In Jerusalem, bomb threats are as common as forgotten shopping bags and misplaced briefcases. Only a tiny fraction of them turn out to be real bombs, and only a small number of those ever detonate. But whatever the numbers, it's the Bomb Squad's mission to ensure that Jerusalem isn't paralyzed by bomb scares, its citizens not afraid to venture out. Driver and pedestrian traffic may be frustrated at times when traffic comes to a standstill and streets are cordoned off, but the seasoned Jerusalem sappers know that theirs is the first line of defense in keeping the capital safe.
Gal, 22, with the baby-faced preppy look of a college freshman, is the force's youngest recruit, doing a job that he and several dozen other sappers anonymously perform about a hundred times a week, sometimes as often as thirty times a day. He's still waiting for his "big break," when one of the hundreds of suspicious objects he's handled will actually turn out to be a real bomb, catapulting him into the coveted category of "seasoned" sapper. "Every sapper wants to defuse a real bomb himself, regardless of the danger. It's like finally getting your diploma," Gal admits.
"As soon as you're faced with a real event, you go into a different gear. You don't think about the danger."
A sapper's day begins at the Squad's headquarters at the Kishle police station in the Old City which once served as a Turkish prison, hidden behind the minarets and stone fortress walls of David's Tower. The sappers, all dressed in blue sweatshirts, green army pants and rubber-soled shoes, look like a bunch of gym teachers, until you notice the barrettas or .45 automatics stuffed into the holsters at the small of their backs. The squad is divided into three eight-hour shifts, to ensure 24-hour protection of the city.
Rami, 28, just clocked in and is waiting for one of the vans to return so he and others on his shift can begin their day's training maneuvers. The sappers rarely have time to sit around. If they aren't on a field call, they are either in a classroom studying some new anti-terror material, out practicing maneuvers, or poking through garbage cans, searching empty buses or suspiciously parked cars looking for bombs. Or they might be assigned to the tedious but necessary work of checking a hotel suite or auditorium for explosives prior to the arrival of a government or foreign official.
"I was pulled into the force because of the action," Rami says of a job that could kill you ten different ways ten times a day. "Much of the work is pretty routine, and sometimes it's a bit frustrating, like the time I had to block a main intersection a half hour before Shabbat because of a suspicious overnight bag. As we neutralized the thing, all this underwear flew out. I could hear the irate drivers muttering under their breaths as they zoomed home, annoyed at the student who forgot his laundry. But as soon as you're faced with a real event, a switch goes off in your head and you go into a different gear. You don't think about the danger. You think how you're going to defuse the package."
Rami once got a call about a suspicious black bag in the middle of the road outside a military compound. "I sent the robot out from the van to examine the package. Suddenly, there was an explosion and the robot was blown sky-high. It could have been me."
All those famous white Bomb Squad vans with the raised roofs are equipped with a sophisticated robot that handles the suspicious package so the sapper, to reduce risk of injury, can have as little direct contact with it as possible. The robot can open a package with his "arms" or a small amount of explosives, it can X-ray a package to see its contents, it is equipped with front and side cameras, and has other analytical capabilities including a shotgun. Once the robot comes into contact with the suspected bomb, several methods or "devices" might be used to defuse it. But Israelis already know not to ask too many questions about those familiar cables or other neutralizing devices they see being attached to suspicious objects.
"If I told you the specifics of how we operated, tomorrow my enemies would read about it," says Avi Eto-el, Jerusalem Police Dept. Head of Anti-terrorism. The Jerusalem Bomb Squad is reputed to be the best in the world and trains anti-terror forces from many countries in its prized, sensitive methods.
Has Rami, this super-cool Israeli with a crew-cut and perpetual macho smile, ever felt his hands shake? "If you think about being injured, you can throw in the towel," says Rami. "When you're there, all you're allowed to think about is how to do the work most efficiently and safely. Afterwards, you go over it in your head and then the shock of what a close call you had can really hit you. We rely on God a lot."
Rami doesn't look like the type who prays much, but with the Bomb Squad buddies, you can never tell. A pair of tefillin, which gets frequent daily use, lies casually on a corner shelf in the squad room. Many of the bare-headed sappers carry a mini-book of Psalms in their pockets.
A book case filled with innocuous, ordinary objects tells its own story of Israel's war against terror. There is the saccharin bottle, for example, rigged with explosives, timers and a fuse. A restaurant owner spotted a tiny lever sticking out from the side of such a bottle as it stood on one of his cafe tables in the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. The bomb exploded on a Bomb Squad sapper, blowing off his arm. Then there is the carton of long-life milk stuffed with explosives. A terrorist thought to place such a carton next to a stall at the Machane Yehuda market, but it blew up on him before he could set the timer. A "work accident," in sapper parlance. When you make a bomb, the sappers note, you only get one mistake.
A plastic house plant, a child's toy, a camera -- all hollowed out and rigged with TNT, are just some of the items that have been spotted on Jerusalem streets by alert citizens and defused in time. A flashlight, a bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste, a handful of pistachio nuts - all stuffed with plastic explosives, fill out the profile of these artifacts of terror.
With suicide bombers who instantly detonate themselves along with their bombs, sappers also face the extreme pressure of getting to the terrorists and their sources of explosives before the bombs can ever detonate.
THE FIRST TIME
Yisrael, 47, is the oldest and senior member of the squad, seeing it evolve from a handful to several dozen finely-skilled sappers. He shrugs off the image that sappers have nerves of steel. "Once maybe," he says." Now everything is much more mechanized. Today, sappers have many protective devices to minimize injury on the job."
Yisrael is matter-of-fact, nonchalant about his work, until he mentions his friend Steve Hilmes. Hilmes was one of two Jerusalem sappers killed in the line of duty. In the summer of 1978, Hilmes, an idealistic American immigrant, was killed as he was trying to defuse a bomb planted on one of Jerusalem's busy streets.
A siren went off in Yisrael's head. "This is going to explode any minute."
In his 28 years on the force, Yisrael has never himself sustained an injury, although he recalls some pretty close calls with death. "The first time is the worst," Yisrael says. "Then you look at it as a job. It's like a surgeon the first time he cuts into a patient. Afterwards it becomes routine."
That "first time" was 26 years ago on the No. 12 bus in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood. Yisrael was notified of a suspicious pipe sticking out from a package under one of the seats. "As soon as I saw it, I knew it was real. A trigger goes off in your head, a sixth sense. I managed to defuse it, and when I checked the clock, I saw it had under two minutes to detonation."
Yisrael recounts the bizarre case of a father and son, out shopping one Friday morning on the crowded Malchei Yisrael Street in Geula. They saw a package at a bus stop with a clock sticking out, put it in their shopping bag and took it home with them. When they put it on the table, they saw that the clock had wires and explosives attached to it, and thought about calling the Bomb Squad. Yisrael arrived as the father and son were still staring at the thing.
Meanwhile, a siren went off in Yisrael's head. "This is going to explode any minute." He ushered the family out of the house, quickly strapped on his protective gear (33 seconds, top to bottom, timed for efficiency), and using the squad's classified methods, defused the bomb, with seconds to go before detonation.
TAKE (ALMOST) NO CHANCES
Afternoons on Jaffa Road are usually bumper-to-bumper, but now it's eerily quiet as a lone bus sits in the middle of the street, pedestrian and vehicle traffic cordoned off by police. A shoe box was found under one of the seats. Word soon buzzes among the policemen holding back the crowd -- "Wires and batteries" -- the components of a bomb. Yaakov, a 10-year-veteran suited up in his protective gear, races between the box and his equipment. A blast rings through the air. The package is neutralized.
"A fake," says Yaakov. "A mitan srak (dummy bomb). The terrorists plant them to see how we react, what our methods are. The guy who planted this is probably watching us now from somewhere in the crowd."
Fake or not, the sappers always stick to the book, the protocol of proper bomb disposal. In this business, taking a chance can be fatal.
But Yaakov did take a chance once. A large, unclaimed overnight bag was discovered at the Western Wall. Yaakov cleared the area and was about to "neutralize" the bag with an explosive charge when something went off in his head.
"I knew something wasn't right. I just had this feeling." So against the rules, he approached the bag and unzipped it with his bare hands.
Inside was a week-old baby, abandoned by its mother.