Border Incidents Took IDF by Surprise and May Take Heat Off Assad

In recent days, the IDF extensively prepared for Nakba Day disturbances in the West Bank and East Jerusalem but was caught off-guard by the incident in the Golan Heights border area.

IDF intelligence officials believed that there was a chance that Syrian President Bashar Assad would attempt to divert attention to Israel from the pro-democracy protests in his country and his regime's bloody suppression of those protests. But the protests in Syria have gone on for two months, creating the sense that those events are irrelevant to Israel, which dulled the level of alertness in the border region on the Golan Heights.

All of the IDF's attention over the past few days was given to preparing for Nakba Day events, including intelligence resources, the deployment of battalions in the West Bank and the distribution of means to disperse protests.

Golan Heights border incident May 15, 2011 (Yaron Kaminsky)
Yaron Kaminsky

Although there is a high level of IDF forces on the Golan Heights, the number of soldiers along the border is relatively light. During routine times, relatively few soldiers operate in the area and most effort is invested in means of intelligence gathering on the hills along the border.

It is not clear how many soldiers were in the position above Majdal Shams, which overlooks the "Shouting Hill" in front of the town, but usually there are only a few soldiers under the command of a sergeant or platoon leader. This force is usually equipped only with personal weapons and live ammunition and not less lethal crowd dispersal weapons. If the soldiers had the crowd dispersal means, it is possible they could have chased back demonstrators before the demonstrators broke through the border fence.

According to initial reports, the demonstrators that broke through the border fence were not Syrians or Druze, but rather Palestinian refugees who reside in camps around Damascus. It is difficult to imagine that these refugees could have reached the border area without the knowledge, approval and perhaps even encouragement of the central government in the Syrian capital.

While attention was given over the weekend to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the events that transpired on Nakba Day on the Golan Heights surprised the IDF and perhaps even gave Assad what he has been searching for over many weeks – an event that will reduce international pressure on him over the suppression of demonstrations in Syrian cities.