Dress Rehearsal

The Palestinians are gearing up for more protests in the wake of their Nakba Day successes. Meanwhile, Israel is scurrying to prepare its military and diplomatic moves.

June is shaping up to be one big dress rehearsal for the tsunami in September. On Sunday, Palestinians will mark the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War with processions and demonstrations in the territories and along Israel's borders. Toward the end of the month, a new flotilla to Gaza is planned, with the declared aim of breaching the blockade - which in practice has long since been lifted. In the meantime, the Palestinians will continue pressing their initiative for a unilateral declaration of a state come September.

From the Golan Heights to the West Bank, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's suggestion to the Palestinians will continue to resonate: to march en masse to Jerusalem. The idea is to create a popular, nonviolent demonstration along the lines of Tahrir Square, which would leave Israel unable to mount an effective response.

Pro-Palestinians, Istanbul - AP - 2010

June 5 has recently been branded "Naksa Day" ("the setback," in Arabic) in a reference to Israel's defeat of the Arab armies in 1967. The May 15 protests along Israel's borders on Nakba Day - marking the "catastrophe" of Israel's establishment - received considerable international attention, and whetted the Palestinians' appetite.

This week, Munir al-Maqdah, Fatah's forgotten commander in Lebanon, announced that his organization will organize border demonstrations on June 5. Other Palestinian groups are also planning to be involved. The Northern Command learned from the May 15 protests that the army needs to be prepared more thoroughly, and that backup forces need to be in place.

Israel's salient interest is that as few demonstrators as possible be killed, in the event that there is another attempt to cross the border. But at the same time, the army does not want weekly Bil'in-style demonstrations there, and therefore it needs to use sufficient deterrent force.

Army units stationed in the north have been directed to use "strict arrest-of-suspect procedure." This means that soldiers can shoot at anyone who crosses the fence once they warn them; they may shoot only at the protesters' legs, unless the soldiers' lives are threatened. In general, the Israel Defense Forces is bolstering its crowd-dispersal means, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week. "We will acquire means that would have enabled us to prevent the [border breach] at Majdal Shams," he told the committee.

The explanation two weeks ago - that the border breach could not have been predicted - is not convincing, not least because it happened in a sector where the IDF has invested its best resources and commanders.

Without ignoring the plans for Naksa Day, the country's leaders are now primarily concerned with blocking the Gaza flotilla, which is scheduled to depart on June 20. Currently, the plan is to have 15 boats carry about 1,500 Islamic and European left-wing activists who are seeking a bloody clash with the IDF. So far, only four boats have been recruited. Gantz promised the MKs that the IDF would block all attempts to breach the maritime blockade of Gaza, and added the self-evident: that the flotilla is a provocation, not an actual attempt to assist Gaza's residents.

Maj. Gen. (res. ) Giora Eiland, who headed the internal IDF inquiry into last year's flotilla episode, offered an interesting hypothetical proposition this week. If it were possible to get the Turkish government (as opposed to the organizers, who are from the extremist Islamic organization IHH ) to promise to examine the boats in advance, and ensure that they are not carrying weapons, he said, then Israel should consider letting the vessels into Gaza.

In practice, requests submitted to the flotilla participants' home governments have drawn weak responses. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel to avoid violence but also recommended that people not take part in uncoordinated flotilla operations. There has been no direct contact between Israel and Turkey since Operation Cast Lead in the Strip, and more recently since nine Turkish activists were killed during the flotilla in May 2010, when Israeli naval commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara.

It is possible to accept - barely - the argument that boats should not be allowed unsupervised passage to Gaza (even though the border tunnels and the opening of the Rafah crossing have increased the smugglers' options ). It is also possible that the IDF is right and that it does not have enough intelligence to intercept all new shipments and to examine all vessels at sea.

From here, however, the road is short to "Marmara II," with a new clash aboard the same boat. The Turks, with their sense of history, have indeed recruited the Marmara again. The IDF is working to improve its ability to intercept vessels at sea, to handle rioters and to use snipers in a more controlled way. The main points of the operational plan have already been submitted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The navy will likely not lower soldiers by rope into a violent mob, as it did last year.

Still, we can hope that Israel has other means in its arsenal, from clandestine prevention to better intelligence, in order to reduce the scale of the damage. A reprise of the Marmara episode will not only be a tragedy but also a folly.

First test

There will not necessarily be a general political eruption immediately after the recognition of a Palestinian state. Back from Washington, Netanyahu offered a logical forecast this week: The Palestinians will garner a large majority to recognize their state in the UN General Assembly. However, the Obama administration will veto the move in the Security Council. Thus, the Palestinians will not yet have a state, but Israel's international status will be damaged, heightening the potential for future conflicts.

The volatility lies in the gap between the massive support for the Palestinians (more than 130 countries ) and their lack of independence on the ground. Much depends on Israel's wisdom, and the Palestinians also could wind up paying a heavy price. In the past four years the residents of the West Bank have enjoyed improved living conditions and impressive economic growth. They are not eager to lose what they achieved - not least because the suffering from the second intifada is still fresh in their minds. But "there is a new player in the Middle East: the street," as Gantz told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week.

The Nakba Day border protests evoked the fall of the security zone in southern Lebanon in May 2000. Israel's occupation collapsed within two days, before the scheduled withdrawal planned by Ehud Barak, then prime minister, after Lebanese civilians flooded a South Lebanon Army outpost and drove out the SLA personnel.

Col. (res. ) Noam Ben-Tzvi, the last IDF brigade commander in Lebanon's western sector, told Haaretz last year that in retrospect, he thinks live fire should have been used, intelligently, to push back the protesters. Five civilians killed is a tolerable price and would have averted Israel's humiliation and the subsequent regional fallout, he said.

Gantz was the paratroops battalion commander during the first intifada in the late 1980s. During the Lebanon withdrawal he was the commander of the IDF liaison unit there, as the successor to Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein, who had been killed a year earlier by Hezbollah. In September 2000, a few days before the start of the second intifada, Gantz was posted to the West Bank to replace an officer who resigned.

September 2011 is likely to be his first significant test as chief of staff. A considerable portion of his first meeting with the IDF operational forum - battalion commanders and up - on Wednesday at Glilot, just north of Tel Aviv, was devoted to the lessons gleaned from the recent incidents and to preparing for another flare-up.

In the first intifada, more than 20 years ago, the mass demonstrations were curbed only after demonstrators were killed and injured en masse at zero range, which left a generation of soldiers carrying complex mental scars.

In the second intifada, the Palestinians mixed armed men into the massive crowds. The IDF, which had trained for this, used snipers, who hit the armed men but also no few Palestinian civilians. The disparity in the body count - 300 Palestinians killed versus 50 Israelis killed in three months - induced the terrorist organizations to launch suicide bombings inside the Green Line. Only Operation Defensive Shield and the intensive offensive activity that followed it enabled Israel to gradually bring the wave of terror to a halt.

In recent months, Defense Minister Barak mentioned Mahatma Gandhi's Salt Marches - the nonviolent protests against the salt tax imposed by the British administration in India in the 1930s. Finally, Barak realized that his listeners didn't know what he was talking about - some apparently thought he was talking about the Israeli "Gandhi," the assassinated minister Rehavam Ze'evi, who had looked like the Indian apostle in his youth.

The IDF's soft underbelly in terms of its dealings with crowd dispersal is well-known from state comptroller reports. Reservists readying for operational deployment in the West Bank this week praised the seriousness of the current preparations and the approach of Central Command, which emphasizes the effort to avoid killing civilians as a key element in averting escalation. That analysis is correct, but it's doubtful that it can be implemented should there be demonstrations and live fire, as happened 11 years ago.

It's difficult to shoot armed individuals amid a large crowd. Moreover, the junior officers have little experience with mass demonstrations. Most of them were still in elementary school when the second intifada broke out. The events in Bil'in and Na'alin offer some preparation for such scenarios, but also attest to the difficulties of coordination and control between the IDF, the police and the Border Police.

It doesn't seem as if the army and the police have a uniform approach to training, rules of engagement and crowd dispersal. "It's not going to be an easy challenge," a senior security source admitted this week to Haaretz. "We are working on it all the time, but we don't have a full solution to the problem. If a confrontation develops, the Palestinians will find ways to make us pay, both on the ground and in the political arena."