Analysis: IDF worried border protests just beginning

Demonstrations and violence in North likely just the promo for what can be expected in September ahead of Palestinian statehood declaration.

Istanbul flag burning Nakba 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Istanbul flag burning Nakba 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Sunday, it was 1,000 Syrians who marched on the border with Israel. Next week, it could be 10,000 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip who will march toward the Negev, or Palestinian refugees in Jordan who march toward the Jordan Valley.
The successful infiltration on Sunday by a group of just under 100 Syrians into the Druse village of Majdal Shams on the Golan is being viewed by the IDF as just the beginning.
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As demonstrations like these gain momentum ahead of the planned declaration of statehood by the Palestinians in September, this type of protest could become a common occurrence along Israel’s various borders.
On Sunday, the IDF dealt with four simultaneous fronts – Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. While all expectations were for extreme violence in the West Bank – units that were training on the Golan Heights were transferred as reinforcements to the West Bank last week – it turned out to be the quietest of the four.
The surprise was Syria. While the IDF was aware of the demonstrations that were scheduled for the border area opposite Majdal Shams – known as the “Shouting Hill” since relatives shout to each other across the border – it did not expect it to be any different than in past years.
This was a mistake, since the Northern Command did not take into account the current instability in Syria and embattled President Bashar Assad’s possible interest in turning the spotlight away from his violent crackdown on his own people to Israel.
According to senior IDF officers, Assad’s regime quietly encouraged the demonstrators to infiltrate Israel, possibly with the hope that the IDF would shoot indiscriminately, kill dozens of people and shift the world’s and the Syrian people’s focus from his ruthlessness to Israel.
“Thankfully, this did not happen, thanks to responsible action by commanders on the ground,” one senior IDF officer said.
There is also concern in the IDF that global Jihad groups which operate in Syria will take advantage of the lawlessness on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights – made clear by the demonstrators’ ability to cross into Israel without being stopped by the Syrian military – to attack Israel. Some of these groups are believed to have an arsenal of short-range Katyusha rockets that could be used to fire into Israel.
The protesters who rammed the border appeared to have mostly been Palestinian refugees who live in camps near Damascus. It is difficult to imagine that they could have traveled to the border in such numbers without the regime either approving the demonstration or at the very least turning a blind eye to it.
In the short term, the IDF will need to launch a probe to discover where it went wrong, not just in its assessments but mostly operationally to determine how 100 or so foreign nationals succeeded in breaching a border and entering sovereign Israeli territory. In the long term, the concern within the IDF is that these types of civil disturbances and so-called border protests will become routine.
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In Lebanon, for example, they could be used as cover and a way for Hezbollah to reestablish borderline positions, which it has not maintained since the end of the Second Lebanon War almost five years ago. On Sunday afternoon, Hezbollah operatives openly appeared near the border and evacuated some of the protesters wounded by the Lebanese Armed Forces.
If this happens also in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, it will place a massive burden on the IDF, which is already spread thin along Israel’s various fronts.
This could, however, become something of the norm as the September declaration continues to loom on the horizon; the violence along the Syrian border is likely just the promo for what can be expected later this year.
The IDF’s hands, though, will be tied in its options on how to counter such tactics. It will first need to invest more money in crowd dispersion equipment and technology, and invest time in training troops – not used to such missions – on how to use them.
The primary mission will be to ensure that the number of casualties stays minimal. If it doesn’t and the body count starts to rise, it will be easier for Israel’s detractors to make a case that the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East is really about Israel’s conflict with the Arabs and the Palestinians, and that the real problem is not the leadership in the Arab world but the Jewish state’s continued existence.