Belgian Jewish community feeling vulnerable over scaling back counter-terror patrols

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By Jack Parrock
Belgian soldiers patrol in front of EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday, Jan. 19, 2015.
Belgian soldiers patrol in front of EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday, Jan. 19, 2015.   -  Copyright  Virginia Mayo/AP

Antwerp's Jewish quarter is considered a high-risk area for radical Islamic terrorism.

Community organisations in the city are warning the Belgian government not to go ahead with a proposal to end armed patrols on the streets.

"Armed patrols can't prevent a terrorist attack," says Hans Knoop, spokesperson for FJO (Forum of Jewish Organisations), "but it is kind of a deterrent. If terrorists know that there are no patrols anymore, they have a free hand to do what they want and that's the way they will interpreter it. I think a very important part if the psychological effect."

In May 2014, an IS-inspired terrorist killed four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels.

But it was after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and a foiled plot for a strike on Belgian soil around the same time that soldiers were deployed to the streets.

At the height of the threat level in the wake of the 2016 Brussels attacks, 3,000 armed soldiers paced the pavements.

There's only around 200 remaining now but the operation has cost the Belgian government more than 200 million euros over the past five years.

The defence minister's proposal is to wind back operations gradually until September with the army only staying on at nuclear sites.

These deployments have caused major divisions among politicians and the military here.

"The leadership of the Belgian armed forces was unhappy because they felt that this was, first of all not their job, that was the job of the police. And second of all that it was also taking a toll on their capacities to train for what their real missions are since they were at the same time still deployed on different fronts," explains Thomas Renard, a terrorism expert from the Egmont Institute.

Belgian authorities may consider the terrorist threat diminished enough to end the patrols.

But organisations working in Antwerp's Jewish quarter say they will remain vigilant the potential for an attack