JERUSALEM –- After 21 suicide bus bombings in the last 41 months that killed 164 people and wounded 777, the Israeli government has acknowledged that it has failed to provide security and is now embarking on a new venture to ensure the safety of all passengers.
Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi unveiled the new plan this month, which calls for providing walk-through metal detectors similar to those used at airports along the most at-risk of the country’s 5,500 bus routes and 22,000 bus stops. Passengers will be required to stand in a chute in front of the bus in order for the driver to visually scan the passengers, and then walk through the metal detector before they board the bus one by one.
“The inconvenience that will be caused by the delay is better than getting people killed on the bus,” Hanegbi said at a news conference. “Anything is less painful and less problematic than being blown up by a bomber. There is no doubt that at the beginning it will be inconvenient, but like everything else, we get used to [it].”
Hanegbi acknowledged that the various security measures that have been attempted on buses during the last three and a half years of Palestinian violence were unable to prevent even one attack, that bus security guards have lacked the necessary equipment for detecting explosives or suicide bombers. “The system has failed and we are trying to fix it,” he admitted.
The new plan follows a separate experimental initiative by the Ministry of Transportation, which has just conducted a three-week test on the effectiveness of placing turnstiles at the entrance and rear door of every bus. The prototype, which would allow the driver to lock the turnstile if he is suspicious of any passenger, was developed jointly by the ministry, the bus-manufacturing company Haargaz, which designed it, and TAAS Israel Industries (formerly Israel Military Industries, or IMI) in Ramat Hasharon, which built it.
The turnstile was inaugurated February 23 on five buses, two operating on Jerusalem’s No. 14 route and in Tel Aviv on Dan bus routes 5 and 36. The No. 14 route has been targeted twice in the last nine months, including on February 22, when eight people were killed and 60 others wounded. It was the failure of the two security guards on that bus to detect the bomber that pushed the Internal Security Ministry to decide to have all guards equipped with a metal detector and post them at every station.
The Transportation Ministry’s project — which could cost as much as $15,000 per bus, depending on the final design of the turnstile and the number produced, which won’t be known for months — could eventually be deemed economically unfeasible, though Haargaz is hoping that the system can eventually be marketed around the world.
Shlomo Raz, general manager of the Haargaz Transportation plant, said the plan to augment the security of the buses didn’t emerge until November, when it was conceived by Haargaz and then designed within three months. “There have always been a lot of ideas floating around for solutions to terrorism on buses,” Raz was quoted as saying. “But it wasn’t until we started to work on this new system that we realized it is the real solution to protect against bombers.”
A few suicide bus bombers have been prevented from boarding and blowing up buses, but drivers, not security personnel, have stopped them. These include driver Menashe Nuriel, who stopped a 17-year-old terrorist from boarding the Jerusalem-Kiryat Shmona bus just south of Beit She’an in August 2001; and driver Shalom Drey, who prevented a terrorist from boarding his bus near Mehola in February 2002.
Hanegbi’s plan also includes arming every security guard assigned to the buses with portable metal-detecting wands, as well as installing devices preventing entry through the rear doors. The immediate target in the coming weeks will be upgrading security on about 1,000 high-risk routes, as well as installing X-Ray screening systems to check bags and parcels at about 500 Central Bus Stations throughout the country.
The costs include: 1,000 hand-held magnometers at $500 apiece; 100 parcel-screening machines for $50,000 each; 500 walk-through metal detectors at $7,000 apiece; and 1,000 barrier gates that prevent rear door entry and run $700 each.
The $7.2 million budget is being underwritten by The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a Chicago-based organization that funnels to Israel millions of dollars a year contributed by evangelical Christians in the United States. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the fellowship, presented Hanegbi with a check for $2 million to get the project started immediately, pledging to try to raise an additional $5 million in the coming months.
“It is clear that Christians in America care deeply abut the security of the Israeli people, and have demonstrated a willingness to contribute to save Jewish lives,” Eckstein said.
Hanegbi said the program would not have been able to get off the ground without the contribution from the fellowship.
“If we had tried to get it via regular channels through the government, there would have been 700 discussions with the Finance Ministry, 100 press conferences and we wouldn’t have gotten one thing out of it,” Hanegbi said. “Without the donations, there would be more terror attacks, dozens more killed, and only then would they think of doing something. Because of your actions, dozens if not hundreds of lives will be saved, which otherwise would not.”
Eckstein added that, “ideally, the government of Israel should indeed be able to fund the basic security needs of its people. Unfortunately, given the economic situation today and the needs of the government to divert funds to all sorts of other requirements, they approached us, and we were more than willing to stand in the gap and to help.”
The vote in the cabinet authorizing the acceptance of the donation was nearly unanimous, with only Interior Minister Avraham Poraz voting against and three ministers abstaining.