I recently returned from another counter-terrorism training event in Israel hosted by Marc Kahlberg, a retired Israeli National Police officer. As a law enforcement trainer, I brought another delegation of American first responders to Israel. This program hosted police and fire chiefs from various agencies as well as a very highly educated former CIA agent.

Marc Kahlberg, retired detective, commander of the Netanya Tourist Police and Israel Police English language foreign relations spokesman, has hosted or organized specialized law enforcement training tour programs to Israel since the aftermath of 9/11. Marc, a first responder veteran of 16 suicide bombing attacks and many other terror-related events during his career ran the program.

Even though the delegation was briefed before their arrival to the Ben Gurion International airport in Tel Aviv, there were still many questions from almost all of the attendees about the training schedule. Israel is such a dynamic country. Emerging events can alter even the most solid of itineraries.   All of the U.S. personnel had a pre-conceived idea of what transpires on a daily basis in Israel from first-responder’s perspective.  They had come to Israel to learn what really happens behind the scenes. We spent the first afternoon on a Tel Aviv beach and, after an amazing dinner, were briefed on schedule that lay ahead.

The first day of training was in the Old City of Jerusalem.  We were given a briefing at the Western Wall by the Israel National Police spokesman on the security issues. This was followed by a presentation at a secure police facility equipped with state-of-the art technology used to safeguard this historically and religiously important global heritage.

The technology viewed is certainly an important factor in understanding how the Israel Police are completely capable of being pro-active. The abundance of cameras and sensors with high-tech analytics and other technological innovations help prevent crime and acts of terrorism before they begin. We saw exclusive presentations, which included video streams of terror attacks on civilians and law enforcement personnel. The attacks were captured by these surveillance systems as they happened and attempted attacks were thwarted by this technology. As we watched these real events unfolding in front of us, it was so quiet that we could have heard a pin drop in that room because of the level of concentration.

As the week progressed, the first responders met and trained with Israeli security forces in the police, military, and fire services as well as the intelligence community.  We experienced firsthand the security issues from Israel’s northern border with Lebanon to the West Bank to the southern border area including the Gaza Strip and the Egyptian/Jordanian border.

The border crossing points that lead into and out of the Palestinian Territories known as the West Bank was extremely interesting.  While at these border checkpoints, Israel Defense Forces personnel underscored the security issues at these locations.  Issues include the smuggling of drugs, humans, weapons, and explosive devices on a regular basis. These checkpoints are located along the controversial but seemingly necessary security fence that Israel built.

This security fence was necessary mainly due to the influx of terrorists and terror attacks Israel suffered from 2000 – 2005. We personally observed how the fence is able to stem the flow of terror attacks and suicide bombings that were an almost daily occurrence during these years. The Wall, as the security fence is referred to by its opponents, and the checkpoints that operate exactly like any international border crossing, have been in the international media spotlight since it was completed.

There have been what I believe are false allegations of brutality by Israeli security personnel against Arabs who cross to and from Israel.  All we witnessed throughout the week at the checkpoints was total professionalism by all of the police and military security forces.  Officials were courteous as they explained why they were checking people and vehicles. We realized it is actually the Israeli people that have been forced to “fence themselves in” in order protect themselves from potential terror attack.  The media portrays the fence as something exactly the opposite.  The Wall has proved time and time again that it is effective thwarting terror attacks against Israeli citizens.

The defining moments of our trip were when we met with survivors of terrorism, including police first responders to mass casualty attacks. We truly were able to recognize that behind every uniform there was a human being.

Marc and two other police officers that worked with him during these years of terror and carnage spoke to us. They had been on scene outside of the Sharon Mall in the city of Netanya in 2005.  They described being only feet away from a Palestinian homicide bomber who detonated his explosive belt. This was one of three attacks that targeted this mall during these terror years.

Part of our case study was done on scene at the mall at the very spot where the bomber detonated.  NYPD officers were training with Marc not far from the blast site.  They were witnesses to 9/11 and then this deadly homicide attack in 2005.   We saw some of the residual damage done by shrapnel, which had penetrated a security railing on sidewalk next to where the bomber had been standing. This one attack killed 5 civilians and injured over 60.

Both of these ranking command staff police officers told their heart-wrenching stories and their struggles to deal with the aftermath of this and other terror attacks. When they described the events, it was like it happened only five minutes ago for them. One of the female officers told us she actually grew up as a young child in an Arab village. She even had an Arab nanny that helped raise her.  She thought of this woman as a second mother, she said. She told us that her mother would even give their hand-me-down clothes to some of the less fortunate Arab families in the village.

The one astonishing point that was noticeable in speaking with all of these victims of terrorism from the civilians to the police officers is that there was not one word of hatred and vengeance. There was no remorse. It was as if they all knew that their mission in life was simply to carry on and never be defeated by the terrible carnage and horror instilled upon them by the terrorists. They are still struggling to understand why they are hated as a people.  All they want to do is raise their families, go to work, and live in peace with their neighbors.

Not all of the police survivors of these attacks are still on the job. Many have had to retire due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those who are still on the job have been changed forever.

After the up-close and personal accounts of the Sharon Mall attacks, we brought the delegation to the Park Hotel in Netanya, the scene of Israel’s most devastating terror attack.  This attack changed Israeli government and policy in coping effectively with the onslaught of continuous terror attacks.

After walking through several scenes of terror attacks on a short strip of road and eventually arriving at the Park Hotel, Marc Kahlberg and a veteran member of the Israel police bomb squad told their harrowing story.  On Passover, observed the night of March 27, 2002, the hotel was full of guests.   Some Holocaust survivors had gathered for a Passover Seder dinner in the hotel’s main function room. Since it was Passover, police staffing had been at a minimum.  Most officers, including Marc, were home with their families.

As we sat in that same function room, Marc began reliving that harrowing night.  He told the delegation that a male Hamas suicide bomber, disguised as a woman, walked into the hotel lobby, past the security guard and then into the main function room with all of the guests and detonated his belt. Thirty-one people were killed and 140 were injured.

Marc got the call at home just minutes after the attack. Like other off-duty officers, responded immediately. It was scene of utter devastation and carnage with bodies that had been ejected from the hall and were out around and in the pool area in the rear of the hotel. One of those killed that evening was Marc’s close friend, who was the hotel manager.  The bomb squad commander as well as Marc’s former commander stood with Marc as he told his emotional story.

Both of the other commanders then opened up and gave their heart-wrenching accounts of that night. This was the first time in ten years that the bomb squad commander had openly discussed his personal feelings to a training class. All of these officers suffered some effects on the terrorism that has touched their lives. Having been with Marc at the Park Hotel for numerous past case studies, reliving the horrors of that evening with his former boss and colleague, he was the most composed I’ve ever seen him. Netanya was Marc’s “beat” and the hotels were one of Marc’s main intelligence sources for countering terrorism. He had not been on duty that night and that still haunts him.

For Marc, who is on the road to recovery from PTSD, educating first responders and being able to talk about the effects of terrorism has become part of the necessary therapy for him to take him down that long road.

In 2002, the same year as the Park Hotel massacre, Israel suffered 130 more terror attacks with 425 people being killed.

Before the week had concluded, we brought the delegation to an undisclosed location on the Israel/Gaza Strip border. This is the same region where the majority of the over 10,000 rockets have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip. The delegation received training from bomb squad personnel from the police in that region.  They were able to see many of the missiles that were fired and targeted at one city. We held actual Kassam and Grad rockets that had been recovered from the fields and city streets where they had landed.

We were brought throughout one particular city and shown the public bomb shelters at schools, bus stops, and markets.  By law, every existing home and new construction must have one. We witnessed a warning siren drill that when sounded, gives citizens only 20 seconds to make it to a shelter.

According to statistics from the Israeli Trauma Coalition (ITC), a non-governmental organization that assists and counsels victims of terrorism, upwards of 70% of the citizens in southern Israel including children suffer from some form of PTSD.  This is due to the incessant rockets fired into Israel from Gaza.

The following day, a rocket landed not far from where we stood, staring into Gaza City limits. This was one of three rockets that fell in southern Israel during the week that we were there.

Israel has learned how to deal with the terror threat and the missiles that are fired almost on a daily basis. The statistics on terror attacks being successfully carried out on Israeli soil have shown that the tactics are working. Homicide bombings are almost nonexistent today as bombers are thwarted long before they get the chance to enter Israel. The civilian population, even though exhausted from the constant threat of missiles and rockets fired from Gaza, are well drilled and prepared for almost any threat.

At the end of the training, all participants advised that they now understood what challenges Israel faces on a daily basis just to survive, not to mention the burden of counter-terrorism incorporated into the traditional policing duties.

Just as it was for me the first time I went to Israel, this was a life-changing experience for these first responders.  They now realize that the struggle Israelis face against terrorism is the same struggle as American police officers, fire fighters, and EMS personnel are facing.  The difference is that much of our first responder community has not awoken to this reality yet.

After a terror attack in Israel, life is brought back to normal as quickly as possible, usually within just a few hours. Despite the constant threat of terror in Israel, life goes on as it must. It is a lesson we here in the U.S. need to adopt, especially in the first responder community in the event of future attacks on our homeland. It will be how well we the cops, fire fighters and EMT’s respond and perform that will set the tone for getting life back to normal after a mass casualty incident.

As someone who frequently travels to Israel and trains with the Israeli security services behind the scenes, I am truly inspired by their love of life, service to their country, and their will to survive as a people is truly a model for all first responders across the world.

Detective Brian J. Smith is a 16-year veteran officer with a Boston-area police department.  He is the Terrorism Liaison Officer with the Department of Homeland Security.   Detective Smith is a DHS-certified antiterrorism instructor, firearms instructor, and specializes in dignitary/close-protection training. He is a former US Army Military Police member, where he began his counterterrorism training and law enforcement career. Brian is the president of BJ Smith Consulting, LLC.  He serves as the U.S. Director of Operations for M.K. International Security Consulting, Ltd., one of Israel’s top homeland security solutions companies. Brian consults throughout the US and internationally on mass-casualty response, cultural/ethnic diversity, and counterterrorism for local law enforcement.  Brian regularly brings US-based public safety professionals to Israel to cross-train with the Israel National Police. 

Brian can be reached at [email protected] or visit the company websites at www.mkisc.com and www.iscIsrael.com