Security and Defense: Outfenced

The IDF had geared up for Nakba protests on the Lebanon border and in the West Bank. Majdal Shams? Nobody expected trouble near there...

Syria Border Breach 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria Border Breach 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot was in the Kirya military headquarters last Thursday for a series of meetings.
In the morning, he participated in the weekly General Staff meeting, and in the afternoon he reviewed operational plans for the upcoming week.
One of the plans included the command’s preparations for Nakba Day, the Palestinian day of “catastrophe” marking the establishment of the State of Israel.
While the IDF was mostly concerned about a violent escalation in the West Bank, Eizenkot’s focus was on Lebanon, with its large population of Palestinian refugees. Every year, there are protests along the Lebanese border with Israel, but this year, due to heightened tensions with the Palestinian Authority and the ongoing upheaval in the Arab world, there was concern that things could get out of hand.
As a result, at the beginning of May, Eizenkot had ordered Brig.-Gen. Assaf Orayun, head of the Planning Directorate’s Strategic Planning Division, to pass on a message to the Lebanese Armed Forces, via UNIFIL, that the IDF would respond harshly to provocations along the border.
UNIFIL got the message across, and the LAF deployed large forces on Sunday along the border near the village of Maroun a-Ras, opening fire at protesters who tried approaching the fence. Ten Lebanese were killed that day; the IDF believes that most – if not all – were killed by LAF and not IDF fire.
Contrary to some media reports, the Northern Command did not completely neglect the border with Syria. Based mostly on intelligence collected from open sources like Facebook, Twitter and the Arab media, the IDF understood that a large demonstration was brewing on the Syrian side of the Kuneitra Crossing. Large forces, armed with riot gear and crowd dispersion equipment, were deployed nearby.
That is why when the Syrian protesters rammed the border fence opposite the Druse village of Majdal Shams on Sunday, there were at first barely a handful of soldiers nearby. By the time reinforcements arrived, it took time to gain control of the situation, and around 100 infiltrators had already succeeded in crossing into the country.
WHILE THE exact details of the failures surrounding the Majdal Shams infiltrations are still under investigation within the IDF, one thing is clear: Israel’s deterrence has eroded, and its enemies and adversaries – Hezbollah, Syria, Hamas and the PA – clearly see that there is something to be gained by continuing demonstrations along the border.
The rationale is obvious – if Israel can’t stop 100 people from crossing the Syrian border, how will it stop 1,000 or even 10,000 from crossing in from Jordan, Gaza or the West Bank? This question is currently at the heart of ongoing deliberations within the IDF General Staff and the Ground Forces Command, amid predictions that such protests and so-called peaceful marches will increase ahead of, and particularly following, the PA’s bid for unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
As reported in The Jerusalem Post this week, Brig.- Gen. Miki Edelstein, the IDF’s chief infantry and paratrooper officer, is close to completing the composition of a new operational doctrine for dealing with largescale demonstrations.
As demonstrated on Sunday, though, no matter how much new equipment the IDF purchases and how many training exercises it holds for its troops, there is nothing better than having someone else contain the demonstration instead. This was lacking in the Golan Heights, where Syrian troops were spotted simply standing by and watching as the protesters broke down the fence into Israel. The contrast with the Lebanese border – where the LAF opened fire at protesters, sparing the IDF from having to act on its own – was stark.
As a result and so as not to embarrass the LAF – which the IDF believes it will need again one day to stop future protests – the government decided not to release a grainy video taken by the army, which showed the LAF shooting into the crowd and which could have helped Israel counter claims that it killed the Lebanese protesters.
ISRAEL’S THIRD front on Sunday – the West Bank – was originally expected to be the most volatile, but actually turned out to be the most quiet. There were two main reasons for this.
First, the IDF was prepared in the West Bank, and ironically even sent units that had been training in the Golan Heights down there as reinforcements.
Israeli military commanders met with their Palestinian counterparts a number of times in the week before Nakba Day and agreed on places the protests would be allowed, as well as red lines that could not be crossed.
The second reason was that the PA did not allow the protesters to push the situation out of control, and coordinated with the IDF throughout the day.
The PA was unique in this sense, since on the one hand, it actively encouraged the demonstrations, but on the other hand, it deployed its own security forces – some in uniform and some plainclothes – to restrain them.
Coordination with the Civil Administration for Judea and Samaria also continued throughout the day. Lt.-Col.
Yossi Stern, head of the IDF’s District Coordination Office for Ramallah, arranged for more than 60 ambulances to enter the middle of the protest near the Kalandiya Checkpoint and evacuate wounded Palestinians. Stern received requests from the PA and passed them on to the IDF brigade commander, who then ordered the troops to stop firing tear gas and to allow the ambulances in and out.
This coordination with the PA on a day of protests is in itself surprising, considering that such protests are aimed at raising international awareness of the “occupation,” delegitimizing Israel and gaining sympathy and support for the PA’s planned declaration of statehood.
On the other hand, it makes sense for both sides. Israel wants to do everything possible not to fall into the trap being set for it, which could easily have happened with a large body count in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas also does not want to lend a hand to political adversaries of his own, like Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti and former PA intelligence chief Tawfik Tirawi, who recently broke away from Fatah and are both believed to be working behind the scenes on the protests.
That is why, for the time being and as long as it works in its favor, the IDF top command believes there is no reason to change the ongoing coordination with the PA.
IN GENERAL, the arguments in the IDF are now about how to respond to future provocations.
Some officers argue that there is a need to restore deterrence and send a message that Israel’s sovereign borders are not a playground, and the way to do that is by using aggressive force. Others are concerned by the potential political fallout and the diplomatic effect of such a move, particularly as the upheaval continues throughout the Arab world and the PA continues to play its role as the underdog in the ongoing conflict with Israel.