There does not seem to be any textbook solution to the dilemma encountered by the Israel Defense Forces on the Golan Heights last Tuesday evening; but what happened there will certainly keep those who prepare training lessons for IDF officers busy for a long time.
The officers and soldiers who tried to protect the two wounded Syrian rebels in the parking lot next to Moshav Neve Ativ - spitting distance from the bed and breakfasts beloved by Mount Hermon skiers - were at a serious numerical disadvantage. The mob, which the soldiers estimated at over 150 people, attacked the soldiers, forcibly pulled the two wounded Syrians from the ambulance, beat one of them to death - and only left his comrade alone because they mistakenly believed they had killed him too.
Should the soldiers have fired at the crowd, or should they have done no more than what they wound up doing - a few shots in the air that did not stop the attacks of the Druze civilians?
Officers in the Northern Command said - with a great deal of logic - that live fire at the mob would have ended in many injuries and the press would then have attacked them for killing civilians without necessary justification. Even though it is inherently unfair to judge the actions of the soldiers from the safe distance of my computer and office, it seems that presenting the dilemma as a choice between only these two possibilities - mass killings or abandoning the wounded to the mob - isn't quite right.
The two wounded rebels, from one of the rebel militias fighting the Syrian army, had leg wounds that were described as light to moderate when they reached Israel via the border crossing. We can only imagine what such a person thinks, having left the Syrian hell and arrived on safe shores, only to discover that the IDF soldiers sent to deal with them were unable to stand between them and the mob.
The incident at Neve Ativ is vaguely reminiscent of two previous incidents: The massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994, and the lynch by Arab Israeli civilians of Jewish terrorist Eden Natan Zadeh, after he murdered passengers on a bus in Shfaram, just before the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. In all three cases, Israeli security forces were in a confusing position, having to separate between a mob which, in their thinking, was not exactly “ours” and an individual (murderers, in the cases of Goldstein and Natan Zadeh) whose identity was not entirely clear to them.
In all three cases, the soldiers and police officers hesitated and were not successful in carrying out their duties. Members of the Shamgar committee that investigated the Hebron massacre were amazed when a Border Police officer told them that regulations did not allow his men to shoot at a Jewish terrorist. In practise, this lack of clarity persists, 21 years later.
Like the police in Shfaram 10 years ago, the soldiers in the Golan did not know what was expected of them. The bottom line is that the IDF force, which by the end of the incident numbered 15 soldiers, including the Hermon Brigade’s operations officer and a company commander from the Golani infantry brigade, did not fulfill its mission of transferring the wounded to hospital for treatment, as well as protecting them on their way there.
A senior officer serving in the region acknowledged half-heartedly that “the commanders used their judgment.” In other words, they decided not to continue protecting the two wounded Syrians at any cost. That raises questions about the role of the medics, who have taken an oath not to leave wounded behind in the field.
As in the previous serious incident on the Golan - the storming of the border fence by Palestinian demonstrators in Syria on Nakba Day four years ago - it seems that this time, too, the IDF and police did not prepare adequately for the changing situation along the border.
The Hermon Brigade knew this week that Druze were threatening to forcibley prevent the evacuation of wounded Syrian rebels to Israel, and to an extent prepared for it by reinforcing the troops guarding the ambulance (though not adequately, in retrospect.) For the past few weeks, Druze have been holding tempestuous demonstrations at the hospitals in the north where Syrian rebels have been treated - security guards had to block protestors who tried to enter one of the wards last Saturday night - but the army was nonetheless inadequately prepared to prevent the mob from killing.
Had there been more advance intelligence on the Druze preparations to attack - which included a planned ambush at a number of points along the road, calling in dozens of participants and hiding the faces of the mob with masks to prevent their identification - it is reasonable to assume that the IDF would have made additional preparations, in coordination with the police. That lacuna needs to be investigated by both the police and the Shin Bet security service. The mobilization of dozens to participate in a riot should have attracted the attention of the intelligence organizations.
There are other worrying questions: Why was riot control gear not used, and is it possible that the security forces did not even have such equipment at their disposal - despite the high likelihood of violence in the area? Why was a roadblock not set up at the intersection between Majdal Shams and Neve Ativ, which at the very least would have detained the mob as it left the moshav? Did the brigade and division headquarters internalize the seriousness of the threats in time?
The command chain relevant to the incident, from IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot to his deputy Maj. Gen, Yair Golan, the head of the Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi and the division commander, Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris, are very experienced in the general dilemmas of warfare and in dealing with the northern front in particular. They understand that this was not an incident of which the IDF can be proud.
The press briefings concerning the bravery of the troops who fought off a mass mob are reminiscent of the trick pulled by the Southern Command after the abduction of Gilad Shalit. At the time, the senior officers of the Southern Command tried to convince rookie Defense Minister Amir Peretz to award a commendation to the commander of the Bedouin reconnaissance battalion who went after a number of members of the Hamas cell that captured Shalit. But a specific, individual show of bravery does not absolve the IDF from discussing the systematic failures that were exposed.
One of the mob attack suspects appearing at Nazareth District Court, June 24, 2015. (Gil Eliyahu)
Not telling the truth
The mob murder on the Hermon shocked the leaders of the Druze community in Israel and on the Golan. An emergency meeting was called the next evening, with the participation of Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Eisenkot and the Druze leadership. The atmosphere at the meeting was conciliatory, but it could not disguise the seriousness of the events.
Many members of the Druze community in Israel are troubled by the signs of a growing split with their brothers on the Golan, who do not have Israeli citizenship. Four of the young men arrested in the village of Hurfeish, in the northern Galilee, on suspicions of attacking another ambulance, came from well-known Druze families and some are relatives of retired senior IDF officers. That indicates that the incitement to violence has affected even the moderate, central core of the Druze community, and not just those described as hot-headed marginal elements.
So far, Netanyahu has stuck to a cautious and responsible strategy concerning Syria and has taken care not to drag Israel into the civil war there. But the crisis developing with the Druze calls his low profile into question. The premier's limited public statements and generalized formulations indicate a desire to preserve maximal freedom of action and prevent himself from being locked into commitments that he could find hard to keep later.
The problem is that there is no real vaccum in such matters, particularly when they are regarded by the Druze in Israel as being issues of life and death.
Eisenkot promised that Israel would do everything possible to prevent the slaughter of Druze refugees on the Golan, and President Reuven Rivlin expressed his concern for the fate of the residents of Jabal Druze in Syria, far from the border with Israel. The Druze community interpreted these statements, as well as unofficial comments by senior IDF officers in closed meetings, as promises to not just accept Druze refugees, if necessary, but to attack rebel forces if they tried to enter the Druze village of Khader, on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. As far as is known, the Druze were never given such a promise explicitly.
Based on this, it is possible to understand the General Staff’s fear of being trapped between Druze expectations and what the political leadership is willing to agree to in practice. If Israel’s most important goal in Syria remains to avoid being embroiled in the fighting - as well as protecting its security interests in the north - a military move to protect the Druze could very well exceed the limits of these aims. In the fifth year of the civil war in Syria, Israel is now facing the danger of being drawn in, which until very recently was not even an issue.
And in the meantime in Syria
The drama on the Hermon, and even the fears of a Sunni slaughter of Druze in the village of Khader, are not at the center of events in Syria. The Golan Heights are only a secondary front and it seems that the Assad regime has lost interest in the region in light of the much larger dangers it faces.
All the signs indicate that the regime is focusing its efforts on the defense of two main assets: The area of the capital Damascus and the Alawite region along the Mediterranean coast in northwest Syria. Assad’s army is shortening its defensive lines and reducing its forces on some of the more secondary fronts, seemingly acknowledging that it will not be able to deploy over such broad expanses in the face of attacks by rebel organizations that have increased their coordination over the past few months.
The Syrian dictator is still relying on continuous aid from Russia and Iran, the two main patrons of the Assad regime, which have not shown any sign of abandoning their enormous investment in his survival, as reported in Haaretz last week. In fact, they seem to be redoubling their efforts to prop him up. A credible report in the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, published in London, claimed that Syria had concluded two new weapons deals with Russia and Iran recently, in terms of which the Syrian army will receive large quantities of anti-tank missiles, machine guns, sniper rifles and ammunition. The rebels, for their part, have been relying on increased supplies of weapons from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey since the beginning of this year.
Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Al-Quds forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is leading the effort to stabilize the new defense lines near the city of Idlib, in an attempt to block the advance of the rebels towards the Alawite coastal cities, Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported. That is the region where Jabhat al-Nusra rebels slaughtered Druze clergymen at the beginning of this month, leading to the panic among the Druze community in Israel.
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