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.
But that incident was only one of many Nakba Day clashes. On the Lebanese border at Maroun al-Ras, a regular location for demonstrations, a similar attempt to transform a Nakba Day demonstration into a border infiltration occurred. The IDF was more successful in keeping them on the Lebanese side. IDF troops opened fire on those attempting to destroy the border fence in order to cross and ten were killed. This incident, Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai told Channel 10 news, bore both the “fingerprints” of Hezbollah and Iran.
There were attempts at infiltration from all sides: the IDF also fired upon Palestinians approaching the Gaza border fence.
An attempt made to cross the Israeli border was foiled by Jordanian police, who used tear gas to disperse a crowd that reportedly contained 40 Turkish citizens who had travelled to Jordan for the operation.
Though overshadowed by the action in the north, the West Bank and Jerusalem areas weren’t left out of the action, as a mass protest and march from Ramallah to the Kalandia crossing took place. Clashes with Israeli police and military resulted in 55 injuries. Interviewed on the streets, the demonstrators — who chanted in English “One, two, three, four, occupation no more!” — expressed the hope that the day would be a kickoff to a third intifada.
But the incident that hit closest to home for most Israelis was the unsettling attack that began the day: a truck rampage by an Israeli Arab that had the markings of a terror attack, though authorities have yet to declare it so. It killed one man and injured 17.
Much debate and discussion over the course of the day focused on the decision of the commander of the border forces to allow the masses to cross the Syrian border into Israel. Despite the fact that the soldiers were vastly outnumbered, they could have stopped the Syrians at the border, but as they were not equipped with crowd control weaponry such as tear gas or rubber bullets, they could have only done so with massive live gunfire which would have resulted in hundreds of deaths.
Military analysts called the decision to show restraint a brave and courageous one — those bodies would have been playing into the hands of Syria and others who would declare the incident a “massacre.” Instead, Israel’s pride may have been badly bruised, but only two of the infiltrators were killed.
Summing up the day’s events, Defense Minister Ehud Barak tried to put a positive spin on things in an appearance on the evening news. He declared that Israel had “successfully defended its sovereignty today.”
He quickly added, on a far less triumphant note, the concern that most Israelis felt at the end of such an exhausting day: that its disturbing events “are only the beginning” of what Israel can expect to face.
The IDF restraint on the Syrian border may have saved lives and prevented a PR disaster, but it may have also emboldened Israel’s enemies. Israel has long feared a Gandhi-type strategy on the Palestinian side — the violence on the Palestinian side has allowed it to respond with a firm hand. If, whether through the power of Facebook or the power of Hezbollah, the hundreds of civilians marching over the border fence become thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands — then what will Israel do?
(More from Michael Totten: “Nakba Day’s Deadly Political Theater.”)