Marian Houk, 8 June 2011
There were several Israeli media reports published yesterday (in English) and today (in Hebrew) that the IDF has, in recent weeks, laid new minefields in the Golan — as part of the military preparations against continuing demonstrations at the “border”.
According to these reports, new minefields were laid in the weeks between the May 15 Nakba Day demonstrations [marking the expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians in the fighting that surrounded the creation of the State of Israel in 1948] and the June 5 demonstrations held on Sunday [to mark the 1967 war and the start of the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan].
On May 15, Israeli officials were surprised by an infiltration of Palestinians and their supporters who managed to cross the lines and enter the Golan town of Majdal Shams. One of these infiltrators even managed to get as far as Yaffa, the birthplace and home town of his parents, where he went for a meal, looked around, and then turned himself in to Israeli police.
The Syrian Golan Heights was occupied by Israel in the June 1967 war — and annexed by Israel in 1980, a move that UN members said was “null and void”.
The well-informed Defense Correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, Yaakov Katz, wrote in an article published last night [06/06/2011 22:01] that “In general, the army was pleased with the way it handled the protests on Sunday … In the weeks before, the IDF prepared extensively, laying down new minefields, digging trenches and installing new barbed-wire fences … At least eight of the dead, IDF sources said on Monday, were killed by mines that exploded after the protesters threw Molotov cocktails in fields near the border, causing their premature detonation”. This was posted here.
Laying new minefields in the Golan raises serious questions — including whether proper notification was made, particularly to the Syrian authorities (also to the UN, which has peacekeeping missions there).
It also raises questions about whether such military measures — normally intended to address grave dangers and prevent invasions — are also intended as the Israeli response to protest demonstrations and civilian infiltration.
An earlier report in the JPost yesterday written jointly by Yaakov Lappin and Herb Keinon [published 06/06/2011 00:56] had this account: “Early on Sunday morning, Palestinians from the suburbs of Damascus had been bused to area across from Majdal Shams, and to the abandoned Syrian-border town of Kuneitra. They massed at the border without interference from Syrian troops … Soon after arriving in the Majdal Shams area, some 150 activists broke away from their fellows and descended a steep hill on the Syrian side, advancing toward the Israeli border. IDF soldiers shouted warnings in Arabic via loudspeakers asking the Palestinians to refrain from trying to cross the frontier, adding that those who did so would endanger their lives. The activists ignored the calls, crossed the Syrian border fence and made their way toward an Israeli forward-border fence erected by IDF engineers in recent weeks, entering a mined zone. ‘When the demonstrators continued toward the Israeli fence, shots were fired at their lower bodies. We know of 12 injuries’, an IDF spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post at noon. Meanwhile, at Kuneitra to the south, a second infiltration attempt was under way. Between 200 and 300 demonstrators gathered in Kuneitra, and climbed on the roof of an abandoned cinema, from where they began throwing rocks at Israeli security personnel. Four land mines exploded on the Syrian side of the border, after the rioters threw gasoline bombs, which exploded in a field, starting a fire that then set off the mines. The IDF did not know how many infiltrators were hurt by the explosions. Throughout the pitched battles, paramedics on the Syrian side of the border asked that the IDF grant them cease-fires to clear the wounded. The army agreed to the request,but then saw activists exploiting the quiet to try and cut the border fence, bringing the truce to an end”. This report is published here.
A short while later [06/06/2011 01:46] Yaakov Lappin wrote in the JPost that “The IDF’s well-planned and cool-headed response to the new threat of flooding the nation’s borders with civilian rioters sent a firm message to hostile neighbors on Sunday that Israel takes its sovereignty seriously. The chaotic scenes of May 15, when Syrian-Palestinian ‘Nakba’ activists managed to cross into Israel, with one man even making it as far south as Tel Aviv, jolted the IDF’s Northern Command to fortify the northern border with a second barbed-wire perimeter and new lookout positions, and to position senior commanders on the ground, who could quickly respond to developments and issue new orders. This time around, although fewer activists turned up on the border, the situation could still have gone out of control and resulted in a far higher casualty count had the IDF not implemented several lessons from last month. The IDF concentrated forces in the right areas this time, near Majdal Shams and Kuneitra, and no one in the army was surprised when reports from Syria, which said that the mass marches set for Sunday had been canceled, proved to be false”. This was published here.
Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz today that “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.
An initial inquiry found the IDF only fired several dozen sniper bullets at the protesters. A senior officer told Haaretz 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. But these explanations defending the Israeli troops’ activities, offered by the prime minister and defense 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”. This is published here.
And the UN is there…
The UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) has been in Jerusalem since 1948.
The UN Disengagement Observer Forces (UNDOF) have been in Syria since 1974, and has a logistical (provisions) base in Israel.
And the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been in south Lebanon since 1976 (also with a logistical base in Israel.
See UNTSO deployment map.
Here is the UN description of the UNDOF mandate: “From its numerous positions and through patrolling, UNDOF supervises the area of separation and intervenes whenever any military personnel enter or try to operate therein. This is accomplished using permanently manned positions and observation posts, foot and mobile patrols operating at irregular intervals by day and night, and closes contact and liaison with the host nations. On each side of the area of separation there is an area of limitation with three zones; a zone of 0 to 10 kilometres (6.21 miles) from the area of separation, a zone of 10 (6.21 miles) to 20 kilometres (12.43 miles) from the area of separation, and a zone of 20 (12.43 miles) to 25 kilometres (15.53 miles) from the area of separation. UNDOF inspects these areas every two weeks in order to ascertain that the agreed limitations in armaments and forces are being observed within these areas of limitation. UNDOF assists the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in facilitating the passage of mail, goods, and persons through the area of separation during special crossing events. Within the integral medical resources of UNDOF, medical treatment is provided to the local population on request. In UNDOF’s area of operation, especially in the area of separation, minefields continue to pose a threat to UNDOF personnel and local inhabitants. In consultation with the Syrian authorities, UNDOF instituted a minefield security and maintenance programme in the area of separation to identify and mark all minefields. UNDOF also supports activities to promote mine awareness among the civilian population“. This is posted here.
UNTSO is located in Government House, Jerusalem, a former British headquarters during the Mandate period. The UN website says: “Set up in May 1948, UNTSO was the first ever peacekeeping operation established by the United Nations. Since then, UNTSO military observers have remained in the Middle East to monitor ceasefires, supervise armistice agreements, prevent isolated incidents from escalating and assist other UN peacekeeping operations in the region to fulfill their respective mandates“. This is posted here. Another web page says that “In the Middle East, groups of UNTSO military observers are today attached to the peacekeeping forces in the area: the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). A group of observers remains in Sinai to maintain a United Nations presence in that peninsula. Currently, UNTSO maintains its headquarters in Jerusalem with its liaison offices in Beirut (Lebanon), Ismailia (Egypt) and Damascus (Syria)”, and this is posted here.
Marian Houk, a writer, reporter, journalist and analyst with long experience at the United Nations — in New York and in Geneva and more — as well as with the Middle East. She has reported on, and for a time also worked for, the United Nations. She is a former President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) at UNHQ/NY (1986), and is currently based in Jerusalem.
Marian Houk is the Editor of UN-Truth news site.