Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nakba Day protests - what do they mean?

I don't really know what to say yet about the Nakba Day protests today. I find what happened today to be really frightening - the idea that thousands of protesters could cross the Syrian and Lebanese borders with Israel, without using arms, and surprise the Israeli army. Did the IDF have any idea that this was going to happen? Earlier this week I was reading articles online that they were preparing for riots in Israel and the West Bank - and they seemed well-prepared for them. But I don't remember anything being mentioned about their preparations for possible protesters coming over the borders. If they had, they might have had less lethal methods for dealing with the protesters, like water cannons or using rubber bullets instead of live rounds.

This is the report from Haaretz about what happened in Magdal Shams, on the Golan:
This was the first serious incident on the Israel-Syria border, Israel's calmest frontier, in 36 years. Despite extensive preparations, IDF intelligence anticipated the main point of friction would be the Quneitra border crossing, which was beefed up with reinforcements, while only two jeeps with 10 soldiers were securing the fence when it was breached.

The army estimated that the demonstration taking place on the Golan's "Shouting Hill," a popular place for protests in recent years, would proceed without unusual incident, and was taken completely by surprise when some 1,000 people, including women and children, began sliding down a steep slope towards the fence.

The unit had clear orders not to shoot without authorization by the brigade commander.After using their few riot control munitions, the army said the soldiers held their fire until the demonstrators began surrounding the jeeps. The order to fire live rounds was given by the brigade commander, Colonel Eshkol Shukrun, who arrived at the scene.

He said yesterday he feared situation would get completely out of control, and ordered the troops to fire toward the lower body of the protesters. One person was killed on the Israeli side of the fence and three on the Syrian side, 40 were injured, and all but the 137 already on the Israeli side fled.

"I realized that this was spinning out of control and that we needed to do something before 10,000 infiltrators made their way to Majdal Shams," said Shukrun, who was injured in the face by stone throwers. "It became clear that we needed to shift it into higher gear."

Shukrun gave the order to his soldiers to shoot at the lower extremities of those who crossed into Majdal Shams.

"That was when the whole [flow of infiltrators] stopped," he said. "Whoever was on the fence ran away in fear and those who crossed into Majdal stayed there."

After the infiltrators protested in the main town square, the IDF sought to coordinate their return to Syria with UN forces stationed on the Golan Heights. By 5:00 P.M., all of the infiltrators were loaded onto buses and taken back to Syria via the Quneitra crossing.
I'm also suspicious about the protesters coming from Syria and Lebanon. As Jeffrey Goldberg and others have mentioned, this couldn't happen without the Syrian government or Hezbollah permitting it. Goldberg writes:
Consider: These borders, in particular the Syria-Israel border, have seldom, if ever, seen demonstrations like this. The Syria-Israel border is a notably quiet place; Hafez al-Assad, the late dictator, and his son, Bashar, the current dictator, have kept the border quiet for decades. But now there is widespread revolt in Syria, which threatens not only the Syrian regime, but its ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. So far, Bashar's security forces have slaughtered almost a thousand Syrian citizens. So what would you do if you were a cynical Syrian dictator, or a cynical ally of the cynical Syrian dictator? Change the subject. To what, you might ask? Well, Israel, of course.
Andrew Exum, whom Goldberg quotes, also has an interesting analysis - "Just Another Sunday in the Levant." See also Michael Totten, whom I always find gives insightful analysis on what is happening in the Middle East, especially Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria - "Nakba Day's Deadly Political Theater."

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