As Israelis looked back on a day of unprecedented and worrisome unrest, the question on the national mind was whether the vaunted military and intelligence apparatus had been caught with its pants down — utterly unprepared for protests and accompanying mass infiltrations on multiple borders.
The answer is both yes and no.
Certainly, the IDF was braced for a measure of trouble on what is known as Nakba Day, the annual commemoration of what the Palestinians and the Arab world consider the “catastrophe” of the creation of the state of Israel.
But by the end of the day, it was clear to Israelis that their military was prepared — but that they had been expecting the worst unrest in the wrong places.
For days, the military — and, to be fair, also the Israeli and the international press — had been focusing on expected violent protests and provocation in Jerusalem and the West Bank, when it should have been looking northwards, where the worst “Bloody Sunday” clashes took place in the Druze village of Majdal Shams and on the Lebanese border.
It was the infiltration of the Syrian border by hundreds of unarmed civilians, who successfully trampled the border fence and crossed into Israeli territory near Majdal Shams, that was the real shock of the day. Protests in that area were a matter of routine on Nakba Day and were expected: for nearly 1000 Syrians to gather at the border and for hundreds to rush across the fence into Israeli-controlled territory was not a scenario that was forseen or prepared for.
Israeli politicians and pundits quickly theorized that the infiltration was a Bashar Assad production. Israel was clearly being used in a public relations exercise, they said, deliberately orchestrated by the Assad regime in an effort to take the spotlight off of their brutal suppression of protest movements in Syria and draw attention instead to the border with Israel. The infiltrators reportedly were Palestinians from refugee camps in Syria. Presumably, for the operation to succeed, it had to have been tolerated, if not actively assisted, by the strong Syrian government. The IDF intelligence failure appeared even more embarrassing when it was reported that the operation was planned carefully over the past several months — and that participants were recruited and logistics organized on Facebook. (As of this writing, Israeli journalists poring over Facebook have not yet found evidence to back up the claim.)
If Syria was indeed an active player, it was successful: international headlines emphasized the events on the Israeli border and downplayed a continuing crackdown in a Syrian city on the Lebanese border on the very same day that claimed more Syrian lives than the IDF incident. (If, indeed, the events in Majdal Shams were Assad-instigated, some of the Palestinian participants weren’t sticking to his script. One infiltrator told Ynet: “I’m tired of living in Syria. We’d rather die than see more bloodshed.…We’ve crossed the border in order to stay with our families, away from all the killing in Syria. We ask the powers at be in Israel to help us stay and not send us back.”)
But if such requests were made to the IDF, they fell on deaf ears — all of the infiltrators made their way back to Syria by nightfall.