May 15, 2011, might become a turning point in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One of the main components of Israel’s security is the deterrence factor Israel projects towards its enemies, a factor that has successfully stopped the Arab armies and a plethora of terrorist organizations from initiating an overt war with Israel.
Israel’s deterrence was first rattled in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 when Israel was taken by surprise by a joint Syrian-Egyptian offensive on its borders. The deterrence factor did not stop the Arab armies from attempting to subdue militarily Israel. Although aware of Israel’s power, Sadat and Assad were ready to sacrifice thousands of lives in order to overcome the temporary borders Israel had established after its victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War in order to reach their political goals.
Israel’s deterrence partly recovered after the First Lebanese War with the defeat of the PLO and its ouster from Lebanon and with the destruction of the Syrian Army in Lebanon, together with its air force and air defense systems. Israel’s deterrence was put to a severe test again with the outbreak of the First Palestinian Intifida that began in 1987. For the first time since 1948, the Palestinians took to the streets and fought Israel’s presence: The threshold of fear had been overcome.
During the First Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein proved that he did not need to confront Israel’s army directly. His missiles, although rudimentary, shook Israel’s confidence and brought the war to its rear, with no reaction by Israel. Israel’s restraint was praised by the Allied coalition, but the Arabs and especially Hizbullah learned the lesson. Israel had no answer to attacks on its rear. The Second Palestinian Intifida, which began in 2000, intensified attacks on Israel’s civilian rear and took a heavy toll of Israeli lives. The Second Lebanese War in 2006 and Israel’s military operation against Hamas in Gaza in 2009, following scores of missiles that fell on its cities and towns, proved that all of Israel’s might was not enough to quell guerilla warfare.
At the same time, since October 1973, none of Israel’s enemies has tried to cross its physical border.
The celebration of “Catastrophe Day” (Yawm el-Naqba) on May 15, a pan-Arab remembrance day that traditionally marks the establishment of the State of Israel, the defeat of the Arab armies, and the plight of the Palestinian refugees, represents a significant development in the conduct of the confrontation with Israel.
Although coordinated by Syria, Hizbullah , Hamas, and probably Iran, the idea of an unarmed confrontation with Israel – led by demonstrators marching towards the border while chanting slogans – is a first. The organizers of the event must have been inspired by the events in the Arab world and understood that Israel would be the one blamed if protesters were shot while attempting to cross the border. The fact that only a handful of protesters were killed by the IDF in the Golan was a setback for the organizers. This event will not change the domestic situation inside Syria. Assad will have to continue his battle for survival unaffected by the events in Majd El-Shams on the Golan Heights.
Once more, Israel’s defense system was taken by surprise. Although all the elements were widely known through the Internet social networks, it seems that the Israeli Intelligence bodies (as in the case of the Gaza flotilla) ignored the signals, minimized them, or underestimated them to such an extent that the protesters were able to cross the border in the Golan and sweep into the city of Majd El-Shams.
As one of the participants bluntly put it: “The Arab world has witnessed now that without weapons, with our bare hands, we succeeded in crossing the border and reaching Majd El-Shams. Tomorrow, with Allah’s will, we will reach and liberate Jerusalem and the whole of Palestine.”
Most of the participants were young people in their twenties. They carry great mistrust against the Arab regimes which, in their view, have done nothing to defeat Israel and restore Palestine to its “legitimate owners.” This criticism is widely prevalent today in the Arab world. In Egypt, the protesters tried to storm the Israeli Embassy in Cairo at the price of confrontation with the Egyptian army. In Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and other countries, the protests against Israel are very vivid. In a way, the leaders find that this focus on Israel suits them and serves to deviate the attention from the core issues in their own regimes.
As much as Israel was taken by surprise in the Golan, the protesters themselves found it difficult to believe that crossing the border would be “so easy.” This is definitely a precedent that might encourage others to follow in the coming months.
Following the events of May 15, Israel should prepare proper answers to unusual situations on its borders. The Palestinian organizations which had chosen to fight Israel had chosen to aim their guns at military and civilian targets in Israel or outside its borders. Adopting a policy of confronting Israel without weapons represents a different code of conduct by the Palestinians and their supporters and could become a serious challenge to Israel.
Two major events are ahead of us: Naksah Day (the Day of Defeat), which commemorates the Arab defeat in June 1967, and, more important, the upcoming unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in September. These might become serious events that will challenge Israel’s resolve and ingenuity in finding solutions to deal with unarmed demonstrators.
Israeli decision-makers should remember that beyond Israel’s current frontiers, Arab organizers can easily find the necessary participants and incite them to be part of the “show” against Israel: In Jordan there are more than a million and a half Palestinians (18 percent of them in refugee camps), in Lebanon almost four hundred thousand (55 percent in camps), and in Syria almost the same number as in Lebanon.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.