The riots this weekend mark the first of the major efforts planned in 2011 to confound Israel. The mass demonstration was billed in Egypt as the “Third Intifada,” for which buzz was generated via Facebook and other websites. The web-enabled youth movements of Egypt, including the National Association for Change and the 6 April Youth Movement, were involved extensively in planning and recruitment for this anti-Israel event. In the Palestinian territories, meanwhile, the protests were mounted in commemoration of the “Nakba,” or “disaster,” which is their characterization of the founding of Israel in 1948.
Northern border incursion
The most media interest has come from the waves of “Palestinian refugees” – people born in the last 30 years inside Lebanon and Syria, whom those nations, like Jordan, have declined to accept as citizens – who “protested” the Nakba by storming the fence along Israel’s northern border. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) showed up to control the surge toward the border from southern Lebanon, but Syrian authorities made no attempt to intercept the demonstrators heading for the fence from their territory, and appear instead to have enabled their activities. (First-look timeline here.) As Omri Ceren notes at Commentary, the UN forces deployed in these areas did little or nothing to intervene.
Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) indicated Israeli authorities had expected the Syrians to prevent demonstrators on their side from getting out of hand. The Israeli expectation, based on prior experience, was that the Syrians would not even allow most of the protesters to get near the border. But many of them were permitted to walk to the border area where the fence was breached on the morning of 15 May – some all the way from the outskirts of Damascus, a distance of up to 40 miles. Others were shuttled to the border in buses, an obvious indication of complicity by the Syrian regime.
The IDF was reportedly unprepared for the surge from the Syrian side of the border. Early reporting indicates 4 people were killed in the effort to drive back the influx of protesters. According to an early IDF press briefing, the wave of protesters numbered about 1000; an initial assessment would be that the IDF was operating under the best constraints it could to minimize injury or loss of life.
Hamas to Egyptians: Thanks but no thanks
There were numerous instances of small-scale attacks inside Israel and the West Bank, as well as protests in Gaza; more on those in a moment. Meanwhile, one of the most interesting features of Nakba/Third Intifada weekend has been the geographic one-sidedness of it.
It wasn’t for lack of trying that the Egyptian protesters were unable to cross the Sinai, as they originally planned, and riot at the Rafah border crossing between Sinai and Gaza. The Egyptian authorities intercepted them to prevent their planned activities (see here and here, for example) – which is what one would have expected, given that the Egyptian army effectively controls the government. The army leadership is conservative in the sense of preferring order over chaos, and wanting to avoid unnecessary cross-border provocations for which it has no desire to have to prepare an armed response.
But beyond the reaction of the Egyptian authorities, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal – according to the Muslim Brotherhood’s official website – asked the Egyptian activists to postpone their Sinai plans. Says IkhwanWeb:
An official statement by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has called on the Egyptian activists to put their plans to march through the Rafah crossing into the enclosed Gaza Strip on hold. … He warned them of the military confrontation that might ensue with the Israeli occupation forces.
Such concerns were notably absent regarding the mobs from Lebanon and Syria. It is quite possible that Mashaal and Hamas were “in the loop” on those protests, given the common ties of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria to Iran. The IDF’s General Mordechai detected the hand of Iran in the geographic origin of the border-breaching protests in the north, an assessment that makes sense.
But Mashaal’s specific discouragement of the Egyptian activists is more than merely Shia Iranian-sponsored parochialism. Mashaal actually covered the key points explicitly in his appeal to the Egyptians: he spoke of how their time could be better spent, and alluded to “the critical stage Egypt is passing through,” implying that now is not the right time for Egypt to engage in the “Palestinian” issue.
What did Mashaal say the Egyptians should be doing? “[A]dvocating the cause by taking a political stance, sending relief aid, and boycotting.” For each of these measures, Hamas itself has a well-developed network of international NGOs and political contacts. Any new parallel effort by activists from Egypt would be quickly subsumed in what Hamas is already doing – ensuring Hamas continued as the leader and center of gravity.
As for Egypt “passing through a critical stage,” Mashaal’s point on this has multiple layers of meaning. From no one’s standpoint is the time yet ripe for Egypt to become actively engaged in maneuvering the Palestinian wedge against Israel. The outcome of Egypt’s decision on a future government is not yet known. All of the major regional players – Iran, the old-guard Arabs, the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey – want Egypt kept out of their endeavors until it’s clear who will hold power there. That Mashaal called on the Egyptians to stand down tells us one thing; that the Muslim Brotherhood gave his appeal prominent, friendly treatment tells us another.
Attacks in Israel, riots in Gaza, West Bank
The Palestinians themselves are a mix of willing and unwilling pawns in all this. Willingness is cultivated in them early, as implied in the eerie shrieking by Arab children of “Allahu akbar!” in this video from today in Silwan, outside Jerusalem in the West Bank (the armed men in the streets are Israeli security forces). (The protests in Egypt on Friday yielded the charming photo of the boy as well. That’s a replica of an explosive round and a suicide vest, in case it’s not clear. H/t, video and photo: The Muqata.)
Arabs in the West Bank and Israel did their part in mounting the Nakba “protests.” A truck driver killed one Israeli and injured 15 others while plowing his truck into targets along a 2-kilometer stretch of urban road in Tel Aviv. He jumped out of his truck at the end of the rampage and began physically attacking people – knocking a woman unconscious with a blow to the head – and shouted “Death to Jews!” (H/t: Alana Goodman, Commentary)
A riot raged in Qalandia, on the outskirts of Jerusalem; rioters there threw their projectiles from behind an ambulance. The IDF reported several instances in which ambulances were used for cover by mobs. Rioters in Gaza swarmed the Erez border crossing with Israel and were dispersed by the IDF, with one Gazan reportedly killed and some two dozen rioters injured. This IDF report summarizes events from north to south as of the early evening 15 May.
The power struggle is real, political – and definitive
It is easiest to think about all this in terms of what makes us indignant. But the shifting outlines of the ongoing regional power struggle are equally important, and in some senses more so. The progress of the power struggle is what will dictate – in the absence of US leadership – the conditions for the Levant and the Palestinian statehood issue for the foreseeable future. It is simply not true that there exists a homogeneous group of people called “Palestinians” who spontaneously rush into the streets and across borders out of an agony born in 1948. The governments of the neighboring nations, and the leadership of terrorist groups (e.g., Hamas), decide what the goals are, and what happens and does not.
Those entities are not by any means unified, nor do they reliably unite or support each other on principle. Their divisions should be exploited. Even now, the US still has the standing to step in and set limits on what the jousting players consider possible. Foreshortening their geostrategic horizon is exactly what we should be doing.
Merely reaffirming the same national interests we have had for decades, and putting some concrete diplomacy behind them – a secure, accessible Suez Canal; a demilitarized Sinai; a nation of Israel with defensible borders, negotiated peacefully; an independent nation of Lebanon unoccupied by Syria and without a Hezbollah thugocracy – would go a long way toward at least driving the jousters back into the shadows and making their work harder.
Among the different factions converging on the Levant, the unity isn’t there in May 2011 to mount riot-incursions against Israel from all directions. Remember that. If that situation changes in the coming months, remember that the US government could have done much to stop it.