Security and Defense: Bracing for mass protests

The IDF is gearing up for potentially dramatic Nakba Day demonstrations this weekend, with a training emphasis on non-lethal crowd dispersion techniques.

A few months ago, as the number of Facebook users who pressed “Like” on pages that called for a third intifada and large-scale demonstrations on Sunday increased, the IDF began to sit up and take notice.

May 15 is the day the Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, the “catastrophe” that was the establishment of the State of Israel.

At first, the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) downplayed the significance of the Facebook pages and the impact they would have on the ground. But then the entire Middle East shook, and Facebook proved to have extraordinary power to mobilize the masses in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as it helped opposition groups topple president Hosni Mubarak.

As the number of “Likes” continued to grow and eventually reached around 350,000 on over 100 different pages, the IDF and Shin Bet decided to see if it was possible to analyze the people who were pledging their support for the demonstrations – who they were, what their background was and how committed they were to the cause.

The rough assessment that evolved from the Facebook analysis was that the demonstrations would not be as bad as some had initially expected. Yes, the Palestinians will march and they will also likely throw rocks at IDF checkpoints and passing Israeli cars. But no, they will likely not come armed to the demonstrations or open fire at Israeli troops.

This does not mean that the IDF is not taking the weekend of potential demonstrations seriously. The opposite is more accurate, as can be seen by the massively increased deployment of IDF units and Border Police companies in the West Bank to reinforce battalions there – the largest such deployment in the West Bank in the past three years.

The understanding within the intelligence community, however, is that the Palestinian Authority, which is quietly backing the demonstrations, will want to walk a thin line.

On the one hand, the PA wants enough violence to grab Israel’s attention and make the Netanyahu government understand it will pay a price if it continues to do nothing in the aftermath of a planned unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations General Assembly in September. At the same time, however, the PA does not want too much violence, since it could then lose the legitimacy for its statehood claim, as well as the world’s growing sympathy.

FOR THE IDF, the main goal is to avoid Palestinian casualties. To do this, commanders have put a focus on mental preparations and strengthening soldiers’ resilience to enable them to stand under a volley of rocks and even Molotov cocktails but not open fire except as a last resort.

An emphasis, instead, will be put on crowd-dispersion techniques and technology such as the “Scream,” a device that emits penetrating bursts of sound that leave protesters dizzy and nauseated.

For Israel, this will not be easy. In recent years, there have been a number of cases of accidental deaths caused by IDF soldiers. If this happens over the weekend, not to mention if right-wing Jewish activists take advantage of the potential pandemonium and try to attack Palestinians as well, this could be enough to bring Arabs around the region into the streets – within Israel, too. With the momentum of the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East behind the protesters, Israel will find itself in a very difficult position.

On Wednesday, the regional brigade commanders in the Central Command met with their Palestinian counterparts for a final briefing before the anticipated Nakba protests. These meetings between the sides have been taking place since 2007 – following Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip – but have significantly increased in frequency and value of content in recent years.

For many of the commanders, the meetings were not easy in the beginning. Officers like the commander of the Samaria Brigade, Col. Nimrod Aloni, and the commander of the Efraim Brigade, Col. Avi Gil, came of age as young company commanders during the beginning of the second intifada in 2000.

They remember the joint patrols together with the PA and how quickly the Palestinians turned their guns on their Israeli counterparts.

As a result, even though these commanders invested resources and time in cultivating relationships with their PA counterparts, for many of them, the popular Hebrew aphorism “respect and suspect them” is their work motto.

As such, these commanders have been preparing their soldiers for a wide range of scenarios, from the eruption of a third intifada – considered unlikely – to widespread demonstrations and disturbances that include stone-throwing and low-level violence.

The IDF’s Central Command is also in the midst of preparations for the day after the declaration, ranging from purchasing more tear gas and rubber bullets, training forces in crowd-dispersion techniques and preparing for an end to coordination with PA security forces.

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