September is here
Israel's defense of the border on Naksa Day resulted in the killing of 22 Palestinians; amazingly, however, another 14 Palestinians were killed at the Yarmouk refugee camp by other Palestinians, over a disagreement about the clash with Israel.
On Sunday morning, soldiers manning an Israeli army lookout positioned south of the "Shouting Hill," in the Golan Heights, reported sighting an unfamiliar flag. The protesters across the Syrian border had raised something resembling the flag of Switzerland - red with a white shape in the middle. The deputy-commander of the 36th Division, Col. Nadav Padan, raised his binoculars and surveyed the protesters, who were trying to cross the anti-tank ditch the Israel Defense Forces had dug between the fence and Majdal Shams. Padan, who commanded the Bethlehem (Etzion ) Brigade at the height of the second intifada, did not need much time to recognize the flag of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the PFLP.
September, as an idea, is already here. Escalating clashes like those that occurred on Naksa Day this week on the Golan are warm-ups for the main event. From an Israeli perspective, the anniversary of the Six-Day War went reasonably well. Unlike what happened on Nakba Day, on May 15, the IDF was not caught off guard. The Northern Command was well prepared and prevented a mass infiltration of the border. The international media hardly devoted a day to the events, and the Israeli press gave more space to the education minister's attempts to shorten the summer break. All this, despite the fact that 22 people were killed on Sunday, a much higher number than on Nakba Day. Compared with the 300 people who were killed in Syria itself last week alone, however, the number of dead on the Israeli border does not seem as dramatic.
The outcome of these clashes is dictated by what happens at the Syrian army roadblocks on the only road leading to the Shouting Hill. In May, the Syrians allowed dozens of buses to come through. On Naksa Day, most of the protesters arrived in private vehicles. The numbers were considerably smaller, but the Syrians made no effort to stop them from passing through. In the next two days, the regime imposed a complete closure, and almost no one was allowed through.
On Sunday evening, as the protest on the Syrian side of the fence was dying down, dozens of Druze men began hurling rocks at the police on the Israeli side. The stone-throwers were young, some of them drunk. Along with their outrage over the killing of protesters, they were also reacting to a specific event: Earlier that day, police had fired tear gas, some of which affected residents on the Israeli side of the border. Among the 10,000 residents of Majdal Shams, a minority of about 100 openly identify themselves with Syria, but the silent majority also have an ax to grind. For one, the Israeli government refuses to make areas west of the village available for new construction. As a result, new homes are being built to the east, close to the fence and in violation of the law, creating difficulties for army forces stationed there.
On the other side of the border, residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp have accused Palestinian faction heads of leading their sons to slaughter at the hands of the IDF in order to serve Assad's interests.
When Ahmad Jibril, the leader of the PFLP's general headquarters, arrived at the camp, he was attacked by an angry mob, and his bodyguards immediately opened fire. Fourteen Palestinians were thus killed by Palestinian gunfire, on Syrian land, as part of a disagreement about a clash with Israel. A few months ago, it would have been impossible to imagine such anarchy in Syria.
All things considered, it seems Israel has been excessively self-congratulatory. At the end of the day, 22 civilians were killed (even though some died after throwing a Molotov cocktail into a mine field ). These civilians did not cross the border or endanger the lives of IDF soldiers. The army acted as it did because it had a clear order to prevent infiltration into Israeli territory and because it lacked other means for carrying out this mission effectively.
What was done ahead of this week's protest was elementary, not ingenious: erection of barriers, dispatching of reinforcements, having commanders present in the field.
Chief of Staff Benny Gantz came to Majdal Shams the following day. He met with the snipers and questioned them one by one: Whom did they shoot, how much, and how come? One of the questions that concerned him was the range of riot-control equipment. It turns out, for example, that the police have means of dispersing tear gas over a much greater distance than the IDF does. In some ways, this is no less troubling than the delays experienced in the development of a missile defense system.
The initial inquiry has found that some of those who died on Sunday did indeed suffer leg injuries, consistent with the rules for opening fire handed down to the snipers, and that they bled to death after having been left in the field for several hours. There was no one on the Syrian side to coordinate the evacuation of casualties. The IDF withheld fire on several occassions to allow the Red Cross to evacuate the injured, but the medics were attacked by the mob. Some of the demonstrators snatched away the medics' vests and tried to get to the fence in the guise of helping the wounded. The general chaos that prevailed, together with the fact that the protests were not really coordinated or organized from above, neither by Tehran nor by Damascus (contrary to what some in the Israeli defense establishment believe ), has the establishment less concerned, at least for now. But the impatient responses received from some of the European capitals show that Israel continues to lose international legitimacy.
The sporadic protests, in particular the practice already dubbed the "Intifada of the Fences," mandates a long-term approach by the defense establishment, even before September.
Hamas and Facebook
The recent massacres in Syria and the questions regarding the stability of Assad's regime underscore Hamas' political troubles. The organization has refrained so far from declaring loyalty to Bashar, despite mounting pressure to do so, but it hasn't come out against him either. The decision by Hamas in late April to reconcile with Fatah is also connected to the challenges being faced by the movement's Syrian patron. Hamas now directs most of its energy toward two high-priority goals: building a new, stable relationship with Egypt, and preparing for the elections to the Palestinian parliament, presidency and the PLO in the territories. Although it is not yet clear if the election will take place before the mutually agreed upon deadline of May 2012, the signing of the agreement does open the way to an election in the next year or two.
Meanwhile, Hamas is trying to create a positive, moderate image of itself in order to build up popularity. Some of its top leaders have opened Facebook pages in the past few weeks. Hamas has no real foothold in the West Bank, and any open activities are immediately suppressed both by Israel and the PA. Hamas officials, including Sheikh Yehye Moussa, have turned to Facebook as an alternate medium.
In a survey released yesterday by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, 39 percent of the respondents said they trusted Fatah, while only 16.6 percent said they trusted Hamas. But while Hamas is already busily preparing for the election, Fatah is still embarrassed that it has no presidential candidate to rally behind. Up until recently, Mahmoud Abbas himself was seen as the obvious choice, but he has made it clear since then, on several occasions, that he does not intend to run.
Too tired for an intifada
The names of Marwan Barghouti, Nasser Al-Kidwa, Azzam Al-Ahmad and even Jibril Rajoub have all been raised as potential heirs to Abbas. The most popular of these is Barghouti, but until a deal is completed for the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit, it looks as if the Palestinian will remain in his Israeli prison cell. None of the other candidates enjoys much support in the Palestinian electorate - a fact that may play into the hands of Hamas and its candidate for president, Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
In addition to Abbas and Barghouti, the only man in the Palestinian secular camp who could possibly pull off a victory over Haniyeh, according to recent surveys, is West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But Fayyad is not a Fatah man, and it is doubtful whether the leaders of that movement will agree to put his name forward as a candidate for president. The fact he succeeded where so many of them failed - that is, by establishing a stable and non-corrupt government in the West Bank - only creates more enemies for Fayyad.
The Fatah's insistence on fielding a candidate who is a member of the movement only improves the odds for Hamas. After the opening of the Rafah crossing and perhaps even a future signing of the Shalit agreement, the Islamist organization may not only take the parliament, but the presidency as well.
Meanwhile, Israel is hardly the focal point of current Palestinian disagreement. The PA's demand that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announce his acceptance of the Obama outline - 1967 borders with land swaps - as a precondition for restarting negotiations between the two sides, is a pretty transparent maneuver. For its part, the PA is determined to push for the vote on statehood in the UN General Assembly, but not necessarily because it believes the vote will change reality on the ground in the Middle East. Most senior PA officials, including Abbas, Fayyad and top negotiator Saeb Erekat, believe that those changes will be small indeed.
They are sticking to their guns because the Palestinian public wants the UN vote to take place (a survey this week had 64 percent claiming the move would serve the Palestinian interest ), because this is an election period, and because the PA does not feel it has an Israeli partner for peace and that the move in the UN is seen as a good way to embarrass Israel - and most of all to deter it from taking certain actions.
The risk in holding the vote is the possibility that the discontent and agitation on the ground following United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state would feed a third, very violent intifada. Abbas does not want that. On Naksa Day this week, only several dozen people took part in protests on the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip, and several hundred youths appeared at the Qalandiyah checkpoint in north Jerusalem. The other 4,400,000 Palestinians in the territories went on with their lives. Hundreds of thousands of them voiced their discontent with Israel in another, less dramatic way: by hitting "Like" on the phrase "third intifada" on a Naksa Day page on Facebook.
How many Palestinians will move from the Internet onto the streets in September? This is something no one is as yet is trying to predict.