The Israel Defense Forces continued Tuesday to amass forces on the border between Israel and Syria, mainly in response to warnings of further protests to mark the 44th anniversary of the battles over East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. Monday saw a lull in the riots on the Syrian border, after several protesters were killed by IDF gunfire the day before.
Quiet reigned on Monday on the southern outskirts of the Druze town of Majdal Shams, which overlooks the Syrian border and was the scene of Sunday's shootings and protests. The Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, visited the scene in the morning; Nahal soldiers were watching the Syrian side of the border. Later, media reported that Syrian security forces blocked the access road to the fence, and stopped buses with demonstrators from Palestinian refugee camps near Damascus from reaching the border.
There, in a nutshell, is the difference between Sunday and Monday. While it remains unclear to what degree the Syrian regime was involved in organizing the protests and urging participants to try to cross the border, on Monday the regime showed that it can prevent the protests if it wants to. Just two roadblocks were all that was needed to prevent any clashes near Majdal Shams.
Security sources tell Haaretz the combination of the internal strife in Syria and the run-up to the Palestinian declaration of independence in September have created a new situation in the Golan Heights.
This puts the IDF in an uncomfortable position. Four battalions are now spending their energy preparing for future border incidents. The 36th Division is meant to be trained for war, rather than border patrols - on what was until recently Israel's quietest border. If the situation continues, the IDF will need to redeploy and possibly even create new Border Police units.
An initial inquiry found the IDF only fired several dozen sniper bullets at the protesters. A senior officer told Haaretz that only tho se who actively tried to uproot or cut the fence were targeted. The army also said that the IDF had nothing to do with the deaths of at least eight protesters who were killed when demonstrators rolled burning tires and threw Molotov cocktails onto a minefield on the Syrian side of the border, setting off several mines.
But these explanations defending the Israeli troops' activities, offered by the prime minister and defense minister, will have limited impact. Patience in the West for such incidents is beginning to wear thin. The only reason such incidents don't have greater ramifications is because they occur against the backdrop of the Syrian regime relentlessly butchering its opponents. But Israel will find it very difficult to come out looking good from further clashes between unarmed civilians and soldiers, if the number of casualties increases.