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golan heights

Green March on Golan

While everybody was distracted with Libya, something interesting happened on the Golan Heights. The Palestinians, with a lot of pushing from the Assad people, staged their own version of the Green March. And it failed.

I’ve written about the Green March before,but if you want the short version, The Green March (green for Islam, not recycling) was an unarmed invasion of what used to be the Spanish Sahara on Morocco’s southern border. It was a classic lebensraum push, but without weapons. The Moroccan government, facing the pretty obvious fact that it couldn’t take a coffee break by force of arms, thought up a brilliant new strategy: They sent a huge crowd of unarmed citizens across the border and dared the few demoralized Spanish soldiers in their way to open fire. The Spaniards held their fire, no doubt causing Cortez and Pizarro to revolve in their graves at lathe speed, but these aren’t those Spaniards, these are sad Euros with no birthrate. Whereas the Moroccans had a healthy birthrate and wanted everyone to know it: They sent exactly the number of people over the border as there were born in Morocco the year of the march. That’s the way to elbow yourself some lebensraum.

I called it the most important battle of the late 20thcentury, and I still think it’s the model for most future conquests. But not all. What happened on the Golan Heights this May and June was a demonstration of the limits of Green-March strategy. To put it bluntly, if the occupier has enough morale and international backing to open fire, you’re screwed–at least in the short run. But that’s not as simple as it sounds. What a lot of war buffs have been real slow to figure out is how hard it is to pull the trigger now, unless you’re in Papua New Guinea where the parasites and mosquitoes keep the reporters at bay. In a place like the Golan Heights, where reporters outnumber bunkers, it’s not easy to  open fire on unarmed crowds.

This is a very strange thing in military history, but it’s time we faced up to it. Firearms have been developing nonstop, but so has video, and they run counter to each other most of the time. You need decades of morale-building, alliance-mending and effective propaganda to make soldiers who’ll open fire in front of the video cameras. That’s where the effort has to go, not all this gun-love crap you see in the cheapo magazines on the rack. “HK vs. M4 Showdown”—my ass. HK or M4, either one works fine. That’s not the problem. Any fool can pull a trigger—that’s an old saying—but what we have to deal with now is something more complicated, like, “Yeah, any fool can pull a trigger but what about any city kid who’s been raised nice, never even been hit by his folks, popped out of some social-democratic kindergarten?” That dude is going to have a problem opening fire on unarmed crowds.

And even if you’re more than ready to shoot into that crowd, and most Americans are, your officers might not let you. It’s not as easy as that. A whole lot of successful rebellions have started out with suicide missions, either unarmed or armed so crummily that they had no hope of winning on the field. They won by the whole martyr strategy, and no matter what Patton said (“No son of a bitch ever won a war by dying for his country…”) martyr stuff can work. Not overnight, but over ten, 20, 50 years. When you consider if the Israelis won this one, you have to think of what Chou en-Lai said about whether the 1789 revolution in France was a success: “It’s too early to tell.”

Take Qaddafi. He didn’t go down because he was squeamish about firing at unarmed demonstrators. In fact, a reader sent a great link to an interview with one of the Tuareg mercs who were fighting for Qaddafi, who explained the traditional method of dealing with “peaceful demonstrators”: “We would kill three or four in the front of the crowd and the rest would run away. It was very easy.”

But that’s Libya, where what you might call the background level of violence is pretty low. In other places, especially after a few generations of facing troops, shooting a few won’t do it. You can see that in this BBC video of the Palestinians’ try at a Green March on the Golan Heights– the second try the Pals made at crossing the border. This time the IDF fired early and steadily. The official count was 20 demonstrators dead, 300 hurt. Even allowing for inflation, which you have to do with any casualty claim, you can hear the BBC reporter talking about people falling after “live fire, aimed fire” and being carried off on stretchers.

The interesting thing here is that it wasn’t the bullets that drove them off. It was the tear gas, which according to the BBC, the IDF only started using once reporters asked why they used live fire instead of tear gas. My guess is that the IDF was pissed off at the way they let the same crowd push over the border in the first Golan Heights Green March, three weeks earlier, on the anniversary of the “Nabka” (Big Disaster) of 1948.

Golan Barricade

Here’s a home video of that one. You can see that in this first march, the Pals broke through the double fences along the valley floor. That’s the border. The guy filming is standing on what looks like a construction site on the Israeli side (I think). There’s a pretty big crowd up there, too many by far to shoot in front of cameras—and like I said, in the Golan you can pretty much assume there’s going to be cameras.

I want to say again: It’s not just a matter of getting troops who’re willing to shoot into a crowd, though that’s part of it. Even if the troops were willing up there in the Golan, and I’d bet that most of them were, it just wouldn’t be a good move. Israel survives because of a US support base—used to be Jews but now it’s more the Evangelicals—who need to believe that Israel is the besieged good guy, a modern Constantinople circa 1453. It’s not a good move shooting unarmed idiots too openly, in big numbers. I’d bet nine out of 10 of the Israeli troops you see in this second video—the line of guys in olive drab along the valley floor—would have been more than ready to fire. For every squeamish Euro descendant of socialist kibbutzim in those ranks, I’d bet there are ten Sephardim or Falasha with lots of juicy family stories about what it was like living in Muslim countries who’d be willing to empty their magazines into the crowd coming down the hill. But then, I’d bet there are plenty of Pals in that crowd more than willing to get shot and martyred. If enough people want you to martyr them, it’s not that easy, not as easy as Patton makes it out to be, to decide to oblige’em. Especially not with the cameras rolling.

Who's Ducking and Who's Dead?

I’m sure a lot of gun buffs are going to say this isn’t a real battle, because only one side is armed and it’s slow, with lots of posing and rock-chucking. I’m not sure about that. Not only is this the wave’o’the fuchuh, but it was the wave of the past too. I’ve seen pictures of primitive warfare in the New Guinea highlands before the missionaries made those people as boring as Ohioans, and their battles involve something a whole lot like this one: one tribe on one side of a valley, yelling stuff about the other tribe’s momma and throwing spears that fall way short of the opposition. There’s a lot of flat-out boy stuff, seeing who’s willing to get the furthest into spear range to show how well he can dodge. And if he doesn’t dodge that good, gets one in the leg, it’s probably all the better; he’s a hero in the village, and that limp reminds all the girls how he strutted when it counted.

Casualties in a battle like that are kind of incidental; the point is to show yourself, walk onto the other tribe’s property, remind them you’re there, and that you’re not scared of them. In a way what the Pals did here was the ultimate strutting: Not only are we gonna walk onto your side of the valley, we’re gonna do it UNARMED. And they had to know the IDF isn’t those poor Spanish dregs who let the Moroccan crowds through. The IDF is gonna fire; they know that on both sides.

But they’re not going to empty their magazines into the crowd, and they’re not going to use the .50 cals on the armored cars you see in the video. This is a new ritual we’re seeing here, except it’s probably the oldest one in the world. There was just this weird interval for a couple of centuries with uniformed armies facing off against each other and supposedly not killing unarmed civilians. It never really came down to that, and it was just a blip in a long line of tribe vs. tribe, one side of the valley vs. another. The only new touch is the camera. When they talk about a global village, it only makes sense we’re going back to village wars. The cameras put you right there on the hill with Tribe A.

In fact, this second video, shot by a Pal demonstrator, is so raw you can almost feel the sweat in the crowd on the Israeli construction site. Those are the best strutters, the men who can do the most boasting when they get home. They’re on enemy turf, and legitimate targets by the laws of war if not the laws of TV news. I’d love to know what they’re talking about on the video; maybe some Arabic-speaking reader can tell me.

Some of it’s clear enough that even I can figure it out. They do a chant-along to something like “Filistiniya Arabiya, [some word for the Golan] Syriya” which I gather means “Palestine is Arab, the Golan is Syrian.” You can see the work of their sponsors in the Assad junta in that little slogan; Palestinian refugees don’t usually have a lot of reason to be sentimental Syrian nationalists, but in this case, since they couldn’t get near the border without the green light from Syrian security, a little “thank you” is in order, and that slogan is it. In fact, one thing about these two Green March tries is that for Bashar & Friends, they were a pretty obvious attempt to distract the hotheads’ attention from the fight against the regime. Nothing distracts Sunni like the ones throwing rocks at Syrian cops in the hinterland cities like seeing Palestinians get shot at the Israeli border. It didn’t seem to work, though, that part of the plan. The pressure is still on Assad. And it doesn’t explain why these Pals were willing to walk into live fire. Nobody would ever do that for the Assads, as the Syrian Army has proven every time it went into what it calls “combat.” Hell, the Syrian Army actually TOOK the Golan in the Yom Kippur War, but got so spooked at not seeing any IDF in the vicinity they decided it was some sly Jewish plot to lure them to the slaughter, and bugged out without a fight. These unarmed Pals are a million times braver than the Assads’ soldiers ever were. For them it’s almost like a field trip, one with the chance you’ll get maimed or killed. I think that’s how most battles have been, those New Guinea style battles: laughs and strutting and showing how many of you there are, how un-scared you are. There’s time to laugh between volleys; these Pals laugh like crazy when the IDF makes a dumb mistake, firing tear gas too short and driving an advance of their own men running up the valley (that’s around the 1:05 point). I’m guessing that they’re saying something like, “Nyah nyah, stupid IDF gassed itself!” on that one.

The comedy goes right on with some dead-scary moves, just like it does in New Guinea. One guy stands right in the way when an IDF squad comes marching up to the construction site—and they march around him. That’s a victory, in village terms.

So in the short term (tactically) this was a failure; they didn’t take the disputed territory like the Moroccans did in the Green March. But they never meant to. Nobody thought the IDF would skulk away like the Spaniards did down there. This was meant to show that the Pals are still around, in big numbers, and willing to die. And no matter what Patton said, that can work. When I was researching that last article on the IRA vs. Al Qaeda, what works and what doesn’t, I found out the first move in the Irish independence war was a suicidal occupation of downtown Dublin in 1916 by a bunch of artsy amateurs, poets and painters who barely knew how to aim a rifle. They were wiped out and the survivors shot at dawn; total failure. But in a culture that’s got the martyr thing going strong, that first defeat can kindle a big war, a winning war. Second wave was Michael Collins, going for the kill, and it worked.

So martyr-type defeat is tricky. If it works at all, it’s going to work slow. But with birthrate and morale, it can work over time.

But you better depend on those cameras sticking around. If the world got really seriously distracted, say by a big war…well, you wouldn’t want to try this shit in Golan right then.

September 2nd, 2011 | Comments (63)