The prime minister also flatly rejected the idea of engaging once again in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority if it goes through with its announced intentions to form a unity government with Hamas. He said, “a government, half of whose members declare daily their intention to destroy Israel, is not a partner for peace.”
Netanyahu once again laid out Israel’s five requirements for a peace agreement, which have not significantly changed. These include the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and a requirement that any peace agreement bring the Israel-Palestinian dispute to an end, settling all territorial disputes. Netanyahu insisted that Israel would not allow the return of any Palestinian refugees to its territory. He also said that Israel’s security requirements would dictate the borders of the Palestinian state, including the need for a continuing Israeli military presence along the Jordan River. Israel would retain the large West Bank settlement blocks, and Yerushalayim would remain its undivided capital.
Netanyahu repeated this position a few days later, in an address to both houses of Congress, and in his White House conversations with President Obama.
He is offering no new Israeli concessions to the Arabs, and he is not expecting a White House effort to renew peace talks now. Instead, he is hoping to find at least some American support for Israel’s position in the face of Abbas’ abandonment of the peace process, and the unity deal with Hamas.
He continues to staunchly defend the positions he has espoused on Israel’s security, territorial rights in the West Bank and Yerushalayim, and the Jewish character of the state. They have not changed since he became prime minister in 2009.
Netanyahu has rejected panicky calls from those on the Israeli left and in the media for wholesale concessions to Arab demands in order to forestall a serious diplomatic challenge which is now on the horizon.
BRACING FOR TROUBLE AT THE UN
Israel is bracing for a diplomatic onslaught at the UN General Assembly in September intended to give formal recognition to a Palestinian state defined by the pre-67 borders, and without giving any consideration to Israel’s territorial claims in the West Bank and Yerushalayim. An overwhelming vote approving recognition of the Palestinian state by the General Assembly is considered a certainty.
There is widespread concern that Sunday’s attempt to infiltrate Israel’s borders is just the first move in an Arab initiative to abandon peace negotiations, while trying to isolate and delegitimize Israel in the international community.
BLOODY SUNDAY IN TEL AVIV AND ON THE NORTHERN BORDER
Sunday was the bloodiest day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the Israeli army invaded Gaza more than two years ago.
The day’s violence started with an attack in Tel Aviv by an Israeli-Arab truck driver, using his vehicle as a weapon, and killing one Israeli driver.
Sunday was Nakba Day, which the Arabs observe as a day of mourning because it is the anniversary of the independence declaration of Israel in 1948. Since then, Arabs have devoted the day to anti-Israel protests.
This time, those protests turned deadly along Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon and Syrian. There were also violent demonstrations in the south, along the Gaza security fence, and in the West Bank. Crowds of Palestinian refugees, stirred up by days of anti-Israel propaganda on the Internet, and the Arab revolts sweeping the Middle East, stormed the border fences, forcing Israeli troops to open fire to prevent wholesale border invasions. At least a dozen of the Palestinians were killed.
The terror attack in Tel Aviv started without warning. At 9:35 A.M. the terrorist began to deliberately ram his truck into cars, a motorcycle, a bus and pedestrians, killing one man and injuring 17 others.
Israeli-Arabs and Palestinian workers have used large vehicles to carry out terrorist attacks in Israel before. There were two such attacks in Yerushalayim during a three week span in 2008, which left three people dead and dozens wounded. In 2010, a Palestinian tractor deliberately driver crashed his vehicle into two Israeli cars near an outpost in the northern West Bank, wounding three people.
VICTIM KILLED IN HIS CAR
The terrorist Sunday used his truck as a weapon, driving along Chaim Bar Lev Street for more than a mile, smashing into 15 vehicles, destroying traffic lights and security rails, and mowing down pedestrians. The truck eventually came to a halt after colliding with a bus near an elementary school, sending the children there into a panic.
Aviv Morag, Hy”d, 29, was killed during the attack while driving his car to a business meeting, He was speaking on his cell phone with his father when the terrorist crashed into him. Morag lived in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim, and had recently become engaged to be married. He had been working in the family business, selling refrigerators.
A spokesman for Magen David Adom said that the terrorist driving the truck had hit several vehicles at the corner of Chaim Bar-Lev and HaTayasim. The collision had sent Morag’s vehicle crashing into a traffic light. When paramedics reached him, their attempts to resuscitate him failed, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.
One of the paramedics who responded to the scene said, “There is no way the driver here accidently lost control. There are no accidents like this.”
One eyewitness said, “the driver was driving like a madman. At first I thought it was an accident or a driver who lost control of his vehicle, but based on the speed and insane manner in which he was driving, it was clearly an attack. It’s scary that these things happen here. We yelled at him to stop, but he kept on going,” she said.
“He was completely possessed,” another witness said.
Yet another said, “The truck was hurling at cars like a bowling ball. When the driver saw a bus, he crossed the junction and hit it and they both came to a stop under the bridge. Luckily, the bus was empty. A young man came out of the truck and came towards me yelling what sounded like ‘Allahu Akbar.’ He knocked over my phone and hit a girl who approached him, in the head with one of the broken traffic lights that were scattered all over the road. Eventually an officer on a scooter caught him.”
HIS LAST PHONE CALL TO HIS FATHER
Aviv Morag’s father described his last conversation with his son.
“At 9:34 A.M., I received a telephone call from him,” said his father, David Morag. “Two minutes later, the conversation was cut off. It was apparently at that point that the terrorist hit and killed him. I tried to reach him again, but the telephone did not ring. I realized that something bad was happening.”
When the father heard a news report of a traffic accident in south Tel Aviv, he decided to find out whether his son was involved.
“We left the house and turned on the radio,” he said. “The initial news report said that the victim was in his forties, so I didn’t think it was Aviv. However, when we arrived at the entrance to Tel Hashomer Medical Center, I received a phone call from a police officer asking me to come to the Abu Kabir [Institute of Forensic Medicine] to identify the body,” Morag said.
SCHOOL CHILDREN TERRORIZED
The terrorist’s truck and the bus it collided with finally came to a halt just outside the entrance to the Golomb elementary school. Fortunately, none of the schoolchildren were outside at the time.
“All the kids started crying,” recalled Liraz, one of the fourth grade students. “The parents were then called to pick up their kids; the teachers told us to calm down and that everything was going to be alright,” she added.
Sixth grade student Linoi recalled hearing a loud boom. “Everyone was frightened and we weren’t allowed to leave the classroom. Later they asked us to go downstairs to the courtyard and they locked the school building,” she said.
SURPRISE INCURSION ON THE SYRIAN BORDER
The border intrusions started later in the day. Around noon, more than 100 Palestinians from Syrian refugee camps breached the border at the Druze village of Majdal Shams. Israeli soldiers had no choice but to open fire, killing two of the demonstrators and turning many of the others back. Those who breached the border were pictured in video footage taken by a village resident, staging a protest in the streets of the town. By late afternoon, the Israeli military said it had caught about 100 infiltrators and sent them back to Syria. Rocks thrown by the intruders lightly wounded 13 Israeli soldiers.
Dolan Abu Salah, mayor of Majdal Shams, said that the town’s Druse residents “were in shock, they had no idea this was going to happen.” He said that the Druse were neutral in the Israeli-Arab dispute and did not want to get involved.
The army said that it was particularly concerned about the ability of the protesters to infiltrate past the border, and would review the control procedures employed to avoid a repeat of the failure. While Nakba Day demonstrations have been held along the Gaza and Lebanese borders in previous years, this was the first time that the Syrians ever permitted demonstrators to actually come up to their side of the border.
WAS ASSAD SEEKING TO DIVERT ATTENTION?
That fueled speculation that the Syrian regime may have engineered the border infiltration to take the spotlight off the ongoing suppression of Syrian pro-democracy demonstrations. Since those protests began in March, President Bashar Assad’s security forces have killed at least 700 civilians, and jailed at least 10,000 more.
Yoni Ben-Menachem, Israel Radio’s chief Arab affairs analyst, said that, “this way Syria makes its contribution to the Nakba Day cause, and Assad wins by diverting the media’s attention away from what is happening inside Syria.”
A Syrian pro-democracy dissident cited accounts by residents of Damascus who saw pro-government groups busing people to the border the night before the attempted infiltration. That is consistent with Israeli reports that the demonstrators who crashed the border were not Syrians or Druze, but rather Palestinian refugees who reside in camps around Damascus.
Access from the Syrian side of the border is strictly controlled by dozens of Syrian army checkpoints. The area has been relatively peaceful since 1974, soon after the end of the Yom Kippur War.
The simultaneous arrival of thousands of Palestinian protesters at the border would require, at the very least, coordination with the Syrian government.
Even though Syrian security forces have killed many times more than the number of Palestinians killed storming the Israeli borders on Sunday, the much smaller, but carefully staged and promoted Palestinian protests have attracted much more media attention.
DEFENSE MINISTER BARAK WARNS THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING
Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted that there would be more attempted incursions along Israel’s border, leading up to the Palestinian bid for UN General Assembly recognition in September, and that the army would have to prepare itself accordingly to repel them.
He said that the goal of the army’s tactics was to foil the incursions while inflicting the minimum number of Arab casualties. Barak added that the training and discipline of the soldiers, who used the minimum amount of force needed to defend Israel’s borders kept the casualty figures low, and prevented a worldwide uproar against Israel.
Barak said, “we used protest dispersal methods, but the number of people involved made this difficult. There comes a moment when there’s no choice but to fire at their legs and it is very good that forces acted with restraint and judgment and we did not have a ruinous bloodbath.”
Barak added that, “there were deaths in a few places, and we are sorry for that, but those who tested Israel’s sovereignty and those who sent the infiltrators and encouraged them are the ones responsible.”
To handle such incursions in the future, the army will need to buy more crowd dispersion equipment, and train more troops in their proper use.
ARMY WAS CAUGHT BY SURPRISE
Ironically, the army had expected, based upon past experience, that the most violent Nakba Day demonstrations would take place in the West Bank. In fact, army units training in the Golan Heights were transferred to the West Bank in anticipation of Nakba Day demonstrations.
The infiltration along the Syrian border was completely unexpected. There had been peaceful Nakba Day demonstrations in the past in the border area opposite the village Majdal Shams. The area is known as the “Shouting Hill” since local relatives separated by the border traditionally shout to each other at that point. However, the attempt by Palestinians from Syrian refugee camps to cross the border there in large numbers took the army by surprise.
The Israeli Army routinely maintains a large concentration of soldiers on the Golan Heights, but the number of soldiers stationed immediately along the border is relatively small. During normal times, the area is patrolled by just a few troops who are usually equipped with only personal weapons and live ammunition. They generally do not carry the specialized equipment designed for non-lethal crowd dispersal. If the soldiers on the border had been given that equipment, they might have been able to repel the demonstrators before they broke through the border fence, and avoided the need to use lethal force. But as events worked out, the soldiers on the border had no alternative but to use deadly force to prevent a wholesale invasion.
LEBANESE PROTEST ENGINEERED BY HEZBOLLAH
About 25 miles to the west, along Israel’s border with Lebanon, Israeli troops clashed with a large crowd of Palestinians who were brought to the border by Hezbollah.
Carrying Palestinian flags and chanting “we want our land back,” thousands of Palestinians tried to approach the electrically charged border security fence on the Israeli side of the border. Lebanese army troops on the scene fired in the air and ordered the crowd to move back, but the demonstrators pelted the Lebanese troops with rocks and kept moving forward. When about 50 protesters reached the fence and started throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers on the other side, Israeli troops responded with tear gas. When the protesters started trying to damage the fence itself, Israeli troops opened fire with live ammunition. Lebanese security officials reported that 10 of the Arab intruders were killed, and 100 were wounded.
Protesters in Lebanon said they received permission from the Lebanese army to enter the border area near Maroun al-Ras, which is normally a closed military region. Hezbollah set up a field hospital near the border to treat the expected casualties.
Eyewitnesses on the Lebanese side said they saw young Hezbollah supporters wearing yellow hats and carrying walkie-talkies organizing the entry into Maroun al-Ras and handing out Palestinian flags.
By midafternoon, Israel had beefed up its army forces along both the Syrian and Lebanese borders, deploying tanks, Humvees, and helicopters, and had rounded up those who had penetrated the Syrian border.
VIOLENT PROTESTS ON THE WEST BANK
In the West Bank, about 1,000 protesters carrying Palestinian flags and throwing stones, firecrackers and gasoline bombs fought with Israeli riot troops near the security checkpoint outside Ramallah.
Demonstrators gathered at a gas station near the village of Isawiyah in East Yerushalayim early Sunday, and hurled rocks at security forces. Palestinians hurled firebombs at the back of the Har Hatzofim Hadassah University Hospital.
In the West Bank city of Kalandiya, 200 Palestinian protesters marched toward a local security checkpoint. They and were disbursed by police firing tear gas canisters.
Protesters gathered near the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank.
In Gaza, when marchers crossed into a security buffer zone adjacent to the border security fence, apparently intent on infiltration, Israeli troops, supported by tanks, opened fire, wounding at least 15 people. The protesters had been transported to the main Gaza border crossing into Israel on Hamas buses.
Later, along the Gaza border, a terrorist trying to plant a bomb along the border fence was killed by Israeli troops.
PROTESTORS TURNED BACK IN JORDAN AND EGYPT
In Jordan and Egypt, government security forces halted Arab protesters before they could reach the Israeli border.
About 250 protesters from Cairo were stopped by at the town of El Arish, in the northern Sinai, by the Egyptian army. They were demonstrating for Egypt to open the border crossing with Gaza at Rafiach, to expel the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, and to halt the sale of Egyptian natural gas to Israel.
Several thousand gathered in front of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo to wave Palestinian flags and chant “Down with Israel.” After nightfall, when some of the protesters tried to storm the embassy, they were repelled by Egyptian troops.
In Jordan, 800 Palestinians were transported to an Israeli border crossing point. Jordanian security forces and local residents used force to prevent them from going further, resulting in injuries to 14 demonstrators and three police officers, according to Jordan’s public security office.
PROTESTS AIMED AT DESTROYING ISRAEL
At the end of the day, calm was restored along Israel’s borders. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that the aim of the protestors was the same as it has always been since Israel was created, to destroy Israel rather than to create a Palestinian state alongside it.
“The leaders of these violent demonstrations, their struggle is not over the 1967 borders but over the very existence of Israel, which they describe as a catastrophe,” Netanyahu said. “It is important that we look with open eyes at the reality and be aware of whom and what we are dealing with.”
Israel said that it intends to file a complaint in the UN Security Council against Syria and Lebanon for violating Israel’s international borders as well as the UN resolutions which put an end to the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. Lebanon, in turn, claims that Israel violated its sovereignty when its troops opened fire on the protesters trying to force their way across the border into Israel.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon late Sunday night issued a statement calling for restraint by both sides. He said that there is an “urgent need for a just, lasting and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.”
He called for a resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians aimed at reaching an agreement on a two state solution which would, “advance the broader goal of a comprehensive regional peace in the Middle East.”
ABBAS PRAISES THE BORDER INCURSIONS
Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, praised the Nakba Day protesters in a televised speech, and referred to those killed storming Israel’s borders as martyrs. “The blood of the Nakba fatalities was not spilled in vain,” he said. “They died for the Palestinian people’s rights and freedom.”
He said the Palestinians “can feel their state coming together and that the world supports the end of Israeli occupation.”
Abbas’ new Hamas partners in a national unity government described the Nakba Day demonstrations as “a turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The Hamas spokesman added that they “prove that the Palestinian people want to end the occupation and achieve the return of refugees, and that they will never back down, no matter the price.”
Later, Fatah and Hamas decided to declare Monday a day of mourning for those killed in the demonstrations. A general strike was called for Gaza, and Abbas ordered all Palestinian flags to fly at half-mast.
WHO WAS BEHIND THE EFFORT?
The chief Israeli military spokesman, General Yoav Mordechai, said that he saw Iran’s fingerprints in the coordinated protests and attempts to penetrate Israel’s borders, even though he could not prove it.
Attempts to organize the Sunday protests over the Internet began in March. A Facebook page calling for a third Palestinian intifada, had gathered more than 300,000 participants before Facebook closed down the page, after getting complaints from friends of Israel that the page was advocating violence.
In Egypt, political organizers worked for weeks to rally support for a third intifada.
Along Lebanon’s highways, posters went up urging Palestinians to protest at the border town of Maroun al-Ras, which was the scene of some of the most intense fighting in the 2006 Second Lebanese War between Israel and Hezbollah.
The next day, White House spokesman Jay Carney issued a statement saying that “We regret the loss of life and our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of those killed and wounded.” With respect to the violation of Israeli sovereignty by Palestinian intruders, he added, “Israel, like all countries, has the right to prevent unauthorized crossings at its borders. Its neighbors have a responsibility to prevent such activity. We would urge maximum restraint on all sides. We’re also strongly opposed to the Syrian government’s involvement in inciting yesterday’s protests in the Golan Heights. Such behavior is unacceptable and does not serve as a distraction from the Syrian government’s ongoing repression of demonstrators in its own country.”
ISRAEL GIVES IN ON TRANSFER OF TAX FUNDS TO THE PA
Meanwhile, in the maneuvering over the Abbas-Hamas national unity agreement that was signed in Cairo earlier this month, Israel’s Minister of Finance, Yuval Steinitz, confirmed that Israel would resume the transfer of $88 million dollars in tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority, which Israel had delayed, with much fanfare.
“For the last 2 weeks, we gave the PA a warning,” Steinitz said, “but we decided to renew the revenue transfers after we got confirmation from the Palestinians that no money will be transferred to Hamas or to terrorist operations.”
Norway, the head of the group of donor nations to the Palestinian authority, promised to set up a mechanism to make sure that none of the Israeli tax money would come under Hamas control were Israel to resume the transfers. Steinitz added that “Israel reserves the right to stop the tax money of revenues once again if Hamas becomes a part of the Palestinian government.”
Before Steinitz issued his statement, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s office reported that it had been informed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair that Netanyahu had approved the transfer.
Fayyad had sought international intervention to get the Israel to release the funds, saying that the Palestinian authority would not be able to meet its next payroll without the money. The tax is collected by the Israeli government on Palestinian transactions, and then transferred to the PA monthly. It provides the PA with $1 billion to $1.4 billion annually. The US warned that its continued aid to the PA, which is slated to amount to $550 million this year, will depend on the nature of the new government which is expected to be formed under the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement. US law forbidding any taxpayer support to Hamas, as a terrorist organization, as well as opposition in Congress could prevent the scheduled US aid from continuing.
Netanyahu said the Palestinian unity deal was a blow to peace efforts. He and Secretary of State Clinton have both said that Hamas must meet the conditions demanded of it by the Quartet in 2006 before the US and Israel accept any Hamas-influenced government as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
MITCHELL STEPPING DOWN AS US MIDEAST ENVOY
Another sign that peace talks are not likely to resume soon was the announcement last week that Obama’s Mideast envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, is resigning, after two years of largely fruitless efforts. Mitchell, 77, was a longtime Democrat senator from Maine. He successfully brokered the Northern Ireland peace accord in 1998, but he has little to show for his last two years of effort.
Mitchell was a strong advocate for Obama’s attempt to impose a freeze on all Israeli construction in the West Bank and Yerushalayim. Mitchell proposed the freeze in 2001, after President Bill Clinton appointed him to head a US fact-finding commission into the intifada.
Obama praised his “tireless work” toward a a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his “proud legacy of public service.”
“As a nation, we remain committed to peace in the Middle East and to building on George’s hard work and progress toward achieving this goal,” Obama’s statement said.
David Hale, a career foreign service officer, who once served as the US ambassador to Jordan, will take over Mitchell’s role, but without Mitchell’s policymaking influence.
“The basic reality is you have a nonexistent peace process,” said Aaron Miller, a former Middle East negotiator now at the Wilson Center, a think tank. “Why would you require the services of a very talented, credible negotiator?”