank. We don’t know where the activists are going, but it’s reasonable to assume they are on their way to participate in a grassroots political activity in some Palestinian village. Ta’ayush is active on behalf of Palestinian land and farming rights in the Hebron Hills, where they are frequently attacked by extremist settlers.

Tiff walks over to the passengers in the van, who are involved in an argument over whether or not they have the legal right to film at the checkpoint, with one of the security personnel ordering them to stop filming while the activists chorus that they have every right to film him, since he was a public servant carrying out his job in a public place. Angry at having his authority challenged, the young man asserts that he is no one’s servant. At which point Alon Tiff intervenes.

Tiff introduces himself with exaggerated politeness and gives the passengers his full name and ID number at their request, as he is required to do by law. He does not press the passengers when they assert their right to refuse to tell him where they are coming from. Then Tiff shows them what he says is a military order that gives him the authority to decide who goes through the checkpoint. He allows them to photograph the order. Then he informs the minivan passengers that he has decided to exercise his legal right, as described in the very loose wording on the order he reads aloud to them, and refuse to allow them through the checkpoint. He does not give any reason for his refusal; nor is he required to do so.

While the interaction is going on, one of the minivan passengers points to another private car that goes whizzing through the checkpoint, unimpeded, and sarcastically asks Tiff if “blondes” get to go through, since the driver of the private car happened to be one. The incident ends with Tiff authoritatively telling the passengers who were milling about on the pavement to get back inside the van, and ordering the driver to turn around.

There’s a lot to parse in this video. 

Note that, while the Border Police is a branch of the civil police force, Tiff is implementing a military order to control the movement of Jewish citizens of Israel, which is unusual. No police officer would use a military order against Jewish citizens inside the borders of Israel; he would have no legal standing. In general, those orders are used to control the movement of the Palestinian civilian population in the territories under military occupation, although of course (as we see here), Israeli civil police are deployed to control movement into and inside the territory.

There is the issue of Border Police officers enforcing a loosely-worded military order in an arbitrary manner. Basically, what Tiff told the minivan passengers was that he had the authority to let people through depending on amorphous factors like whether or not he liked them or how his mood was that day. He is the king of the checkpoint in his mini authoritarian fiefdom.

Then there’s the interesting fact that this clip was filmed by the Ta’ayush activists, who are clearly outraged at Tiff’s arbitrary, high-handed manner. But IDF cheerleaders have co-opted the activists’ video and posted it as an example of exemplary behavior on the part of security personnel at a checkpoint. So we have mutually exclusive interpretations of this incident. The activists are outraged at the arbitrary enforcement of loosely worded military orders, while hasbara outlets tout the soldier’s politesse and his refraining from using physical violence.

A Hebrew speaker will note that the passengers are native-born Israelis and well spoken, and also that they come off as a bit entitled. They’re absolutely right to protest Officer Tiff’s refusal to allow them through, but anyone who’s dealt with police anywhere in the world should know that there’s a difference between exercising one’s rights and getting one’s way. Did they want to go through the checkpoint, or did they want to get into a hissy match with a Border Police officer and film the incident to show everyone how right they were and how wrong he was?

There is an element of class conflict in this video. The Border Police is a pseudo-military force that is often looked down upon by those who serve in regular combat units. Much of its ranks are culled from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds, doing their mandatory military service. It also has many career officers — notably Druze citizens of Israel. Overall, the Border Police tend to be Mizrahi, Ethiopian, Druze and a few new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Their job is mostly to put down demonstrations or riots, and to control checkpoints. They are notorious for using excessively violent methods, but in my experience in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, soldiers in the so-called elite combat units are every bit as arbitrary and violent in situations involving civilians.

Border Police, however, get the bad rap because they are from less privileged backgrounds, and because they are trained in domestic crowd control rather than the loftier mission of defending the country against external enemies in combat. The sniffy attitude toward them causes layers of resentment — some of which is expressed, for example, when well-spoken Ashkenazi activists assert their legal right, in what some might see as a high-handed manner, to film and pass through a checkpoint. So much of the interaction we see in this video is a power struggle between sections of Israeli society, which is why at some points you can see other border guards grinning as Tiff asserts his authority.

Finally, we have the most obvious — but unspoken — point, which is that Palestinians don’t have the privilege of contesting the right of Border Police officers to stop them from filming or crossing a checkpoint. If that minibus had been full of Palestinians waving video cameras and demanding to see Alon Tiff’s identification, they would very likely have been detained and questioned or possibly assaulted (which is a not-infrequent occurrence). Jewish activists get to argue with security forces about their right to travel within the occupied Palestinian territories, but Palestinians don’t. They have to do what they’re told.