Two issues were prominent on Friday''s agenda. Both were either large or small, depending on perspective and how they developed. Both combined local and international considerations.
Most immediate was Land Day.
Mar ch 30 is one of the prominent items on the protest calendar of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. It commemorates the occasion in 1975 of large demonstrations against the Israel government''s decision to appropriate land in the Galilee for public use and urban development that resulted in the deaths of six demonstrators.
This year the event comes after a march last May toward the Israeli border from Lebanon and Syria to commemorate Nakba Day, meant to remember the catastrophe of 1948. On that occasion, demonstrators from Syria penetrated the border and remained in the Druze town of Majd al-Shams for several hours. Overall on both the Lebanese and Syrian borders, 12 demonstrators were killed and more injured.
In preparation for this year''s Land Day, international activists have joined with Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza to mount another march toward the border, as well as demonstrations within Israel.
Activists have proclaimed a "march of a million" or "march of the world" on Jerusalem, but security personnel of Israel and its neighbors have worked to keep that from happening.
This year''s Land Day also coincided with the onset of Israel''s peculiar Summer Time, which runs from just before Passover to just before Yom Kippur. Compared to Thursday, there would be an additional hour of daylight for whatever occurs.
There are plans for a "fly in" in mid-April, when militants from overseas will hope to flood through the airport in order to make their point about what belons to who.
The first fly-in, a year ago, resulted in most activists kept from the planes due to their names being given to authorities at the points of embarcation. Perhaps 124 reached Ben Gurion Airport, but didn''t make it through passport controls.
The IDF and police mobilized on several fronts in preparation for Land Day. The IDF worked on training, as well as improved barriers and non-lethal crowd control as a result of last year''s Nakba Day. Troops on the borders have been instructed not to allow any incursions, but also not to overreact in a way to allow the production of video clips that will embarrass Israel overseas. Messages have been sent to neighoring countries that Israel will react strongly if their governments allow hostile crowds to approach the borders.
One can imaging the possibilities in the event of rushes toward the borders with Lebanon or Syria. Hezbollah''s leader Nasrallah has been living underground and rarely seen in public since the 2006 war. Reports are that the IDF has a long list of targets in Lebanon, but is sensitive to the prospect of Hezbollah and Palestinians in Lebanon unleashing some thousands of rockets they have received from Iran and Syria. Syria''s regime is tottering, and Israel might even gain points by acting against military targets.
Police have mobilized at various points in Jerusalem. The Temple Mount is an obvious site for confrontation, insofar as this year''s Land Day co-incides with Friday prayers. On special occasions, more than 100,000 Muslims pray on the plateu outside al-Aqsa mosque.
Police have announced that no Palestinians from the West Bank will be allowed to enter Israel during a 24-hour period. They will also prevent access to the Old City of males whose identity cards do not show that they live there, and allow access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif only for males over the age of 40, and women of all ages. The army put substantial numbers of troops along the borders with Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, and the police put large numbers of its people at sensitive points in the Galilee, Negev, and Jerusalem, with particular concern for the Old City, the road from Ramallah, and restive Arab neighborhoods within the city.
Senior police officers indicated that they would allow peaceful demonstrations, intended to stay out of Arab villages in order to avoid provocations, and would not allow disruption of traffic on main roads or other violations of public order.
On the eve of Land Day there was an attempted firebombing of a bus near the Hebrew University campus on Mt Scopus, suggesting a preview of what was coming. An attack on the light rail by two Jewish men against an Arab rider reminded us that extremism was not one-sided.
Reports in the morning were that neighboring governments, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians were not intending to provoke Israeli responses. Palestinian security personnel assured Israeli counterparts that they would work to keep demonstrations peaceful, and away from confrontations with Israeli personnel.
From mid-morning onward we heard from excited reporters stationed at the borders and in the Old City of Jerusalem. They spoke about troops and police prepared for every possibility, but also noted that Israeli Arab and Palestinian youths were attending school, and that the media in the West Bank, neighboring countries, and even Gaza were not emphasizing the national struggle. It appeared that authorities throughout the region were not anxious for an increase in tension.
I awoke from my schlafstunde to the sound of a police helicopter circling over French Hill and Isaweea, and the sight of black smoke, most likely from the protest routine of burning tires.
Later reports were closer to a fizzle than catastrophe. There were confrontations on the northern border of Jerusalem and near the Nablus Gate of the Old City, firebombs and stones, with injuries on the side of the demonstrators and some arrests.
Iran popped up to compete for our attention with Land Day. It was not so much what the Iranians were doing, as what the Americans were doing. One senior source leaked the news that Azerbaijan had agreed that Israeli planes could use one of its airfields. A report coming from researchers in Congress indicated that neither Israel nor the United States were certain about the location of all Iranian nuclear sites, and that the most an attack by either country could do would be to postpone Iran''s nuclear program by six months.
The accuracy of both reports is subject to dispute. Officials of Azerbaijan denied the report about their airfield, but that may be nothing more than the smoke blowing through international politics. Azerbaijan borders Iran, Azeris are a substantial minority in Iran who have been an occasional subject of concern for the Persian-dominated government. Relations between the countries have been problematic, in part due to ties between Azerbaijan and Israel, including the sale of sophisticated military equipment.
The report from Congressional researchers joins a large pile of reports assessing American and/or Israel capacities to destroy or set back Iran''s nuclear program. An evening discussion program featured a former Israeli diplomat who pondered the existence of an American campaign to discourage an Israeli attack, the likelihood that the leak about Azerbaijan will infuriate Israeli officials, and the possibility that Congressional researchers were getting information from the Administration''s intelligence. The diplomat reminded us that senior Israeli and American military, intelligence, and political figures had been visiting one another frequently. Yet Americans may not be sure about Israel''s intentions, and are showing their nerves by leaking news about Azerbaijan and publishing a pessimistic report about the prospects of an attack.
At times like this I wonder about my decision 37 years ago to leave a good position at the University of Wisconsin. Would I have missed out on a great learning experience, or maybe died of boredom before winter temperatures did me in?