Palestinian activists plan massive march on Israel's borders next month
Israeli officials monitoring the planned event, but are skeptical as to whether it will amount to anything more than similar mass march attempts in the past.
You probably have not yet heard about the Global March to Jerusalem (GM2J) planned in less than five weeks for March 30, but its organizers believe that it will focus the world's attention on Israel's oppression of the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The event being planned by dozens of pro-Palestinian groups around the world, especially those affiliated with the BDS (boycott, sanction, divestment) movement is to coincide with "Land Day," the annual day of protest marked by Israel Arabs. On March 30, GM2J is promising that tens of thousands of Palestinians, along with supporters who will arrive from around the world, will march from the Palestinians cities of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan and overwhelm the Israeli soldiers manning the border crossings. Supporters unable to reach the region will take part in simultaneous protests outside Israeli embassies across the globe.
For now, there are no specific operational plans, on the security or the media levels for confronting the march in March. Sources in the IDF and Foreign Ministry all say that they are aware of the date but that based on past experience, it is best to adopt and "wait and see" policy to this event. "There is noise on the web, that doesn't mean it is going to materialize," says one Israeli diplomat.
This is the third time in the space of less than a year in which various online groups have tried to organize tens of thousands to march in the West Bank and on Israel's borders. Last May, there was an attempt to launch a "Third Intifada" on Nakba Day, which resulted in only very minor disturbances in the West Bank, (though the Syrian government tried to deflect attention from the revolution already starting in its cities by allowing thousands of Palestinian refugees to try and storm across the border on the Golan Heights). In September again, there were again plans to mobilize the masses around the time of President Abbas' petition the United Nations General Assembly for unilateral statehood, but once more, it petered out quickly.
Many onlookers were surprised that what seemed to have worked in other countries during the last year's Arab Spring did not take off among the Palestinians, but there are a number of reasons why the situation here is different than in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya and Yemen.
For a start, potential mass marches in the West Bank or Gaza have to overcome not only the Israeli military but also the Palestinian security services. Neither the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority nor the Hamas government in Gaza, are eager for such demonstrations to get out of hand. They fully realize that this would not only be a challenge for Israel, it would also put them on the spot. Especially as most of the organizations trying to set a process in motion are "civil-society" movements, with a very different agenda to that of those in power.
The IDF for its part was extremely well prepared for any outbreak of rioting, reinforcing potential flashpoints, setting up mobile units and closely monitoring any nascent marches. In addition, it didn't seem that the Palestinian population at large had much of an appetite for another Intifada. There were a few medium-sized rallies that didn't get out of hand, and a few confrontations in the usual hot-spots in which at the most, a couple of hundred youths hurled rocks, and that was it.
One of the lessons learned by IDF officers from the recent events in the Arab world was to pay more attention to the conversation on the internet, on social networks, and to try and extrapolate from that where to expect trouble. "We certainly have started to look daily at what is happening on Facebook and Twitter," said one senior officer recently, "and we will continue to do so, but a lot of it is just white-noise." The IDF has adapted software that analyzes social network trends to its operational needs. One detail that quickly emerged was that over two-thirds of Facebookers who were expressing their support for a third Intifada came from outside the Palestinian territories and were irrelevant from an operational point of view. The heavy use of social networks by pro-Palestinian activists has also made it much easier for the security services to "tag" them and prevent those trying to enter Israel in order to join demonstrations.
Another major reason for the lack of success of the mass marches has been the attention focused on the Arab revolutions elsewhere. With Syria rapidly descending into civil war and the focus already moving to a possible war with Iran, the Palestinian cause will continue to fight for the oxygen of world media attention.
Does this mean that the Global March to Jerusalem is destined to fizzle out?
If Facebook is anything to go by, current trends do not bode well for the organizers. As of midday Sunday, only 4,744 Facebookers "liked" the March's page (3). The Third Intifada's page had over 300,000 "likes" at this stage last year. That does not necessarily mean that interest won't increase towards the actual date. "Things can change rapidly on the ground," says one IDF officer at Central Command, "if we have more events like the last weekend, with protests on the Temple Mount and around Jerusalem where one demonstrator was killed, there may be a confluence of events that would change the dynamic." Another factor that may change the situation is the growing frustration of President Abbas at the lack of any movement on the Palestinian issue. He may decide to throw all caution to the winds and order the Palestinian security apparatus to end its cooperation with the IDF and allow marches to cross unhindered into Israeli-controlled areas. He could even try and encourage them.
For now though, there are few signs of such a development and if the past year's experience is anything to go by, the biggest anti-Israel demonstration on March 30 will not be in the Middle East but rather outside the embassy in London.