During “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in 2021, Israel experienced a wave of riots, most of which occurred in cities with a mixed Jewish and Arab population, or near Arab towns and villages. The riots were mainly Arab mob attacks on Jewish citizens or Jewish property, sometimes with firearms. There were isolated examples of Jewish mob attacks on Arabs in retaliation.
For a few days, anarchy reigned in mixed-population cities like Lod and Acre and sections of Israel’s south. Arabs killed three Jews during the operation, one Arab civilian was shot and killed during a demonstration (likely by police officers) and an Arab rioter was killed in Lod by Jews acting in self-defense. Rioters blocked many routes, including those heading to military bases, and caused extensive damage to infrastructure and property, both public and private.
Police had to cope with 90 distinct riots on one day alone; thousands of desperate calls went unanswered. In addition to the broader upheaval, the Israel Defense Forces was directly affected: there were allegations that Bedouin and Arab IDF troops lost morale; some were frightened to wear their uniforms outside their bases, and some even sought to be discharged. At least seven non-Jewish soldiers were discharged after refusing to carry out orders. According to an IDF spokeswoman, soldiers were authorized to travel without their uniforms “in localities where there is a chance of violent confrontation.”
Not merely a law enforcement issue
Since the operation, there has been considerable disagreement over the reasons for the riots, and who is to blame. Over what the consequences will be, and even over the identity of the rioters—unemployed youth linked to criminal organizations or of low social standing, or perhaps representatives of the heart of Arab society in Israel?
However, it appears that no consideration has been given to the possibility that such riots could be utilized as a tool by Israel’s enemies to damage and hamper Israeli operations during a future conflict.
External parties affected domestic unrest in several recent conflicts throughout the world. Interfering with the movements of security forces and creating domestic pressure to prevent the mobilization of reserves or to exert pressure on security force members are well-known tactics, that can be combined with conventional combat actions or even, in some instances, replace them. The employment of such methods does not entail taking direct responsibility for their political or military consequences, as an adversary cannot prove, and sometimes does not even know of, the involvement of an outside actor.
For example, during its operations in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014), Russia used several methods to exploit ethnic tensions in those countries, undermine rival governments and cause unrest. Among them were propaganda, the manipulation of national/ethnic identity, arming insurgents, supplying fighters with material and manpower, exploiting the Russian presence on other countries’ territory via military bases or diplomatic agreements, and freezing conflicts, leaving them unresolved.
Deception and information warfare are frequently used to support military actions, either directly, by misleading the enemy about one’s intentions, indirectly, by sowing distrust within a country’s leadership, or creating or exploiting social divisions and tensions to undermine a country’s ability to respond effectively to an external threat. State actors have made social networks a key target for sowing dissent and division.
Separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region deployed unarmed civilians to block highways and roads in 2014 to hinder the passage of military forces, knowing that the Ukrainian army would hesitate to use force against unarmed civilians, especially women and children. Chechens employed similar tactics to stall Russian military columns invading Chechnya 20 years earlier.
Similarly, violent riots like those seen in during “Operation Guardian of the Walls” can be used as part of a campaign against Israel: nationalist agitation leading to large-scale violent riots that tie down law enforcement, terrorize the population and disrupt daily life; blocking military movement and essential supply routes, and undermining public trust in the government.
Though many have blamed the 2021 riots on anti-Arab prejudice or Israeli carelessness, many within Arab society agree that the riots were motivated by nationalist sentiment and predict that similar incidents will occur in the future. During the three-day confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in August 2022, there were at least two attempts by Arab Israelis to lynch Jews, as well as several incidents of stoning.
It is unclear if Hamas, Hezbollah and other hostile elements were involved in the events and social media provocation that led to the riots. However, we must presume that even if they were not, they will have learned lessons from “Operation Guardian of the Walls” and would endeavor to create or support such a situation in the future.
Systematic failure: Israel must look within
Israel appears not to have realized that domestic and external events during a conflict are part of one whole, and influence each other. That the home front and other fronts are all components of the same war. This truth did not factor into the country’s pre-conflict preparation. Some things were done right; Israel understood the impact of the Iron Dome, which positively influenced Israeli morale and the country’s freedom of action. Even the name selected—”Guardian of the Walls”—demonstrated that the IDF recognized that what was going on in Jerusalem impacted the firing from Gaza, and that the fight was not solely about what was going on in Gaza.
However, this understanding did not bring about a unified picture and proper response.
The police, IDF and other security agencies functioned in isolation. The importance of maintaining domestic order, and inter-organizational coordination, while fighting on the border was not grasped. Even at the government level, the focus was understandably on combating Hamas; domestic events, which in retrospect undoubtedly left a more significant impression on Israelis, were regarded as secondary, a nuisance diverting attention from the warfare on the border.
According to current IDF doctrine, battles do not usually have clear fronts, and warfare is not limited to military action. Nonetheless, the IDF viewed “Operation Guardian of the Walls” as something happening on the other side of a distinct line, with “defense” and “attack” as separate endeavors, occurring in different geographic regions. The response to rioters blocking military-use highways was inconsistent, as was the response to the near-siege laid on the vital air force base in Nevatim.
The failure to learn from October 2000, when violent demonstrators blocked a central road and access to certain Israeli villages for days, is remarkable, as the subject has been brought up numerous times in Israeli public debate. What happened in the rear was mostly seen as a separate civilian affair, even if it impacted the military. It is also apparent that the likelihood of danger on the home front, and negative pressure on non-Jewish soldiers (primarily the Bedouin minority), were not seen as an operational problem.
Viewing the riots through the lens of political protest and disorder, police attempted initially to de-escalate the situation by not intervening, even if it meant leaving defenseless civilians to take care of themselves. The police also failed to recognize the operational impact that such riots could have, such as slowing the movement of military forces, limiting the state’s freedom of action, disrupting the country’s mobilization or operational plans and even creating a terrible dilemma for army reservists, who will have to choose between responding to the call to defend the country or leaving their families to face potential danger.
This was never more evident than when the police commissioner spoke in Lod, a few days after the peak of the riots, after the arsons, shootings and ad hoc self-defense organizations, with citizens arriving to help and sometimes being stopped by police for fear they would escalate the riots. He spoke about “anger” and “coexistence” between Jews and Arabs. He explained that the police would bring the full force of the law against “everyone who disrupted order … everyone who committed vandalism, and it doesn’t matter at the moment, Jews or Arabs […] the terrorists on both sides, people who violated the peace of all of us.”
This remark was made despite the apparent asymmetry between anti-Jewish and anti-Arab incidents, with anti-Arab violence amounting to only a small fraction of anti-Jewish riots. Many people, including the minister of internal security, were incensed by these words because they gave the impression that anti-Arab and anti-Jewish incidents were symmetrical. The police operate within a conceptual framework that identifies the problem as “a violation of peace” by “terrorists on both sides,” as if the police are neutral observers caught between two gangs. This framework ignores the fact that the conflict possessed both external and domestic dimensions, according to which police must not only impose law and order, but protect the state’s freedom of action and collaborate with other government agencies.
“From the moment we realized the intensity of the events and the number of events, in less than 24 hours, a response was given throughout the country, within four days, the intifada was eliminated […] with zero killed, with a minimum of measures,” the commissioner later explained. This statement was a considerable departure from his discourse during the operation, but even so, still ignores the possibility of the events being part of a wider fight. The commissioner spoke of “zero killed.” At the same time, three Jewish civilians were murdered, indicating that his focus was not on what happened to the civilians but on the fact that the police did not kill anyone. He seemed to emphasize that the police avoided the excessive use of force.
The IDF and the police have taken significant steps to learn the needed lessons. However, there is still a lack of awareness that such incidents can be exploited as part of a coordinated military assault.
The country’s leadership must develop relevant policies for the Arab population. Such policies should contain carrots, such as improved integration and less discrimination, as well as “sticks,” such as a harsh stance on crime, lawlessness and anti-Israeli agitation, even if such deeds were previously tolerated in the name of multiculturalism or fear of riots.
However, this would alleviate the problem rather than fix it. There is reason for concern: the lack of a state response in the months following the operation has already resulted in fresh tensions and escalation. The violence in Arab society remains significantly higher than in Jewish society. In some parts of the country, the state still does not have complete control.
Several fundamental causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict have not changed: the ethnic and religious dimensions remain, and Israeli Arabs continue to be a part of the Palestinian community.
Some find comfort in that only 6,000 Israeli Arabs out of two million engaged in the riots. However, this is hardly a reason for comfort. For one thing, the total number of rioters was likely substantially higher. Moreover, in “popular” uprisings, fighters are typically a small fraction of the community. Guerrilla movements employ violence against potential supporters to balance the state’s power and keep the group from which they draw support from sitting on the fence. Indeed, a small minority can cause significant disruption. A few thousand people in high-risk areas are enough to cause trouble.
The likelihood that the “Guardian of the Walls”-style event would not be a random, isolated occurrence but rather part of a planned campaign has not been sufficiently internalized. By now, the IDF has taken some significant initiatives aligned with the lessons learned. For example, it established a new reserve brigade to secure logistical convoys, and its soldiers were trained in dispersing unarmed protests and granted sufficient legal authority to do so. However, the police continue to approach such scenarios as civil unrest. The legal system is painfully slow to bring rioters to justice, and many judges hand out extraordinarily light penalties.
Furthermore, the response appears to be very restricted. The new reserve brigade ensures the passage of armed convoys along Israeli roadways. Yet if riots break out before it is fully mobilized, it will have a hard time mobilizing its soldiers and putting them into action. Moreover, reservists from mixed cities or Jewish villages near Arab villages may have to face the personal choice of responding to the call-up and leaving their families at the mercy of rioters or staying home to protect their families and property.
Immediate deployment of Border Police units could serve as a stopgap measure. However, activating reserve forces to replace them would be necessary, and those forces may lack the skills needed to deal with civilian rioters, resulting in excessive casualties. Moreover, reserve forces might be required on the front.
The IDF would prefer to find ways to avoid clashing with rioters that work to undermine Israel’s sovereignty. However, it is difficult to imagine that the state could entirely ignore every road inside or near Arab settlements in northern Israel in the event of a battle with Hezbollah. Passing through fewer vital crossroads would allow the enemy to focus its fire on those sites to obstruct military mobility. Furthermore, even if the IDF avoided all highways near Arab villages and towns, determined groups of unarmed or lightly armed rioters could block junctions and roads miles away from their homes, as happened in the Negev during “Operation Guardian of the Walls.”
Curfews on towns and villages close to supply routes are not practical because they would require many forces to enforce, especially in the absence of an intention to use lethal force. While the riots during the operation were largely unarmed (though there was some shooting, particularly in Lod), it would be prudent to plan for the worst: along with riots, someone with a rifle taking potshots at military convoys or civilians, or improvised armed drones, whose operators are notoriously tricky to locate in a densely populated area. The highways would be closed once the first fuel truck caught fire, making the situation extremely difficult.
It is incorrect to regard the May 2021 events as civic disturbances or a series of individual episodes. As in any war, the enemy learns and searches for weaknesses to exploit. As a result, Israel should brace itself for a worst-case scenario in which ethnic and religious tensions are used to incite unrest and riots, disrupt army movements and reserve mobilization, cut off supply routes and access to military bases, inflict damage on military convoys, and use threats, propaganda and possibly assassinations to force Arab and Muslim soldiers and policemen to leave the military and law enforcement. Following “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” Hezbollah escalated its efforts to transfer weaponry and ammunition to Israeli Arabs for use in a future conflict.
From the perspective of Iran and Hezbollah, Israeli Arabs assaulting Jews and vice versa would be a welcome outcome. Such attacks would force the police to disperse their forces and assign some of them to suppress Jewish riots rather than supporting Israeli offensive moves, limiting Israel’s freedom of action. The suspicion and tensions would undermine citizens’ sense of security and trust in government agencies, leading to further escalation and inter-communal strife. Therefore, Israel’s opponents may view any outcome as advantageous and work hard to bring about such outcomes through financial backing, disinformation, arming radicals, radicalizing youth, etc.
Israel must internalize the potential for such a scenario. The IDF, police and other security forces must grasp that modern conflicts lack distinct frontiers, and may simultaneously take place inside and outside the country.
Simultaneous disruptions of law and order, roadblocks, or even pogroms are symptoms of the main problem. Israel must prepare for a sophisticated campaign incorporating external military/terror measures, domestic unrest, violence, information warfare and the like. The purpose would be to deny Israel’s freedom of action during war while inflicting catastrophic damage, even without missiles—and use ethnic and religious tension to increase societal pressures.
The government should plan to conduct such a campaign in a coordinated manner, seeing the problem as a single operation with multiple components rather than as a series of separate concerns. Israel has to clarify to Israeli citizens and its enemies that hostile actions inside Israel will not change the country’s strategy or force its hand. The prime minister, government ministers, and heads of the relevant security systems will have to formulate a clear, unified message and publicly convey it.
Similarly, during peacetime, the fight against the proliferation of illegal weapons among Israeli Arabs should be considered a national security issue. The fact that criminals employ firearms for illicit purposes does not preclude such weapons being utilized in an insurgency. Capturing weapons and battling criminal groups will also keep them from sowing mayhem during an outbreak of hostilities.
Preventing the spread of illegal firearms will necessitate not only police measures but also the constant involvement of Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet. Of course, vigilance and proper oversight will be required to ensure that these measures do not violate Israeli citizens’ civil rights.
In addition, efforts must be made to identify foreign influences on civil disturbances to avoid surprises and lessen the impact of such acts in the future.
Protecting Arab or Muslim soldiers and their families must be prioritized. Preventing pressure on them during times of calm and punishing those who threaten or use violence against them can help prevent both desertions and attacks against them. A tolerant attitude toward threats against soldiers may have dire implications.
Similarly, consideration must be given to the safety and specific protection of members of minority groups who play key civic roles and may be the target of mobs and harassment.
On the one hand, the country must prepare for the worst-case scenario; on the other, it must do so without increasing tensions between the state and its Arab citizens. Balancing those two needs is difficult.
At the national level, it is also required to resurrect the long-defunct Civil Defense organization. It should be structured on a regional scale, with the task of responding quickly to terrorist attacks or preventing ethnic riots and mob control. Its members should be ex-combat troops, whom the IDF is releasing from reserve service much earlier than in the past. They would have to go through policing and riot control training, including de-escalation training, to lessen the likelihood of a protest growing into a violent confrontation or a pogrom, preferably without the need for lethal force.
A robust civil defense organization or National Guard would ensure that army reservists can mobilize without fear of leaving their families vulnerable to rioters. Building on the model of the Area Defense (HAGMAR) battalions in Judea and Samaria and northern Israel, it is possible to create similar forces everywhere—with a relatively small investment.
Such a force would also address a weakness in most current plans: riots or other disturbances can greatly slow the time it takes for reserves of Border Police units and other forces to get to their bases and be deployed. The presence of a quick-mobilization civil defense unit can enable undisturbed military mobilization and, under the supervision of the police, deal with disturbances before they evolve into large-scale riots. It is important to consider solutions like storing reservists’ gear and weapons at neighborhood police stations to achieve this. This way, they can travel to their bases or return from them with the weapons they need to defend themselves or be used to help the police—but they will not be as vulnerable to weapon theft as they would be if they stored the weapons at home.
At the same time, there is a need to increase civilian firearm instruction. Most gun owners only receive basic training and fire a few dozen rounds yearly at a stationary target from a few yards away. Even though the situation has improved in recent years, compulsory training is still insufficient, especially when facing complex cases with terrorists attacking civilians at close range. Basic de-escalation training can also be included so that if a weapon carrier is forced to intervene in an incident that does not justify firing, he can avoid unnecessary escalation.
On a national level, a Joint Operations Center comprising high-ranking officials of the IDF, police and other relevant civilian organizations is required to manage domestic order. Its responsibilities would extend beyond convoy and route security to everything needed to keep the country working during an emergency and preserve Israeli freedom of action.
Legal work will be necessary to prevent a “revolving door” approach to riots or create additional barriers to emergency operations. During the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, the judicial system expedited arrest proceedings to prevent nonviolent demonstrators from disrupting the disengagement and can now find ways to do likewise in the case of violent rioting during military operations.
Last but not least, there is a risk that current security events may overshadow earlier ones, causing routine to reign, lessons learned to be forgotten, and preparations to be put off as the urgency wanes. If Israel does not make the necessary adjustments, it could be in for an even worse shock.
I want to thank Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security fellows Prof. Efraim Inbar, Prof. Hillel Frisch, and Alex Grinberg for their comments on this article.
Yigal Henkin teaches military history at the IDF Command and Staff College, and is a reservist with the IDF history department. He is the author of “Either We Win or We Perish: A History of the First Chechen War, 1994-1996” (Hebrew, 2007); “The 1956 Suez War and the New World Order in the Middle East: Exodus in Reverse” (2015); and the forthcoming “Like Fish in the Bush: Rhodesia at War, 1965-1980” (Hebrew, 2017).
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. A Hebrew version was published by the IDF journal Maarachot in January 2022.