Barraging Israel's Borders

Syrian-sanctioned demonstrations on Israel's border are deadly dress rehearsals.

The Syrian government's behavior last week, on 5 June, was more cynical than usual. While its forces mowed down antigovernment protesters in the north of the country—human rights groups said there were thirty-five dead that day alone—hundreds of unarmed men were mobilized to storm across the Israeli border to the south, into the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights incidents were clearly organized at least in part to divert local and world attention away from the ongoing internal bloodbath (human-rights groups claim that some 1500 Syrians have so far been killed by the country's security services and army in the past two months).

As intended and expected, IDF troops on the border responded with tear gas and live rounds to drive back the would-be trespassers, wounding and killing dozens. The troops, Israel announced, fired very selectively and aimed at demonstrators' legs. The Syrians officially announced twenty-two dead and three hundred and fifty wounded—a report that should be taken with a grain of salt, like many Arab government pronouncements. The Syrians were clearly interested in exaggerating the number of actual casualties.

The Syrians claimed that the demonstrators were Palestinians from the refugee camps in Syria, descendents of those displaced in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Israeli reports suggested that most were impoverished Syrians from the north of the country, where there is a drought, hired by the government with promises of $1,000 for rock-throwing and $10,000 in case of injury.

At the same time, dozens of Druse inhabitants of the Golan Heights demonstrated nearby on the Israeli side of the line. The Israelis dispersed them with tear gas.

The demonstrations marked Naksa (defeat) Day, on which the Arab world commemorates the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian rout in the Six Day War (which began on 5 June 1967), when Israel conquered the Golan, the West Bank, Sinai, and the Gaza Strip.

What occurred last weekend was a small-scale repeat of what had happened three weeks earlier, on 15 May, when thousands of Palestinians, in concerted fashion, marched on Israel's borders from inside the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria, to mark Nakba (catastrophe) Day, when the Palestinians commemorate their defeat and dispersion in the 1948 War. The State of Israel was declared and came into being on 14 May 1948 and the arnies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq invaded Palestine—and collectively attacked Israel—the following day. By then, the Palestinian militias had been defeated and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had been displaced from their homes.

The 15 May effort to breach Israel's borders caught Israeli forces wrong-footed and hundreds actually penetrated Israeli territory—one Syrian, in fact, eventually reaching Tel Aviv. More than a dozen were killed and many more were injured, mainly on the Lebanese border.

For decades, in fact, since 1949, Palestinian refugee groups have threatened to mount massive "marches of return" into Israeli territory from which they fled or were expelled in 1948, though the 15 May campaign was the first time the idea was actually implemented. The intention was to highlight the refugees' plight and embarrass Israel, which all knew was bound to resist with force such a mass incursion, albeit by unarmed civilians.

Meanwhile, the efforts at forcing Israel's borders can be said to have been largely unsuccessful. Very few got through and casualties were relatively light (minimal by comparison with the hundreds shot dead by Arab governments in the past weeks of internal upheavals). And the United States government publicly recognized Israel's right to protect its territorial integrity. Nonetheless, there has been damage to Israel's image in the wider world, where the phenomenon of troops shooting down civilians, whatever their aims and whatever the circumstances, is seen as illegitimate.

But these May-June events should be viewed not simply of and in themselves but as precursers and a dress rehearsal. No doubt, they will be repeated as a key element of the much wider planned Palestinian political offensive scheduled for the coming September. The projected lynchpin of that campaign will be a motion at the UN General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian State. Such a motion will no doubt receive wide support, though is likely to meet opposition from the United States and, possibly, some Western European states. The move is also likely to be accompanied by a crescendo of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian demonstrations, including much larger marches on Israel's borders by many thousands of Palestinians from the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank and probably Jordan as well (Jordan blocked such a march in its territory May but may prove unable to do so, politically, in September). In the West Bank, "marches" toward Israel's borders and on Israeli settlements are likely.

Israeli spokesmen and diplomats are currently working to mobilize opposition in the international arena to the impending Palestinian political campaign (which Israeli Defense Minister Egud Barak prospectively described as a "political tsunami"). On the ground, the Israeli authorities will need to work out a strategy and tactics that will, at one and the same time, prevent successful breaches of its borders while assuring minimal Palestinian casualties. A massive use of tear gas may provide a partial answer, though it may prove insufficient in the windy, open countryside of the borderlands and in the hill country of the West Bank.

Image by Gad Livni