The Israeli military is to train Jewish settlers in the West Bank and plans to equip them with tear gas and stun grenades to confront Palestinian demonstrators when their leaders press for UN recognition next month.
The enlistment of settlers, which has already opened with a training session for their local security officers, is part of the military's comprehensive "Operation Summer Seeds" for dealing with possible violence as the UN considers whether or not to recognise a Palestinian state.
According to a document leaked to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the defence establishment's working assumption – challenged by the moderate Palestinian leadership in Ramallah – is that the UN move will trigger "mass disorder". This includes, Israel contends, "marches toward main junctions, Israeli communities, and education centers; efforts at damaging symbols of [Israeli] government".
The document also reportedly envisages the possibility of "more extreme cases like shooting from within the demonstrations or even terrorist incidents. In all the scenarios, there is readiness to deal with incidents near the fences and the borders of the State of Israel".
Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian National Authority, has insisted that demonstrations should be non-violent and while he has publicly backed the idea of "popular resistance" there have been unconfirmed suggestions that he and the Palestinian security forces will work to ensure their scale is limited.
The report in Haaretz says that the military is making it clear that demonstrations will be controlled and that it has sufficient forces to deal with every disturbance. It has, however, already decided in principle to equip settlement chief security officers with the means of dispersing demonstrations, although it acknowledges a shortage of equipment for firing such ammunition.
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) confirmed yesterday it was "holding an ongoing professional dialogue with elements in the settlement leadership, with the routine security personnel, and is investing many resources in training forces, from a defensive standpoint and in readiness for possible scenarios". The military added that its central command had completed training most "first response teams" – the voluntary squads of settlers routinely assigned to deal with any attacks on them before troops arrive.
Israel's hard-line Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was quoted earlier this month claiming the Palestinians were planning "unprecedented bloodshed" around the time of the UN vote. The claim is seen by Palestinian officials in Ramallah as an unjustified attempt to talk up the possibility of confrontation.
The military's own preparations have been drawn up in parallel with a concerted diplomatic initiative at persuading UN member states not to back the recognition bid, which Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki says will be presented on 20 September.
But according to a leaked Israeli foreign ministry document, Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the UN, has already admitted it will be well nigh impossible to prevent the UN General Assembly from approving the Palestinian call. The Palestinians are currently expected to call for the same "non- member state" status within the UN as enjoyed by the Vatican.
At the same time efforts are being made by Ramallah to widen the international consensus in its favour, possibly by stressing that the borders of a state will only be agreed by negotiations.
The US, which strongly opposes the UN move, is pressing the EU and Russia, co-members of the international Middle East "Quartet" to come up with an early statement aimed to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. Tony Blair, the Quartet's Middle East envoy who is due in the region next week, has been entrusted with trying to find an acceptable formula to break a deadlock partly created by Israel's insistence that the Palestinians recognise it as a "Jewish state".
But even if the US-backed initiative succeeds, it is unlikely to deter the Palestinians from pressing ahead with the General Assembly vote on the grounds that talks with the present Israeli government are unlikely to lead to an agreement, a view privately shared by some Western diplomats.