Guess what: Our enemies lie

ByDAVID HOROVITZ
June 10, 2011 17:19

The IDF showed on Sunday that it had learned many of the lessons of its Nakba Day failure. But it continues to pay a high price for its incomprehensible refusal to counter, in real time, the relentless distortion of unfolding events and, especially, the falsehoods about death tolls.

IDF soldiers on Syrian border in Golan Heights

IDF Syria Border 311. (photo credit:REUTERS)

The IDF’s handling of Sunday’s second effort by Syrian-Palestinians to crash the northern border showed many lessons quickly learned and implemented. But not all.

The border fence had been reinforced, mine fields checked and trenches dug. And troops had been deployed in larger numbers, with more of the correct equipment, in the appropriate places. Nonetheless, facing a relatively small onslaught – hundreds, where the future might hold tens of thousands – the IDF lacked the skills, or the equipment, to prevail without a limited use of live fire. And, as ever, it failed to present a detailed, coherent account of what was occurring in real time, even as the Syrians were assiduously inflating the death toll for global consumption.



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It would, of course, have been far better for Israel if the improved preparations had been made and put into practice three weeks earlier, on Nakba Day – the anniversary of the “catastrophe” of Israel’s establishment. Why on earth would the IDF have deluded itself into thinking that Bashar Assad would want to spare Israel a massive border confrontation on that resonant anniversary?

And because those preparations were not properly made last month , the “success” of third and fourth generation Palestinian refugee descendants in making a symbolic “return” across the Golan border on May 15 has provided what may well prove to be unstoppable momentum for a relentless stream of such “unarmed” mass protests at any number of border locations and other hotspots, notably including the West Bank and east Jerusalem, in the weeks and months ahead. But at least the IDF kept the border intact this time, and did seek to exercise the requisite mix of restraint and determination.


As has been bloodily demonstrated throughout our decades of conflict, there is no shortage of young men among our neighbors who can be persuaded by their leaders that the dispute with Israel is worth dying for rather than negotiating over. And the addition of a financial incentive – Saddam Hussein’s donations to the families of intifada terrorists; Hamas’s generous payments to the relatives of its killers; and now the desperate Assad’s handouts to anyone who he hopes might deflect attention from his domestic mass murder by running at the Israeli border defenses – is always a help.

So long as Assad is energetically killing Syrians while he fights for his life, and so long as the superficially “unified” Palestinian leadership remains intent on duping the international community into rhetorically granting statehood for “Palestine,” the unarmed masses will be prodded forward, and the IDF’s task will be to improve still further on its performance last Sunday rather than lapse into repeats of the woeful May 15 showing.

EVEN THOUGH next-to-nobody accepts the extension of Israeli law to the Golan Heights, and the current Israeli-Syrian border is thus not widely regarded as our legitimate international boundary, the reports of 20- plus Syrian fatalities there at the hands of the IDF on Sunday were met with a relatively muted international response. It was, after all, plain to see that this was an entirely unprovoked assault, albeit unarmed, on a clearly delineated frontier. The Israelis were inside their fence, and they were coming under attack.

Inevitably, there were protests from various UN figures and even some unease from the US State Department. But Washington set the diplomatic tone with its overall defense of Israel’s right to protect itself, and the Guardian, uncharacteristically, set the media tone with its fairly dispassionate coverage. And there was nothing in the way of dramatic footage of Israeli soldiers gunning down protesters to drastically inflame international passions.

But the IDF would be foolish, indeed, if it were to delude itself into thinking that its handling of the Naksa Day protests, called to mark the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, constitutes a perfect model that will henceforth ensure relative tranquility – on the ground or on the “second battlefield” of media, legal and diplomatic forums.

For one thing, the numbers the IDF was facing were relatively low and it was being confronted at only a couple of flashpoints – near Kuneitra and Majdal Shams. As the Nakba Day events should have made plain three weeks earlier, there is potential for confrontation on every one of Israel’s frontiers – with Lebanon (where the Lebanese Army has thus far forestalled such onslaughts, with not inconsiderable force, and where Hezbollah has held back), with Jordan and Egypt (where those countries’ armed forces intervened on Nakba Day to prevent the masses reaching the borders), with Gaza (where Hamas has hitherto chosen not to galvanize major protests) – as well as all over the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

For another thing, the relative international tolerance for the reported killing of more than 20 protesters on the Syrian border would not likely be replicated in a case of deaths on that scale, or even a much smaller scale, in the West Bank or east Jerusalem. An Israeli failure to use solely non-lethal crowd dispersal techniques would not be so easily forgiven in territories where Israel asserts control (the West Bank) or claims sovereignty (east Jerusalem). And the protesting crowds that the security forces might encounter in the coming weeks and months in the West Bank and east Jerusalem are likely to be far larger, more passionate and much, much harder to disperse.

If east Jerusalem and the West Bank see a summer of mass protests, the IDF and angry Palestinians will not be facing off across a border fence; they will be entangling in the heart of utterly disputed territory. There is no demarcated line for the IDF to protect, no clearly marked territory for the IDF to defend. The protesters will be confronting Israeli troops right next to their own homes, on land that they insist, and that most of the international community agrees, is theirs. And thus there will be none of this week’s tacit acceptance of an Israeli resort to any significant use of force in attempting to quash any unarmed uprising.

READING THIS, Israeli security personnel may be outraged by my repeated references to the reported 20-plus deaths at the border with Syria last Sunday – a figure that was almost universally cited around the world – just as they may have been outraged by the widespread reporting that Israeli troops killed 16 people in the various Nakba Day protests on the Syrian and Lebanese borders.

Israel, they might protest, has never confirmed that it killed those 40 or so people over the two days of protests. On Nakba Day, they might say, 10 of the 16 deaths probably took place in Lebanon, at the hands of the Lebanese army. And on Sunday, the claims of 20-plus deaths are not borne out by any independently verifiable information. There is no footage to back up the reports, there is every likelihood that the numbers were deliberately inflated by the Assad regime (which was busily killing its own people in far greater numbers all week), the IDF says it used very little live fire, and it has been widely reported that several of the fatalities occurred when the protesters themselves threw a petrol bomb that set off land mines. Of the 40 deaths overall, therefore, Israeli security officials would claim, Israel was directly responsible for no more than a handful.

I am readily inclined to believe this. The problem is that any sense of Israeli grievance over those numbers is evidence of one last, critical lesson that goes abidingly unlearned.

The false reporting of death tolls, and Israel’s unfathomable failure to confront the phenomenon, dogged Israel throughout the second intifada. This resort to murderous force against Israel, fomented under Yasser Arafat, was intermittently accompanied by false Palestinian claims of Israel mass murder – most notoriously when the IDF entered Jenin in 2002 to root out the suicide-bomb dispatchers and was despicably accused by the Palestinian leadership, in numerous international media outlets, of killing hundreds if not thousands of unarmed Palestinians. The ultimately confirmed figures indicated some 55 armed Palestinian and 23 IDF fatalities in Jenin, but by the time those numbers emerged Israel had been besmirched worldwide as an indiscriminate mass killer, its name blackened even by some of its erstwhile supporters.

Similar lies and distortions accompanied the Second Lebanon War, when Hezbollah inflated the death toll of Lebanese civilians – the very civilians in whose midst it was cynically choosing to fight – and minimized the fatality numbers of its armed fighters.

And the same process unfolded during Operation Cast Lead, when the IDF tackled Hamas in Gaza. Day after day, the internationally reported fatality figures were taken solely from the “Health Ministry in Gaza” – i.e. Hamas. Only two years after the fighting was over, long after the international community had castigated Israel, and long after Richard Goldstone had penned the now self-discredited report that has been used in every conceivable international forum to galvanize legal, diplomatic, economic and even cultural pressure against Israel, did a senior Hamas official – “interior minister” Fathi Hammad – acknowledge the lies, the false inflation of the number of non-combatants and the deliberate under-reporting of the number of Hamas fighters among the dead.

And yet, despite the centrality of death tolls as an ostensible barometer of right and wrong, of proportionate and disproportionate use of force, of acceptable and unacceptable conduct, Israel continues resolutely to absent itself from this section of the “second battlefield.” In 2002, it kept reporters out of Jenin and provided no concrete figures of its own, leaving the arena wide open to Palestinian lies. It offered no official counter to Hezbollah figures in 2006, and no official counter to Hamas figures in 2008-9. This newspaper sought information from the IDF about Gaza fatalities on an almost daily basis during Operation Cast Lead, since it was obvious that Hamas was lying, but was provided with woefully inadequate information.

Showing similar disregard for the way the story was playing out to its detriment, official Israel waited hour after precious hour to release the footage that showed naval commandoes being beaten to within inches of their lives by the club-wielding thugs aboard the Mavi Marmara a year ago – hour after precious hour in which the false account of Israeli troops indiscriminately murdering peace activists on a goodwill mission to Gaza gained unstoppable momentum, with implications that reverberate to this day.

And now again, in this era of instant internet updates, Facebook and Twitter, this newspaper looked in vain for real time IDF responses to the Syrian fatality claims on both Nakba Day and Naksa Day, and we were met with silence. Three weeks ago, when the international news agencies that provide the first widespread draft of unfolding history were reporting two, then four, then six, then 10 and finally 16 unarmed protesters killed by Israeli troops on the Syrian and Lebanese borders, basing themselves on Syrian claims, Israel had no detailed, coherent response.

On Sunday, likewise, when it was being globally reported that Israeli forces had opened fire on unarmed protesters at the Syrian border, killing four, no 10, no 13, no 20, no 24, the IDF issued a series of Tweets that described warning messages sent to the border rioters, spoke of attempts to breach the fence and denied claims that Israel had fired tank shells at the would-be infiltrators, but offered no specifics on casualty figures. Its spokespeople told reporters that it could not provide exact fatality figures because it had no access to the reported fatalities. It did initially release some numbers on demonstrators who had been shot, but gradually stopped doing even this as the day wore on.

Obviously, the IDF’s access to information about enemy casualties is always going to be less than perfect, but the more details the IDF provides, the easier it is for fair-minded reporters to assess which side is telling the truth. And the IDF is not going to be able to provide maximal details until or unless it appoints officers and staff to seek out that information in real time.

During Operation Cast Lead, a single officer, located in offices at the Erez checkpoint, was appointed to look at open Internet sources, including Hamas’s own websites, to try to discern who among the fatalities was involved with Hamas and who was truly a non-combatant. This single officer’s straightforward research was central to subsequent official Israeli claims that Hamas had inflated the non-combatant casualty figures, but his information was released only after the fighting was over. What was needed was not one officer but a team, working not solely with a view to compiling information for later use, but charged with finding out as much as possible as quickly as possible for immediate dissemination.

In this aspect of conflict, silence is anything but golden. The security forces may perform as effectively as they did on Sunday in grappling with bitter protests on every border and at every flashpoint in the coming weeks and months. It is to be hoped, indeed, that they perform still more effectively, obviating the need for any resort to live fire even if the crowds are larger and angrier. But if the IDF insists on failing to document its activities, quickly and credibly – if it chooses not to invest resources, specifically, on keeping track of enemy casualties as well as its own – it can be certain that the images of confrontation will be manipulated, and the nature of confrontation skewed to Israel’s immediate and profound detriment.

EXPERIENCE SHOULD have long since shown that even relatively banal incidents can be misrepresented as being dramatic, that even low casualty figures can and will be falsely inflated, and that, if all else fails, “confrontations” can be faked – stage-managed from start to finish.

In short, guess what: Our enemies lie.

Mass protests could come to constitute the latest strategy being widely employed against Israel, the new supplement to conventional warfare, terrorism, missile attacks and the development of non-conventional weaponry. And central to mass protests is not physically defeating Israel but hurting its legitimacy – symbolically breaching its borders and persuading a watching world of its ostensible bloodlust.

What is seen to be happening on the Syrian border, or at the Kalandiya crossing point for that matter, is as important as what is actually happening. Whether Israel really kills 20, 10 or no protesters is not the whole point; the goal of the protests is convincing the international community that the IDF has been killing again, generating new waves of protest and escalating condemnation.

So in addition to grappling with what is unfolding on the ground, the IDF needs to take the lead in telling the world about it – in detail, in real time. If it continues to leave the field clear for its enemies to lie to the world about what is unfolding, this “Arab spring” is going to turn into a long, hot summer.

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