My Word: Blurred borders

Issuing a rallying cry to thousands to amass in one spot, particularly one bordered by a fence, could result in a potentially lethal stampede.

By
May 21, 2011 22:42
IDF officer at Nakba Day rally

IDF officer at Nakba Day rally 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

I have never wanted to live in the US, but now and again I have wished we had Canadians as neighbors. Last week was one of those times. How refreshing to have a democratically elected prime minister who not only says he’s a friend of Israel, but means it, à la Stephen Harper. And, of course, there is another benefit that became obvious on May 15. In the, highly unlikely, event of a mass rally on the border, how much easier it would be to disperse a crowd of Canadians – using megaphones to call on them to “Please leave the area” – rather than trying to prevent loss of lives (on both sides) when highly charged protesters try to provoke the IDF into an armed response, thus gaining a PR victory if nothing else.

The footage of Palestinians from Syria charging into the Golan Heights village of Majdal Shams on “Nakba Day,” chanting about the “right of return,” was disturbing on many levels. Having served for a while on the Golan in a position that brought me into frequent contact with its residents, I wondered what they truly made of the “conquest.”

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People who live there can be divided into those who say that Majdal Shams should return to Syrian control and those who believe that, particularly after more than 40 years, it should remain in Israeli hands, with, hopefully, better access to friends and family on the other side.

I have never met a resident of the Druse village who even hinted that it was “Palestinian.” This wasn’t so much changing the narrative, as opening a whole new chapter in future history books.

Even among the “pro-Syria” brigade, it seems clear that there are those who are hedging their bets, and in the wake of recent incidents it’s easy to see why. In the event of the village being transferred to Syrian control – under Bashar Assad or any other ruler – people want to be able to prove their loyalty rather than be suspected of having Israeli sympathies. And when you realize that some of Israel’s most vociferous critics are Arab MKs, who blast the state while drawing a salary to represent it, the Druse on the Golan can feel safer with Israel’s policies than Syria’s.

I didn’t expect Assad’s forces to stop the protesters from descending on Israel – it was, after all, pretty obvious that the beleaguered president welcomed and encouraged a diversion of attention from the riots at home. His condemnation of Israeli use of force against the demonstrators, however, gave the word chutzpa an Arabic accent.

Both the storming of the Syrian border and that of the Lebanese border (where up to 10 Palestinians were killed, some of them by the Lebanese Army struggling to stop them) raise other questions.

ONE ISSUE I have written about before, but like a bad headache it tends to return during times of tension: Where were the UN peacekeeping forces? Their inability to prevent incidents like this brings into doubt their worth as a preventive force along future boundaries – an oft-mooted measure whenever talk of some kind of peace agreement and withdrawal comes up.

There was, of course, also the very perturbing matter of Israeli preparedness: Given that the social media had been calling for such a gathering for a while (and, if nothing else, the buses transporting the demonstrators must have been visible as they approached), clearly there was some kind of failure at either the Intelligence level or the liaison with the ground forces. New IDF chief of General Staff Benny Gantz reportedly called the events “not good.”

You can say that again – maybe if you say it enough times it would receive sufficient emphasis.

Obviously, the IDF was relieved that the soldiers on the ground (who are also human, despite what Israel’s detractors believe) neither panicked nor gave in to provocation and didn’t open fire.

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos described the demonstrators as “innocent.” Other officials called them “non-violent.” This doesn’t explain how IDF soldiers were wounded. Throwing pebbles in a pond is a peaceful pastime; throwing rocks at someone’s face is not. Hurling insults at a demonstration counts as non-violent; hurling objects does not.

Sitting in Jerusalem, which has witnessed bulldozers turned into lethal weapons, or seeing what appears to have been a deliberate Nakba Day attack carried out by a truck driver in Tel Aviv, I guess we have a different idea of what counts as violence and weapons.

Someone in Facebook’s headquarters should also be breathing a sigh of relief, but it might not have occurred to them. Just as international law has yet to catch up with an era of warfare in which “human shields” and “suicide bombers” are two of the more common terms, so, too has it failed to keep up with the more antisocial side of the social network phenomenon.

While there are definite advantages to Facebook and Twitter – spreading the idea of democracy and freedom of speech, among them – there are also drawbacks. Issuing a rallying cry to thousands of people to amass in one spot, particularly one bordered by a fence, could result in a potentially lethal stampede – be it at a political protest or a party. Had people been crushed to death at the Nakba Day events, you can bet who’d have been blamed (and it wouldn’t have been the people who sent them).

Incidentally, had Israel amassed forces on the border it would have been considered a casus belli.

Turning the Golan Heights into “Palestine” is as much an indication of the future war than of past battles. This is part of the battle for borders. I hope that Jordan is not only watching but internalizing last week’s events, because buoyed by the Majdal Shams precedent it’s not unthinkable that Palestinians in the Hashemite Kingdom won’t try to create facts on the ground – the ground on both sides of Jordan’s boundaries.

JERUSALEM POST military correspondent Yaakov Katz last week reported that the IDF is drawing up a doctrine on how to contain mass border marches – a decision taken several weeks before Gantz realized how “not good” such incidents can be.

Actually, the Border Police and riot police are better trained to meet such challenges than foot soldiers and the Armored Corps.

Might I suggest that the panel include public relations and IT experts (as well as specialists in international law), because, as we have all noticed, war is now being fought in those great gray areas known as cyberspace and lawfare as much as on the ground.

All eyes are on the expected Palestinian declaration of independence in September, but anything can happen before then.

It reminds me of a version of the fable of the frog and the scorpion, which bears being told again: A scorpion wants to cross a river and asks the frog to carry him on his back. “But how do I know you won’t sting me?” asks the wary frog.

“Because if I did that, we’d both drown,” replied the scorpion.

Halfway across the river, the scorpion does suddenly sting the frog.

With his dying breath, the frog gasps, “But you promised you wouldn’t kill me...”

“Ahhh,” says the scorpion, “but this is the Middle East.”

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. [email protected]


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