By Daniel Estrin
There were unprecedented clashes on the Israeli border Sunday, on three fronts. On Israel's western border with Gaza, Palestinians marched towards the Israeli border wall. On Israel's northern border with Lebanon, Palestinian refugees swarmed the border. But what especially caught Israel's attention was on the Syrian-Israeli border, when more than 100 Palestinian refugees jumped the border fence into Israel.
The mass marches marked the Palestinians' annual Nakba Day. Nakba is Arabic for catastrophe, and it's how Palestinians refer to their people's mass displacement by the founding of Israel 63 years ago. More than a dozen people were reportedly killed in the skirmishes, and it left Israel pointing fingers, but also worrying this might not be the last time this happens.
At the start of the day, Israeli troops had been expecting violent demonstrations in the West Bank, and were mainly stationed there to confront stone throwers on the Palestinians' annual day of mourning. But the West Bank was relatively quiet. Meanwhile, according to Israeli media, on a portion of Israel's northern border with Syria, there were just two military cars, with only 10 reservists patrolling the border.
Hundreds from Syria
There, hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Syria raced through a minefield and reached the Israeli border fence unharmed. Then, men jumped over the fence and ran into Israel. Arabs from the Druze minority living in Israel greeted them with hugs, and brought them bread and yoghurt. A local videotaped the event and uploaded it to YouTube.
It was the first time a mass of refugees from neighboring Syria had ever infiltrated the border. Israeli troops shot at the crowd, reportedly killing four and wounding dozens. Troops escorted the rest out of Israel back into Syria.
The march, and recent events around the Arab world, are a big boost to Palestinians, said Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh.
"There's no question that the Arab Spring has created a new mood in the area," said Shehadeh. "What happened … is very, very distinctive, because it is coordinated activity amongst Palestinians in various parts of the region. So it's a very significant turn of events."
The Israeli delegation to the United Nations said Monday it would file a complaint against Syria and Lebanon for violating UN Security Council resolutions. Earlier the Lebanese delegation to the UN filed its own complaint against Israel. The Lebanese army said 10 people were killed and more than 100 wounded when demonstrators approached the Lebanon-Israel border Sunday.
Israel's army blamed bigger forces for orchestrating the events, especially in Syria. Army spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said the Syrian regime used to prevent people from approaching the border.
"This time, 150 meters (about 164 yards) from fence, Syrian policemen were sitting down, not doing anything about it," said Leibovich. "Our assumption is that this violent protest was directed by the Syrian regime."
Israeli officials, and the White House, said Monday that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad encouraged the crowd to gather at the border to divert attention away from the uprisings in his country.
That tactic won't work, said Syria expert Moshe Maoz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but that's not to say the stunt wasn't instructive. It taught Syria a few lessons, Maoz said, including this: Israel's border is more vulnerable than it might have thought. Not one mine exploded when the masses approached the border. This tactic could be used again.
"Surely it can teach the Syrians that this is an option — we can do it sometime in the future," Maoz said.
Israel learned the same lesson. Maoz believes that for masses of Palestinians to march to Israel's borders again, they'll need another pretext or symbol to get people revved up. That pretext could come in September, if peace talks don't happen in the coming months; the Palestinians have threatened to ask the UN General Assembly in September to recognize a sovereign state of Palestine. At that point, many more Palestinians could rush to Israel's borders, said Maoz.
"Then what happens? Shoot them? It can happen," Maoz said. "But it would put Israel in bad light in international community. What would Israel do if thousands would march on its borders — civilians, women and children?"
If there's one lesson Israelis and Palestinians have learned from yesterday's border skirmishes, Maoz said, it's that the young generation of Palestinians is courageous. The refugees in Syria knew they were about to cross a minefield, but they did it.
"It shows they didn't care," Maoz said. "The barrier of fear has collapsed vis-Ã -vis Israel in this respect."