IDF ON HIGH ALERT FOR MORE ‘NASKA DAY’ PROTESTS AS TENSIONS PERSIST BETWEEN SYRIA AND ISRAEL

Palestinian-related violence has again surfaced this week both the West Bank and the Golan Heights which are likely to be limited to the anniversaries that sparked them, but other analysts are claiming that they could also be symptomatic of a renewed spate of unrest that will be more persistent.  At least twenty-three people were killed during a protest near the Golan Heights on 05 June 2011, when Israeli troops fired at Palestinian demonstrators from Syria for the second time in less than a month, after they marched to the frontier fence during a pro-Palestinian rally marking “Day of Defeat” or “Naska Day” in 1967 when Arab nations were defeated by Israel. Israel had vowed to prevent a repeat of a similar demonstration last month, in which hundreds of people burst across the border and more than a dozen people were killed in the unrest. 

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) continued to amass forces on the border between Israel and Syria, in response to warnings of further protests in the Golan Heights, West Bank and East Jerusalem, to mark the 44th anniversary of the battles over East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War on 07 June 2011. 06 June 2011, saw a lull in the riots on the Syrian border, after several protesters were killed by IDF gunfire the day before. Quiet reigned on the southern outskirts of the Druze town of Majdal Shams, which overlooks the Syrian border and was the scene of the 05 June 2011 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.

An initial inquiry found the IDF only fired several dozen sniper bullets at the protesters and that “only those 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. These explanations defending the Israeli troops’ activities, offered by the prime minister and defence 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.

Both Israel and the US have accused Damascus of provoking tensions on the frontier in an attempt to distract from the bloody uprising against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian ruler. This approach may be difficult for Washington to sustain as the weeks go on by firing on unarmed Palestinian protesters. Israel is signalling that it has learnt little in the last six months from protests against autocratic rule sweeping the MENA region; that Arabs have found a new resilience irrespective of the degree of force employed against them. The combination of the internal strife in Syria and the run-up to the Palestinian declaration of independence in September 2011, have created a new situation in the Golan Heights and it places 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 creating more tensions and the perception of a build up of military forces on Syria’s southern border at t a time of major unrest for the Syrians state and security apparatus as its own crackdown against protests continue. The question for Israel is whether that is the price it wishes to pay if Palestinians continue their peaceful protests aimed at ending the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.