Anti-mine campaign denounces new IDF minefields planted in Golan to stop civilians

Australian media analyst/publisher/journalist Mike Hitchen has just written a post on his blog, here, reporting that the Campaign to Ban Landmines has strongly condemned the IDF move — leaked and widely reported authoritatively in the Israeli media, though only coyly hinted at by the IDF spokespersons — to plant new mines in the Golan to deter protesters coming across from Syria in September.

Israeli soldiers were reportedly stunned to see Palestinian protesters coming from Syria and crossing old minefields in the Golan in protests on May 15 [Nakba Day, marking the dispossesion of some 700,000 Palestinians in the fighting that surrounded the creation of the State of Israel in 1948] and June 5 [Naksa Day, commemorating the 1967 war].

Reports about what happened are contradictory. A recent news story suggested that old landmines failed to go off during both protests, which is a justification for planting new landmines. Earlier reports said that new mines had been planted between May 15 and June 5. A number of protesters were reportedly killed by landmine explosions set off, according to the IDF Northern Command, when brush fires set off by their Molotov cocktails exploded some mines [not clear whether these were new, or old, and the explanation is curious]…

The IDF spokespersons have not responded to multiple requests from this journalist for clarification, and correct information.

In September, the Palestinian leadership has announced, it intends to move to upgrade Palestine’s status at the UN. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has recently called for non-violent popular demonstrations in support of the move, at the same time. The IDF has publicly announced it is making various types of massive preparations in anticipation of possible protests in the coming weeks.

In Mike Hitchen’s post, he reports that Kasia Derlicka, Director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), said that “There can be absolutely no justification for the use of these indiscriminate weapons, and to hear that these mines are aimed at civilians is particularly shocking … Earlier this year the Israeli government began clearing some of its deadly minefields, in recognition of their lethal humanitarian impact. Now, at the same time, to use this inhumane weapon against civilians is absolutely disgraceful”.

On Twitter, on 15 August, the @IDFSpokesperson called our attention to a video dated 28 July, on which the Golan Brigade Commander is speaking, apparently to journalists [well, they are holding microphones], in a public information exercise to show off [as deterrence, as well as reassurance to the Israeli public] the new fence that the IDF has built in the Golan since May and June, to ward off more protests. This video [subtitled in English] is posted on the IDF Spokesperson website here, and it is also on Youtube here.

In the video, the IDF Golan Brigade Commander, Colonel Eshkol Shukron, says that the IDF will not tolerate “border provocations” by “terrorists or civilians from Syria“:

The new fence, he said very suggestively, is only “one of a number of components” that Israel is deploying on the Golan to stop further protests [the IDF calls them “provocations”, “infiltrations”, and “riots”] … but made no mention of landmines.

The IDF language here does raise a problem — it is linguistically, and conceptually, turning unarmed civilian demonstrators into military [security] threats, and effectively describing them as legitimate targets.

IDF use of the language of propaganda, as here, is both unnecessary and dangerous — and gives rise to serious alarm about how events will be handled in the coming period.

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Report that Israel placed more anti-personnel mines in Golan in advance of September protests

This is a story that gets little reaction, despite more news coming in from time to time.

This time, it’s from a report, presumably in Hebrew, published in an Israeli military magazine.

The right-wing Israeli website, Arutz Sheva, is reporting here, that the latest edition of the Bemachaneh (On the Base) military magazine says that “Anti-personnel mines have been placed beyond the Golan border fence but on Israel’s side of the border … The mining in the area of the Golan territorial brigade is the first phase of activity that will extend to all of the border covered by the Israel Defense Forces’ 36th Division”.

The report also says that mines “already in place did not go off” during the May 15 protests in which Palestinian and Syrian protesters crossed the Golan and briefly entered the Israeli-controlled town of Majdel Shams, before being returned to Syria.  And, it says, this new planting of anti-personnel mines “is in addition to the erection of fences, the digging of trenches and other measures to prevent incursions by demonstrators or other hostile forces in September, when violence is expected to accompany the Palestinian Authority’s announced intent to unilaterally declare a state. Anti-tank mines are also being upgraded or replaced, in the first mining of the area in 10 years“.

UPDATE: The AP is now reporting, on Saturday 13 August, that “An Israeli army magazine says the military is planting new land mines along the border with Syria to dissuade protesters from rushing into the Golan Heights. The army decided to go ahead with the move after older mines failed to detonate when Syrian demonstrators rushed into the border area in June during a protest against Israel’s occupation. Israeli forces opened fire, killing some 20 protesters in efforts to push the crowd back. The mines are also part of beefed-up measures Israel is taking ahead of rallies that Palestinians are planning to hold in September”. This AP report is posted here.

NOTE: Our earlier reports on this story are posted:
17 June – here, and
16 June – here,
And our even earlier posts on this are:
9 June – here;
8 June – here;
and 7 June – here.

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UNSG's new report on UNDOF mentions Golan minefields + Palestinian protests

The UN Secretary-General’s new report raises more questions than answers about two protests that turned deadly in the Golan Heights in the past month in which people who the UN report identified as “civilians”, and “largely young unarmed Palestinians” overran Syrian, UN, and Israeli lines — in an attempt to enter an area under Israeli control.

The UN said it still did not know the exact casualty toll. The report said that the two demonstrations “resulted in an unconfirmed number of civilian casualties and put the long-held ceasefire in jeopardy”.

The statement about the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire being in jeopardy is a surprise: there are no reports of any Syrian responses to the Israeli firing on the demonstrators.

The report was prepared, as it usually is, by the UNSG in connection with the imminent renewal of the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights later this month.   The UN has decided to ask for a regular six-month renewal, as has happened since 1974, and a threat to the cease-fire would be a good justification for renewal.

The report does not say that Syrian forces were in any way responsible for the organizing the protests, though it does note several times that the Syrian forces were present.

On May 15, it said, “A total of 44 civilian casualties, including four fatalities from IDF fire, were reported, but UNDOF has not been able to confirm these numbers”. In the second demonstration, it said, “Although UNDOF could not confirm the number of casualties during the 5 June events, up to 23 persons have been reported killed and many more wounded”.

The report said that it was still investigating an “incident” in which two civilians “entered Majdal Chams and demonstrated in the town centre” during the May 15 protest — and were detained by the IDF. They were returned two days later, on 17 May, “by the IDF through UNDOF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the Syrian authorities”. According to the UN report, “UNDOF is investigating the incident and both parties have agreed in principle to cooperate with UNDOF’s investigation”.

It also said it was still investigating an apparent attack by protestors, during the June 5 protest, on an UNDOF position. Stones were thrown at a UNDOF commander trying to calm the situation, several protesters climbed the walls and entered the UNDOF facility and some UNDOF military police were evacuated for their own protection.

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AFP: UN report mentions unmarked minefield, denial of access to UN observer teams, in Golan

AFP has written a story from UNHQ/NY, based on an as-yet-unpublished UN report, that apparently says that Palestinian and Syrian demonstrators coming from Syria crossed an “unmarked minefield” in the Golan Heights on May 15 — the day that Israeli forces were surprised by the breach.

From the AFP story, published here, it is not clear if this referred to a field of Israeli, or Syrian, mines.

The unpublished UN report that AFP obtained is apparently linked to forthcoming UN Security Council consideration of periodic renewal, later this month, of the UN peacekeeping mandate on the Golan Heights, known as UNDOF [UN Disengagement Observer Forces]. This UNDOF report, published as a report of the UNSG, was due to be published on 10 June…

The AFP story, published yesterday [Wednesday June 15] says that “On May 15, about 4,000 mainly Palestinian demonstrators gathered on the Golan Heights on the anniversary of Israel’s 1948 creation. The UN report said about 300 moved toward the Israeli side ‘and despite the presence of the Syrian police, crossed the ceasefire line, through an unmarked minefield‘ and broke through an Israeli security fence. Israeli forces at first fired tear gas, then warning shots and then used ‘direct fire’, according to the UN, which said four dead and 41 wounded were reported. On June 5, Palestinians again gathered at two places on the Golan Heights ceasefire line. ‘Despite the presence of Syrian security forces, protesters attempted to breach the ceasefire line in both locations’, the UN said. Israeli forces again used tear gas and then live fire to deter the demonstrators. The UN said up to 23 people were reported killed and many more wounded … The UN report said ‘anti-government demonstrations in Syria spread to several villages’ on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line. UN observer teams have been denied access to six villages ‘ostensibly for reasons of safety and security of the military observers’, the report said”. This AFP story is published here.

This confirms the serious — and still unanswered — questions that have been raised in the past month:
(1) There is a question of proper notification, both to Syrian authorities and to UN peacekeeping missions working in the Golan.
(2) There is also an unanswered question about whether or not the minefields were properly marked [particularly any newly-laid minefields], in order to provide adequate warning to the demonstrators themselves.
(3) The breach of the Syrian and Israeli lines by Palestinian and Syrian protesters in demonstrations both on June 5 and also on May 15 has raised questions about how the UN peacekeeping forces who operate there are working.

The AFP story did seem to show UN confirmation that Syrian authorities didn’t do much but stand by and watch during May15 +June5 protests — though there was no real dispute on that point. The UN report apparently does not say that Syrian authorities actually sponsored, or even encouraged, the demonstrations. [It would be interesting to see anybody argue that the Syrian Army should actually have stopped the protesters from protesting — though the Lebanese Army did shoot at demonstrators on May 15.]

On Monday 6 June, a day after the latest demonstrations, the Israeli media published reports that newly-laid IDF minefields were among the preparations undertaken since the Nakba Day protests on May15 (when Palestinians + Syrians surprised the IDF by crossing the Golan on foot and entering Majdal Shams etc.) These newly-laid IDF minefields were reportedly planted expressly to prevent a second breach of the lines, in anticipation of the June 5 demonstrations marking the start of the June 1967 war (and the start of the Israeli occupation). An unclear number of people, said to be unarmed, were killed by unclear causes, apparently including minefield explosions.

UNDOF’s Croatian Battalion is located in the middle of the UN Zone that separates Israeli and Syrian lines near Majdal Shams.
The current UNDOF deployment map is published here.

The Israeli and Syrian lines are situated where agreed by a 1974 Agreement on the Disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces. It can’t be found on the UN website, but it is on the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, here. It shows the UN zone in the middle of the demarcated area:

Map of Israeli-Syrian Disengagement Agreement - 1974
Israeli-Syrian Disengagement Agreement Map - 1974

The story has not yet been developed.

It is not clear where the old minefields are, or whether they are all clearly marked. And it’s absolutely not clear where any newly-laid minefields are. But, all indications are that the newly-laid minefields were unmarked. (Except by two rows of barbed wire, according to an Israeli friend.)

One report, whose link I’ve unfortunately misplaced, did mention in passing that the IDF lines were overrun on May15 when Israeli troops stopped in their tracks, stunned to see the Palestinian demonstrators crossing minefields [marked, or unmarked?]

The first indications of injuries and deaths from mine explosions came from accounts given to the Israeli media by the IDF Northern Command on June 5, and then by IDF spokespersons themselves. The IDF aid that some protesters supposedly threw Molotov cocktails onto one minefield, apparently near Quneitra, thereby setting off one or more explosions. At least one IDF spokeswoman insisted, in an interview with one of my colleagues, that this peculiar tragedy involved minefields left over from the 1967 war.

UPDATE: However, the as-yet-unpublished UN report blame the fire not on Molotov cocktails supposedly thrown by demonstrators, but rather on the tear gas (or smoke?) canisters fired at the demonstrators by Israeli forces. Thanks to a tip from NYC-based journalist Alex B. Kane, who published his own account on Mondoweiss, there, we discovered a DPA [German Press Agency] story published by Haaretz on Tuesday evening, here reports that “A UN report on the Naksa day events said the IDF used tear gas, smoke grenades and live fire to prevent the demonstrators from crossing the ceasefire line. It stated: ‘Several anti-tank mines exploded due to a brush fire apparently started by tear gas or smoke grenade canisters near UNDOF facilities at Charlie Gate [near Quneitra?], resulting in casualties among protesters’. The brush fire was put out by Syrian and Israeli fire squads, and UNDOF, the report read”.

Another link in Alex Kane’s report for Mondoweiss, a Haaretz report published on June 6, here, “[IDF] Soldiers fired ‘with precision’ at the bottom half of the bodies of the protesters, the army said”. Then, an IDF spokeswoman said that this was further proof that the death toll figures had been exaggerated: We shot them in the feet, she said, and then the wounded were carried away on stretchers, pretending that they were dead…

So, to satisfy the IDF standards of proof that they were only “shot in the feet”, those injured should have walked back across the lines…?

ICRC in Tel Aviv on IDF newly-laid minefields in Golan

The ICRC Spokesperson in Tel Aviv Ran Goldstein informed me by email, in response to my query days ago, about Israeli media reports of newly-laid IDF minefields in the Golan planted in the weeks between May15 and June5 demonstrations, that:
We are closely following the events that are taking place in the Golan. The organization is particularly concerned with the loss of life and the wounded. The ICRC has also reminded the IDF of its obligations regarding the need to respect international standards relevant to law enforcement especially with regards to the proportionate use of force. The ICRC has a confidential and bilateral dialogue with the authorities on the situation. Once it has collected more details on the incidents, the ICRC would be able to address the authorities according to its working modalities. Unfortunately, for the moment, we can’t provide you with additional details about this issue“.

The IDF has also been criticized for the use of live fire — after oral warnings in Arabic, Israeli officials counter — against unarmed protesters who breached Israeli lines in the Golan both on May15 and on June5.

Our earlier posts on this are: 7 June – here; 8 June – here; and 9 June – here.