Frontier Justice

Are Israel and the IDF up to the task of confronting the new type of warfare in which crowds of unarmed civilians organized by social media sites converge on Israel?

Syrian protesters returned over border 311 (R) (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Syrian protesters returned over border 311 (R)
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
ON MAY 15, THE ENGLISH date of Israel’s independence – which the Palestinians call nakba, or the catastrophe – crowds of unarmed civilians answered a call circulated on Facebook and other social media sites and converged on Israel. From the Gaza Strip and Palestiniancontrolled areas of the West Bank, they marched toward concrete security barriers; from Lebanon and Syria they strode toward electronic fences.
For the most part they chanted slogans and angrily spoke about “liberating Palestine.” But on two of these fronts, the borders with Syria and Lebanon, things turned ugly when the crowds began throwing rocks and bottles at Israeli soldiers on the other side. In one instance, just across from the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights, they crossed a minefield, breached the electronic fence and poured through. One of the infiltrators even made it as far as Jaffa, more than 100 miles away, before being apprehended.
In all, Arab officials claim that Israeli troops killed more than a dozen people that day.
The crowds vowed to return three weeks later, on June 5, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1967 Six Day War, which the Palestinians call naksa, or the setback. On this day, the only confrontation was on the Golan Heights, where the Syrians – in a move that was widely interpreted as an effort to deflect attention from the country’s deadly domestic uprising – brought in busloads of protesters.
But this time, the Israelis had laid out long coils of razor-sharp concertina wire about a hundred feet east of the electronic fence and used bullhorns to let the crowds know that snipers lying on an earthen berm nearby would shoot them in the legs if they tried to cross that line.
No one made it anywhere near the electronic fence that day, but the snipers opened fire on numerous occasions, and as the sun began to set, after a long volley of teargas sent the last of the protesters back to their buses, the Syrians said that two dozen had been killed in two locations, although Israel called these claims highly exaggerated.
This wasn’t the first time IDF forces faced off against civilians. Just a year ago, six ships set sail for the Gaza Strip from Europe and Turkey, carrying what activists said was humanitarian aid. Israel viewed it as nothing more than a provocation, and when the organizers refused its offer to unload the cargo at an Israeli port, where it would be examined for weapons before being trucked to Gaza, the IDF vowed to stop the vessels, using force if need be.
On the night of May 31, heli-borne naval commandos used ropes to descend to the ships.
Five were commandeered without incident.
But on the sixth vessel, the Mavi Marmara, the Israelis, still on their ropes, found themselves in the middle of a well-planned and coordinated stand by dozens of people armed with pipes, brass knuckles, knives and guns. In the end, nine activists were dead and dozens were wounded, including seven commandos; and Israel suffered what is generally acknowledged as a public relations fiasco.
There may be more such challenges, and soon. The Palestinians say they’ll begin holding mass border protests on a regular basis.
There is a serious possibility that upwards of 15 vessels will participate in another Gazabound flotilla at the end of June. It’s also been reported that some 500 pro-Palestinian activists plan to hold a coordinated fly-in at Ben-Gurion Airport, where it’s assumed they’ll stage a dramatic, high-profile protest after disembarking from commercial flights.
How will Israel handle such challenges, especially if they grow in size? The army says it’s been learning from experience and points to the fact that no one crossed any borders during the June 5 Naksa protests. Yet the fact that people were killed that day shows that the IDF has been unable to find a real solution in the three weeks since the mid-May Nakba clashes.
Nor is that failure surprising – considering how little progress the IDF has made in crowdcontrol tactics in the decades since its troops were first forced to face the issue.
IT’S BEEN CLOSE TO 30 YEARS since the IDF was last involved in the classic form of warfare that pits soldier against soldier on a battlefield. That was when Israeli troops on Lebanon’s eastern front encountered Syrian armor and infantry during the 1982 “Peace for Galilee” operation, which was aimed primarily at silencing Palestinian terror groups.
Since then, the fighting has been mostly against Hizballah and Hamas, Islamists who prefer to make war from deep within civilian enclaves, and against armed Palestinians holed up in cities like Jenin, once considered the suicide bomber capital of the West Bank. It continues to be an uphill battle, although over time the IDF has established special units and developed unconventional tactics more suited to this type of warfare.
But going face to face with masses of angry but unarmed civilians presents an entirely different set of strategic, moral, tactical and operational challenges.
The first instance can probably be traced back to December 8, 1987. On that day an Israeli truck traveling on the main road of the northern Gaza Strip plowed into a car bringing Palestinian laborers home to the Jebalya refugee camp. Four of them were killed and seven were injured. Two days before, an Israeli man had been stabbed to death in Gaza City’s main market; rumors quickly circulated that the truck driver was a relative and that the crash had been a deliberate act of revenge.
Immediately following the funerals, Jebalya residents began throwing rocks at the IDF outpost near the camp entrance. Within hours, the rock-throwing spread throughout the Gaza Strip and even into the West Bank.
Soon, Palestinians everywhere were dragging old tires into intersections and setting them alight, and blocking off the roads and alleys of their camps and villages with huge boulders, rusty bed frames, ancient refrigerators and worn-out furniture.
The rocks turned into Molotov cocktails, improvised bombs and shootings, and the unrest, now acknowledged as a full-blown uprising that the Palestinians called intifada (Arabic for “shaking off the yoke,” referring to the Israeli occupation), continued into January, and then into the summer and beyond. By most accounts, it lasted for more than two years before things began to settle down.
There had been spasms of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip before, usually isolated and sometimes lasting a week or two, but the Palestinians had never exploded with such sustained rage in 20 years of occupation. All Israel could mount against this wrath was regular army units trained only for standard warfare and equipped with truncheons, teargas, stun grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets that often dropped from the ends of their launchers before they could be fired. At least one soldier in every patrol would have a rifle with live ammunition in case things got out of control, which happened often. And the death tolls showed it.
“In general, military forces are not built to deal with these types of challenges. They are not trained for such scenarios, nor do they have the proper equipment to confront them,” Prof. Zeev Maoz, an Israeli expert on security issues who teaches at the University of California at Davis, tells The Jerusalem Report. “The IDF confronts mass border-crossing attempts and mass demonstrations in the occupied territories. In such cases, they do what they are trained to do – shoot. The relatively low number of fatalities thus far suggests that the IDF is more effective than other military forces in adapting to changing demands. But…it does not function very well.”
Maoz believes the problem lies not only with the IDF, but with the country’s entire defense sector. “Israel, which has been at the forefront of several military technologies, is lagging in its investment and development of non-lethal weapons that can be used to quell such mass uprisings,” he explains. “Israel should invest more if it expects to confront such challenges in the future.”
Shlomo Brom, once a top-ranking officer in the IDF’s planning branch and today a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, says the primary goal of these clashes is “to create negative perceptions of Israel as a state that attacks civilians” as part of a wider effort to “delegitimize” it.
“Militarily, we judge whether we’re successful or not in the way we handle these matters,” he tells The Report. “What bothers us is that people breached the borders on the Golan Heights on Nakba Day, and that our commandos were attacked during the flotilla. But the true sign of success or failure is facing these threats without causing deaths, and that means either a perfect military operation or for the decision-makers to decide to avoid a confrontation altogether.”
If there’s a confrontation, is the IDF up to the job? “It depends on the size of the crowd, who the demonstrators are and what their intentions are,” Brom continues, “Do they have weapons? Are they ready to sacrifice their lives? The army can face and overcome threats that are much worse and much more dangerous, but it’s not good when people are hurt, let alone killed, because it doesn’t look good. And that’s what this war is all about.”
ASA KASHER, A TEL AVIV UNIversity philosophy professor who helped shape the IDF’s Code of Ethics, popularly known as the doctrine of “purity of arms,” said in an April interview with The Jerusalem Post that for the groups behind the protests, the demonstrations are a “win-win” situation that is “depressing to see.”
“If Israel doesn’t fire, they [the demonstrators] are very happy, and I can understand that,” he told the paper. “But if Israel does fire on them, and children are hurt, they’re also happy. They celebrate. I believe that these losses destroy the mothers and the fathers. But the community is ostensibly happy: ‘Great, we’ve got something nasty to say against Israel. Israel kills children.’” Nevertheless, in an interview for this article conducted after the Golan border clashes, Kasher explained that purity of arms is absolutely necessary when dealing with unarmed civilians, even more so than in wartime.
“Explanations are given to soldiers as to the importance of stopping people,” he tells The Report. “In the IDF, when orders are given for opening fire, they are precise and fully understood by the soldiers. It’s not opening fire at someone trying only to tear down a fence – it’s opening fire because you know what will most likely happen after the fence is torn down.
There’s no doubt that in the case of the Mavi Marmara there was restraint on the part of our soldiers. If they had been trigger-happy, there would have been a lot more dead.”
Kasher adds that these days there is a “fine line” between combatants and non-combatants.
“It doesn’t matter what the other side is wearing.
If the other side poses a threat, a soldier must do what he has to do, using the correct tools and methods, of course,” he says. “I think that Israeli society understands this. We are [the soldiers’] parents, their family, their friends.
Most of us have served in uniform ourselves and know the difficulties and moral dilemmas.
We know what is happening out there just like the soldiers do. The underlying issue is political, but until the issue is solved, our military has to protect us and our sovereignty.”
There has been talk of late, in press reports and commentaries in both the Arab and Israeli media, that grassroots leaders among the Palestinians are hoping to organize mammoth demonstrations – tens of thousands of people – along main West Bank roads and at the entrances to Jewish settlements, where they’d employ passive resistance of the kind preached by Mahatma Gandhi.
“I prefer Gandhi over [Ahmed] Jibril and [Naif] Hawatmeh,” Meir Elran, a former deputy director of Military Intelligence and today head of the Homeland Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies, tells The Report, referring to Palestinian terror group leaders who made their mark with bloody attacks starting in the late 1960s and into the 1980s. “Not everyone on the other side is a potential suicide bomber and willing to give his life. Passive resistance can be handled. As long as our soldiers are not killing anyone, it’s good.”
One key, he says, is good intelligence.“The more we know about the other side’s plans, the better we can prepare,” he explains.“With the May 2010 flotilla, there was either a lack of intelligence, or the communications chain somehow broke down, or the planners of the raid did not pay enough attention.
The same goes for the Nakba Day protests in the Golan. Chances are someone saw the buses coming from Damascus into an area they never or rarely enter. But here, too, it’s not clear whether this information came through or was misinterpreted. At the time, it was probably thought that any protests would take place at the UN crossing near Kuneitra, farther to the south, and not near Majdal Shams.
Yet he also believes that casualties on the other side have their benefits.
“As bad as I feel when there are deaths, no matter how much it hurts us to kill, no matter how much it hurts our image, they serve as their own deterrence,” Elran says. “When there are people on the other side who are killed, it sends a message: We’re not vegetarians.
And that in itself is an important message: These activities will cost them.”
How much of this would Israeli society be willing to tolerate? How many deaths will the Israeli public be willing to accept as “necessary?” “The Israeli public can stomach this,” Elran claims. “When given just two options – security or human rights – the public will lean toward security. We don’t always have the luxury of being able to choose.”
In discussing the chances for another flotilla, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen.
Benny Gantz recently told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “the IDF will act to prevent any attempt to break the naval blockade [on the Gaza Strip],” adding that it “learned the lessons of the [Mavi] Marmara.”
Senior naval officers, unnamed but clearly embarrassed by last year’s incident, have been quoted in the Israeli media in recent weeks saying that sea- and airborne units are conducting joint training exercises and that next time there’s a flotilla the force would include special police and prison personnel with wide experience in quelling riots. And unlike the 2010 flotilla, when commandos slid down ropes one by one into the waiting arms of apparently violent activists, the officers reportedly said the navy planned to get as many aboard as possible in one go.
“The IDF is constantly in the process of evaluating and implementing lessons learned in the field, whether it’s on the border or anywhere else,” Capt. Barak Raz, an IDF spokesman, tells The Report. “This can mean employing different equipment and tactics. Today, standard crowd dispersal means the use of tear gas and stun grenades, as well as sandbags,” which are small projectiles of sand-filled cloth fired from shotguns that, according to Raz, “can really hurt” but are not considered lethal.
BUT ASIDE from the sandbags, which appear to have replaced rubber bullets, not much seems to have changed since the first intifada, when strange, jury-rigged devices – like the truck-mounted machine that spat stones at rioters (apparently someone’s idea of a “proportional response”) – came and went with depressing frequency.
Raz refuses to say exactly what it is that the army has “learned” and how it will handle future confrontations with civilians, whether across borders or aboard Gaza-bound flotillas.
He does admit, however, that the IDF learned a major PR lesson from the aftermath of the 2010 flotilla, when it took several hours for an official statement to be released explaining Israel’s side, and even longer to release video footage clearly showing commandos aboard the Mavi Marmara being beaten with poles and other items, and one of them even being heaved overboard. But even here, he refuses to say exactly how it will handle PR efforts the next time around.
“We make it a point to never divulge information that could give the other side an advantage,” he says.
PR lessons or not, rights groups have been critical of the way the IDF handled the Golan border incidents. On June 10, Human Rights Watch issued a scathing indictment of Israel, saying it may have used “unnecessary lethal force” in the June 5 border incident.
“Israeli authorities should conduct a criminal investigation into Israeli forces’ shootings of protesters who tried to cross into the Israelioccupied Golan Heights on June 5, 2011,” the HRW statement said. “The investigation should examine whether regulations permit soldiers to open fire at protesters who pose no imminent threat to them.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s director for the Middle East, called on the IDF to “immediately issue public rules of engagement that prohibit using lethal force except where necessary to protect life,” which HRW says was not the case during either of the two border incidents.
“Israel doesn’t want protesters entering the Golan Heights from Syria, but using lethal force against demonstrators who don’t pose an imminent threat to life is simply unlawful,” Whitson said. “Any official who gave contrary orders ought to be investigated with an eye to bringing criminal charges.”
A report published by the Reut Institute, an Israeli security and public policy think tank, after last year’s flotilla incident but before the recent events on the borders, noted that if Israel is to avoid such criticism, it will have to be more proactive, especially in the diplomatic and public relations spheres.
“In general, Israel has not understood the gravity of the threat posed by the campaign of delegitimization against it. Accordingly, Israel has failed to allocate sufficient resources to collecting relevant intelligence, designing an action plan, and working assiduously to implement it,” the report said.
“The ability to delegitimize Israel is rooted in successful efforts to brand it as an occupying and aggressive entity that ignores and undermines human rights and international law,” it continued. “[T]he flotillas were branded in the context of resistance to ‘occupation’ and ‘oppression,’ the promotion of peace and human rights, a moral response to Gaza’s ‘humanitarian crisis,’ and in the spirit of international law. With the confrontation framed in such a context, Israel’s public relations defeat was assured.”
IN THE END, MANY ARGUE THAT good PR should be the least of Israel’s worries, and that the onus for maintaining quiet should not be placed solely on the IDF. The Institute for National Security Studies’Shlomo Brom, for one, points his finger in a very specific direction. “It’s a matter for the political echelon,” he tells The Report, “and I don’t think the government is doing it right.”
The issue driving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, at least when it comes to Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians, is just as much about ideology as it is security, with certain members even of his Likud party calling for a one-state solution – with that state ruled by Israel – for all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
On this, critics like the University of California at Davis’s Zeev Maoz do not mince words. “I think we are complacent and engaged in criminal neglect of the diplomatic threats,” Maoz says to The Report, referring to the problems inherent in absorbing millions of Palestinians. “We are engaged in criminal abandonment of the democratic character of society, leaning toward a Jewish and nondemocratic society rather than a state that is fully democratic and maintains a solid Jewish character, although not one run by Jewish law.” His message is clear: There’s a need for a two-state solution, and it needs to be happening now.
Yet if the solution lies with the political echelon, it will have to be a solution that squares with the feelings of the electorate, and according to the INSS’s Elram, convincing voters that the Palestinians are sincere in seeking peace might be a tall order. “It will take a lot to change the average Israeli’s opinion about the intentions and goals of the Palestinians,” he tells The Report. “Historically, Israeli society in general has seen the ‘other side’ in just one way: the way of conflict. Occasionally, there are periods in which the other side is seen to be doing something constructive, much as [Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Salaam Fayad was doing in building important institutions of a state. But then Fatah made its unity agreement with Hamas, a group that few Israelis expect will change its spots. Now, it’s as if Fayad never existed.”
Heading into the maelstrom that is Israeli politics, and therefore highly attuned to the feelings of the electorate, is Amram Mitzna, a former head of the now-splintered Labor Party who wants to lead it back to a position of influence, if not power, by winning back the party chairmanship during internal elections in September.
In December 1987, when the first intifada broke out, Mitzna was the general in charge of the IDF’s Central Command, whose area of responsibility included the riot-torn West Bank. “I made it a point to speak with the soldiers of every battalion brought in [to face the rioting],” he tells The Report during a short phone interview sandwiched into a busy day of campaigning. “The IDF had never faced anything like this. There had been no training; the weapons they were given were inadequate. I told them that it all came down to them – not just in how they performed as soldiers, but in their patience and in the way they used their heads. None of this has changed in the ensuing years. The army must use its head just as much as its might, if not more so.”
In September 2000, the West Bank and Gaza Strip exploded into a second, and even more violent, intifada following a provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by Ariel Sharon, then leader of the Likud and head of the political opposition. Amonth later, disturbances broke out among Israel’s own Arab citizens, leading to several days of turbulent clashes with police that left 12 Arabs and one Jew dead.
At the time, Mitzna was mayor of the Jewish-Arab city of Haifa, where signs of imminent rioting appeared in an Arab neighborhood. “I immediately left City Hall and went to speak with the people,” he says. “It took five hours of listening, arguing, explaining and coaxing, but after five hours it was over. In other areas of the north, where young Arab men and boys closed down main roads after stoning vehicles, the police decided it was absolutely necessary to keep the roads open – at any price. It might have been wiser to say the roads would be closed for a day or two – if this had prevented the deaths, why not?” Mitzna acknowledges that the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are not the same as Israeli Arabs, “who may be dissatisfied, but grew up in a democracy.” Nevertheless, he says there is a need to realize that “violence just leads to violence.”
“Strength must be backed up with wise diplomacy,” he insists. “If the peace process remains stuck, it won’t matter whose fault it is. And it won’t matter at all what the army can or cannot do.”