Lebanon Nakba Day protest - Reuters - 15.5.2011
Palestinian and Lebanese demonstrators running for cover during clashes with troops near the Israel border at Maroun al-Ras, Lebanon, 15.5.2011 Photo by Reuters
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Everyone is heaping praise - with some justification - on the reservists' restrained response to the demonstrators who infiltrated from Syria on Nakba Day, restraint that prevented a mass slaughter. However, it is best not to forget that what a series of previous Arab moves - including army invasions, cross-border infiltrations and terror attacks, airplane hijackings, suicide attacks and rocket barrages - failed to achieve, may be accomplished via mass marches to the borders, the settlements and the Israel Defense Forces roadblocks ahead of September.

Together with Jerusalem's future, the return of Palestinian refugees, house keys dangling from their necks, is considered a threshhold demand by many Palestinians, even as most Israelis do not consider the subject up for discussion. Indeed, Hezbollah has already made effective use of civilian marches. The most spectacular was near the Taibeh outpost, in the central sector of the security zone, and led to the South Lebanon Army's collapse and the Israel Defense Forces' hasty withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

In the months following that withdrawal, the IDF believed the Palestinian Authority would try to imitate the Lebanese model in the wake of the failure of the Camp David summit that July. Ultimately, though, that September the Palestinians took a different course, combining popular demonstrations with live ammunition. The IDF reacted with massive fire, and the large gap between the losses on the two sides increased the Palestinians' frustration, leading all factions - including the secular ones, led by Fatah - to decide to send suicide bombers into Israeli cities.

The wave of suicide attacks ultimately cost the Palestinians the world's sympathy and spurred Israel belatedly to retake control of the West Bank's cities in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. It took the Palestinian Authority a few more years until Yasser Arafat, one of the leaders behind the incitement, terror and murder, was replaced by the moderate President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, whose functioning government regained the PA international support.

Therefore a third intifada in September 2011, along the lines of September 2000, is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Violence may erupt due to anger and disappointment in the West Bank over a gap between the United Nations resolution and achievements on the ground. It could also be directed from above, as a tool by the PA leadership to force Israel into concessions, with the help of international pressure.

But there are also restraining factors at work. First and foremost is the memory of the tremendous price paid by West Bank residents for the suicide attacks. There is also the risk of losing everything achieved under Abbas and Fayyad, including international support. If, however, the PA does succeed in controlling the flames (how natural the last decade's cliches seem! ) and more mass protests break out along the borders, it is doubtful Israel will know how to respond.

As with the Gaza flotilla affair a year ago, the Nakba Day events made it clear that the IDF excels at preparing for scenarios for which it has advance warning. The Central Command passed the test well. After weeks of preparation and coordination with the Palestinian security forces, the demonstrations did not spill over into uncontrolled conflicts and there were relatively few casualties. Also contributing was the PA's desire to prove it controls the West Bank.

The situation in the north was entirely different. A massive infiltration attempt along the Lebanese border was greeted forcefully by the Lebanese Army, and most of the deaths there were apparently due to Lebanese fire (although the Golani Brigade patrol battalion also opened fire ).

The small IDF reserve force in Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights was surprised by the mass protest, which was held with the clear encouragement of President Bashar Assad's regime, which allowed hundreds of buses to set out from Damascus. The fact that construction in the Druze town has been creeping into the area adjacent to the border, in contravention of building regulations, meant the demonstrators had only a quick dash until they were in the center of the village.

The Northern Command apparently did not receive a precise enough intelligence warning about Majdal Shams. In the absence of a specific alert, it underestimated the challenge and underdeployed.

Golan regional brigade commander Col. Eshkol Shukrun showed optimal restraint, in keeping with the orders of the General Staff and GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot. The brigade commander and the soldiers saw the infiltrators were mostly unarmed teens and men, and limited their live fire. The predictable price was image damage and endless investigations. The intervention by Druze leaders in the Golan, who mediated on behalf of the IDF, eased the infiltrators' return to Syria.

To Israel's relief, the United States accepted Jerusalem's position that the infiltration was an attempt by the Syrian regime to divert attention from its violent crackdown on democracy protesters. Those who broke through the fence were not perceived as innocent Palestinian demonstrators but rather as having intentionally crossed a national border (though in the Golan, as opposed to Lebanon, the border itself is not internationally recognized ). Considering ongoing events in the Arab countries, Sunday's incident barely made a blip on the international radar, especially because the borders had calmed down by the following day.

Intelligence in the crosshairs

Caught in the crossfire of accusations after the incident were two outstanding General Staff officers: Maj. Gen. Eizenkot and Military Intelligence head Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, both potential future chiefs of staff.

The uproar broke out in the wake of media briefings Sunday. Eizenkot had said that afternoon that he and his command were fully responsible for the failures, but command officers added something about faulty intelligence. With references to the surprise of the Yom Kippur War, news outlets spent hours on Military Intelligence's share of the blame.

Military Intelligence under Kochavi, who took up the position last November, has been accused of not predicting the Arab Spring (as though anyone else had ), and of not having advance knowledge about the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Kochavi is well aware of everything that is said and written about him. Eizenkot was burned in the Second Lebanon War, as General Staff operations head, and even though he was the only one of the senior officers who continued to advance, he too has become sensitive to complaints.

That night one of Kochavi's subordinates at Military Intelligence briefed the military commentators. He explicitly blamed the command, in particular Division 66 (the Ga'ash Division, responsible for the Golan ). Intelligence, he suggested, had passed on all the information in time, but the soldiers were not prepared.

The headlines the following morning exacerbated the consternation. Briefing transcripts went back and forth among the top-level bureaus, until a conversation to clarify matters finally was held. Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordecai, found themselves facing an unexpected fire.

Even before then, next to the spot where the Golan fence was breached, Gantz had exchanged a few words with reporters. This was "not a good incident," admitted the chief of staff. His predecessor Gabi Ashkenazi never would have allowed himself to be caught near a destroyed fence - and had photographers captured him there, a number of IDF Spokesman's officers would have joined the incident's fatality list. Gantz looked less stressed than one might have expected, given the potential image damage.

Now, at the end of the week, the uproar appears to have died down a bit. The GOC, presumably, had remembered that at the start of 2000, then-Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz asked Brig. Gen. Zvika Gendelman to extend his stint as commander of Division 36 by a third year. Mofaz cited the critical stage in the peace talks between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Syrians, and the approaching withdrawal from Lebanon. Gendelman agreed.

That October, a week after the intifada broke out, three soldiers were abducted on Mount Dov. The blame was cast on Gendelman, who relinquished his major general rank. Now he is serving in the reserves as a deputy regiment commander under Eizenkot.

Eizenkot has been in the north for more than four and a half years. His steady, thorough management has spared the General Staff a lot of problems. The delay in General Staff appointments is unnecessarily prolonging his presence there. The more time passes, the greater the chances are that something bad will happen - and when it happens, the person to blame will be the GOC.

Surprises ahead

Despite the relative success in maintaining restraint in the West Bank this week, the IDF lacks the tools to handle what could happen in the next few months. In the West Bank, everything depends on the Palestinian security forces' instructions. This week, the Lebanese Army blocked the demonstrators in Lebanon, the Jordanian Army stopped them at the Allenby Bridge and even the Egyptians made some effort near the Rafah crossing.

What will happen in September with the Palestinian declaration of a state at the United Nations? And who says something couldn't happen before September? Will the IDF identify the changes on the ground in time? Will Israel be able to block marches without killing civilians en masse, given the army's weakness when it comes to dispersing demonstrations?

Israel invests tremendous resources and effort in its army. Usually it is highly professional and more committed to its people than most other government bodies. And still, the war in Lebanon, the flotilla and to a lesser extent even the fence incident this week also tell a somewhat different story. When the IDF has enough time to organize and prepare, the plans are implemented very well indeed. The foreign media says the attack on the Syrian reactor in 2007 is an example of such a case.

When surprises happen - and war is known as the kingdom of uncertainty - all too often the IDF and Israel are caught unprepared. This is a worrying thought as we look ahead.