IDF Unprepared for Syria Border Breach, Despite Intelligence Tips

Sources in the Northern Command confirmed the existence of intelligence indicating that Nakba Day demonstrators planned to try to cross the border near Majdal Shams.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The army's deployment around the Golan Heights town of Majdal Shams on Sunday was insufficient in light of intelligence received by the Israel Defense Forces' Northern Command, officers serving along the northern border said yesterday.

Moreover, they said, incidents that had occurred in the area in previous days - well before hundreds of Palestinian residents of Syria mobbed the border on Sunday and broke through - similarly indicated the need for more troops, but were ignored. Specifically, one officer said, there had been a noticeable rise in infiltration attempts across the Syrian border in recent weeks.

Soldiers deployed in Majdal Shams, May 15, 2011. Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Sources in the Northern Command confirmed the existence of intelligence indicating that Nakba Day demonstrators planned to try to cross the border near the "Shouting Hill," across from Majdal Shams. However, they said, the IDF had based its deployment on past experience, and expected the Syrian army to prevent the demonstrators from breaching the border.

The IDF's initial investigation of the Nakba Day incidents, carried out Sunday night and yesterday, determined that the reserve battalion stationed in the Majdal Shams sector did not have the backup forces necessary to respond to a mass border crossing attempt. In addition, they lacked sufficient crowd control equipment to disperse such demonstrations.

Such equipment is routinely provided to IDF troops in the West Bank.

The army officially acknowledges that 137 people crossed the border, all of whom were either returned to Syria or arrested. But IDF sources say the true number is probably closer to 150, and that some individuals apparently evaded the police roadblocks around Majdal Shams and traveled further into Israel.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz yesterday termed the Majdal Shams incident "not good" and ordered an increase in the number of soldiers deployed in the northern Golan. He also ordered the border fence reinforced to make future breaches more difficult.

But several senior IDF officers said the army's defense doctrine in the Golan Heights requires more drastic measures.

To date, the IDF has deployed relatively few troops along the Syrian border; most troops in the Golan are stationed well back from the border. This policy derived from the fact that for years, the main threat has been an attack by the Syrian army, and the IDF relied on lookout posts and electronic monitoring to provide it with sufficient warning of such an attack to mobilize additional forces.

But to counter this new threat of a mass incursion of unarmed civilians, many more troops - equipped with nonlethal crowd control devices - will have to be stationed along the border. Lookout posts will also need to operate differently.

Sunday's incident also highlighted the lack of fixed lines of communication with leaders of the Golan's Druze community. Because the Golan has been annexed to Israel, there is no army liaison office tasked with this job, as there is in the West Bank. Thus when the demonstrators broke through the border, Druze liaison officers serving in the West Bank had to be hastily brought in organize the protesters' return to Syria.

But for all their criticisms of the army's deployment, senior officers were lavish in their praise of how the troops in the field handled Sunday's situation: Both the reserve battalion stationed in the area and the additional troops they summoned reached the scene quickly. They also praised the order given by the brigade commander, Col. Eshkol Shukrun, to shoot "selectively" at the demonstrators' legs.



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