THE INDEPENDENT Tuesday, 17 May 2011
By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem
Israeli security and intelligence chiefs traded accusations yesterday over who allowed more than 100 protesters to cross the heavily guarded border with Syria, as Palestinians marked the "catastrophe" of Israel's founding in a string of incidents that left 15 unarmed protesters dead and Israel's doctrine of border deterrence in tatters.
Israeli leaders believe that the simultaneous appearance of thousands of civilians marching towards three sensitive borders in different parts of the country suggested a co-ordinated campaign.
Ahead of September's expected approval of Palestinian independence by the United Nations General Assembly, the Israelis fear that the Iranian-backed military efforts that link Gaza, Lebanon and Syria will be supplemented by further mass political action to which Israel currently has no response except gunfire.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is also coming under increased pressure to produce a peace proposal, if only to recover the diplomatic initiative from the Palestinians, who seem to be on a roll.
Palestinian representatives from Hamas and Fatah met yesterday in Cairo to flesh out an agreement to end their mutual hostility and form a unity government to prepare for new elections.
As military engineers repaired the breach in the border fence made on Sunday, Israeli security forces flooded the area, searching for infiltrators who had failed to return to Syria.
Israel police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said police carried out house-to-house searches in Majdal Shams village throughout the night. One man who hid overnight in the village was captured in a taxi en route to Jerusalem.
Israeli military commanders blamed faulty intelligence for the border breach while intelligence chiefs said the local commanders were at fault for failing to prepare their ground forces. Only about a dozen soldiers were on duty when the crowd burst across the border.
Observers pointed out that the protests had been publicised on Facebook for months and it did not take intelligence training to notice hundreds of buses arriving on the Syrian side of the border.
Acknowledging that Sunday's events were "not good", Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, the chief of staff of Israel's armed forces, praised his troops for not inflicting higher casualties in what rapidly developed into an impossible situation.
Alex Fishman, a commentator at the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, said: "What we witnessed yesterday on the Syrian border was a failure." He warned of "more attempted mass marches into Israeli territory... Marches and flotillas to implement the right of return will gather more and more momentum."
"The state of Israel has a systemic problem," Mr Fishman said. "Except for deterrence, it has no means to prevent tens and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians – who succeed in getting organised and in realising the dream of return with their own feet – from breaking across its borders."
But Israel's border deterrence was shattered by Sunday's marchers, who simply walked through a minefield thought to be deadly. Not a single landmine exploded. Shaul Mofaz, the chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, told colleagues that Sunday was merely a curtain-raiser and was likely to be replayed unless the Government produced a peace plan.
"The Israeli Government is burying its head in the sand. Without any peace initiative, yesterday's events will repeat themselves in September," Mr Mofaz said. "The present Government, headed by Netanyahu, isn't initiating anything."