Confrontation Along Israel’s Borders


BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 139

This Perspectives Paper was first published in The Jerusalem Post on May 16, 2011.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Yesterday’s “Nakba Day” confrontations along Israel’s borders reflect new regional realities and a derisive perception of Israel; a long-term weakening of Israel’s deterrence posture. There is more to come; the dynamic in the Middle East is now one of escalation. Israel must thus be resolute in its defense, but also restrained and measured.

For years, I have been hearing of plans by Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria to march en masse toward the Israeli border, under the watchful, headline-making eye of the international media – especially the Arab media. Israel would never dare shoot the marchers, it was reasoned, especially if they walked unarmed and showed no violence. I and others wrote and spoke about these plans in Israeli media outlets. The writing was the wall. But nothing materialized – until now.

The violent confrontations along Israel’s borders of this past Sunday were made possible by a number of regional and diplomatic factors that have coalesced together.

First and foremost is the development of a “Yes, we can” sentiment – the belief that unarmed masses can overcome and defeat dictators. The “exposed body” protest is the new nonconventional weapon of frustrated, unemployed young people, a weapon against which the regime is expected to be helpless. Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis and Syrians use and have used this weapon against their rulers. Now the Palestinians have adopted it for use against Israel.

The second development is Facebook and Twitter, means by which a public can organize despite the regime’s efforts to stifle it, and where leaders can mobilize a rebellion without the danger of revealing their real names. Social media was indeed one way Sunday’s events were organized.

The third change is the involvement of the Syrian and Lebanese regimes in events, since bus upon bus of disgruntled Palestinians could not have reached the Syrian border with Israel on Sunday without those governments’ knowledge and consent. The regimes’ cooperation stems from their effort to export their internal problems to Israel, and turn TV cameras away from what happens in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip — to Israel and its actions against the Arabs.

Syrian residents of Deraa recently shouted at the cameras, “We hope Israel will occupy us, because the Syrian military is crueler than the Israeli army.” The Syrian regime believes that dead bodies near the border with Israel will “restore sanity” to the civilians in Deraa.

The fourth fresh element is the link between Syria, Lebanon and Gaza – the Iranian link. These three arenas are all under the influence of the ayatollahs, and there is no better date on which to blame Israel for the mess in the Middle East than May 15, the so-called notorious “Nakba.”

But we must not overlook the Israeli factor, which has an important impact on the Arabs. In past years, Arab players have seen and understood that Israel concedes whenever it is subject to external pressure. The Likud, which historically was strongly opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, is today willing to accept one. The unified city of Jerusalem, a point of Israeli consensus for years, is today on the verge of division. Even opposition to the “return” of Palestinain refugees – once considered anathema across the political spectrum – is contemplated, at least to a limited extent, by some politicians on the Israeli left.

When Israel’s enemies see it compromising its core principles under external pressure, and realize that its “red lines” are at most pale pink, hopes rise that additional pressure will be rewarded with further concessions. Strong pressure from Palestinian refugees, for instance, will undoubtedly lead war-weary Israelis to give up on that point too – Israel’s adversaries think.

Israel’s image today – despite the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 – is that of a weak, wimpy state, a state that can be nailed to the global cross by Richard Goldstone, a state where announcing plans to build 1,600 homes in Jerusalem is enough to raise the ire of the current resident of the White House. Its neighboring countries are certain that Israeli society – especially the elite living in ostensibly hedonist, pacifist, post-Zionist Tel Aviv – will sell out all that it once held sacred in return for peace and quiet on Shenkin Street, because it has lost the will to fight.

At the same time, in the eyes of some of the world, Israel is becoming a leprous country – thanks to classical anti-Semitism amplified by European guilt over the evils of the Holocaust and colonialism. (It is always easier to beat the Jew’s breast in contrition than one’s own.) Israel is therefore expected to forswear force against the unarmed “returnees”; those are the means used by the likes of Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad.

Sunday’s events are not the last word. The dynamic in the Middle East is one of escalation. Every person killed today is the martyr of tomorrow’s funeral, the funeral itself becoming a violent protest, and its victims, in turn, becoming the next day’s martyrs. Thus, Israel must carefully weigh its actions in confronting the new reality. Israel must be diplomatically resolute and militarily firm, yet also restrained and measured, since a rising death toll will only exacerbate the situation.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

(Photo Credit: photos8.com)

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a lecturer of Arabic studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]