Israel fears September as Arab Spring rattles IDF

Palestinian refugees climb over Israel’s border fence with Syria during last Sunday’s Nakba Day protests — most were sent back within 24 hours

Palestinian refugees climb over Israel’s border fence with Syria during last Sunday’s Nakba Day protests — most were sent back within 24 hours

The Israeli security establishment is rethinking its entire policy on security along the country's borders.

The attempts to storm across the borders with Syria, Lebanon and Gaza signal a change of strategy by the Palestinians, inspired by the uprisings throughout the Middle East.

Fourteen Palestinians were killed last Sunday, about half from shots fired by the Lebanese Army. Around 150 managed to cross over the border from Syria into Israel.

Senior defence officials voiced concern that such incidents may become common after the expected recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations in September.

A protester near a Jerusalem checkpoint

A protester near a Jerusalem checkpoint

"I thought for a moment that they were going to kidnap one of my soldiers," said the commander of the reconnaissance battalion stationed on the Syrian border. A patrol from that unit was the first IDF group on the scene when 1,000 Palestinian refugees tried to storm over the border, following a Nakba Day demonstration on the "Shouting Hill" opposite the Druze town of Majdal Shams.

The surge of refugees, including women and children, caught the IDF unawares. Despite months of planning for mass demonstrations and marches, on the day the Palestinians commemorated their "disaster", the foundation of the state of Israel and the displacement of 600,000 Palestinian refugees, most of the attention was on the West Bank.

The IDF's preparations included mobilising additional regular battalions and companies of border police, refreshing the soldier's orders, replenishing stocks of riot gear and setting out clear "red lines" which protesters would not be allowed to cross.

Watching his soldiers repel some 200 protesters throwing rocks near the Kalandiya border crossing north of Jerusalem, Major General Avi Mizrahi, the head of Central Command, appeared satisfied. "We were prepared for every eventuality," he said, "and the Palestinians were aware of that."

Just then, news came through that four demonstrators had been shot on the Syrian border, and his entire demeanour changed. The general's concern was understandable. For the last 36 years, since the Yom Kippur War, the Golan border between Israel and Syria has remained tense but peaceful.

The hundreds of Palestinians who tried to break through the border fence were inhabitants of a refugee camp near Damascus. Eventually, some 150 of them managed to cross a minefield, trample the fences and make their way into the town.

Colonel Eshkol Shukrun, the commander of the Golan territorial brigade said: "At first we ordered the soldiers to shoot in the air, but when I saw that they were still coming, I gave the order to shoot at the legs of the leaders. If we hadn't done so, 10,000 people would have come in."

At least four demonstrators were killed and 40 wounded. Most were returned to Syria within a few hours, although a few managed to stay on in Israeli territory. A number of the infiltrators who were questioned by police said that they were encouraged to storm across the border by the Syrian authorities.

On the Lebanese border, hundreds of Palestinians tried also to take down the border fence. Israeli troops fired warning shots, and then Lebanese Army soldiers who were there also opened fire. Nine Palestinians were killed. According to a senior IDF source, "almost all the casualties were caused by the Lebanese, they were shooting indiscriminately". More shooting occurred on the Gaza border as a group waving Hamas flags tried to storm the Erez Crossing. One man was killed in a separate incident on the Gaza border when an IDF look-out post spotted him trying to plant an explosive device near the fence.

"There is a clear Iranian guiding hand behind all these events," said a member of the IDF's General Staff this week. "They and the Palestinians have realised that so-called non-violent demonstrations and protest marches are the most effective way of getting positive coverage and putting pressure on Israel. We can expect to see this happening more in the next few months, and in every possible sector, within Israel, the West Bank and on all the borders. It will probably intensify after the UN recognition in September and we have no choice but to come up with new ways to secure our borders and avoid unnecessary casualties that can only help their cause."

Last updated: 3:35pm, May 19 2011