Israel Prepares to Confront Historic Shifts

JERUSALEM—Back in August 2000, just weeks after the failed Camp David peace summit and weeks before the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada uprising, Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Fatah armed forces, laid out his alternative strategy for ending the Israeli occupation.

Haranguing a crowd of frustrated Palestinians, he declared: “We shall march with our people to the Israeli checkpoints and settlement gates and proclaim from there that we’re defending our borders with our bodies.” By “our borders,” Barghouti meant the ceasefire lines that prevailed between the end of the 1948 Israeli-Arab war and the 1967 war.

Barghouti’s “borders” are yet to materialize. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has embarked on a diplomatic campaign that will reach its climax in September with a plausible U.N.-endorsed recognition of statehood. And though Barghouti himself languishes in an Israeli jail, serving a life sentence for his alleged role in the Intifada, his strategy might have been adopted after all.

On Sunday, two Palestinian civilians were killed and scores were wounded as demonstrators from refugee camps in Syria managed to breach the “border” fence and marched into the Druze village of Majd e-Shams on the Israeli-occupied side of the Syrian Golan Heights, a “first” since the 1974 Separation of Forces agreement signed in the wake of the 1973 war.

Near the Lebanese village of Maroun a-Ras near the (internationally recognized) border with Israel, other Palestinians refugees were killed in similar waves of protests. The Israeli military alleged that Lebanese soldiers killed three demonstrators on their side of the fence, whereas the Lebanese army retorted that 10 were gunned down by Israeli troops.

Sixty-three years ago on May 15, following a double-barrelled U.N. endorsement of statehood, the British Mandate gave way to the attempt at creating a Jewish state and an Arab state. The 1948 war broke out between the nascent Israel and its Arab neighbors, who refused the partition of Mandatory Palestine. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled out of fear or were driven out.

The fate of the refugees and their descendants, now several million people, is a core issue of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Those who remained on the land transformed from a majority to a minority in the land.

Israel had prepared for rallies marking the Palestinian Nakba, or “catastrophe,” that followed its independence war. Such rallies are customarily held each year within Israeli-Palestinian towns and villages, in refugee camps across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and occupied East Jerusalem, and throughout the Arab world, but never on the gates of the Syrian and Lebanese fronts. And they never spilled over.

All of a sudden, the contingency plans turned into an unexpected nightmare scenario. Refugees from the Palestinian Diaspora trying, albeit symbolically, to exercise their “Right of Return” to their pre-1948 land (now Israel proper) seemed tangible.

Border breaches are just the beginning, Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned. “Israel will possibly have to face far more complex challenges in the future,” he said.

In a hasty statement, Benjamin Netanyahu raised the specter of Israel’s destruction. “This is not a struggle over the 1967 borders,” the prime minister asserted, “but a challenge to the very existence of the state of Israel.” But the “sovereign borders” Netanyahu referred to are the post-1967 lines of occupation.

Across the parts of the West Bank under PA control, thousands took to the streets, waving flags and holding old keys, symbols of their aspiration to return to lost homes. But, in line with the PA strategy of a peaceful demand for international recognition of statehood, the rallies were kept from reaching Israeli-held areas. In East Jerusalem, a teenager was killed by a security guard posted near a settlement building.

“The people’s will is stronger than the power of the oppressive occupiers,” declared Abbas, much in the vein of Barghouti’s prescient pronouncement.

Along another (pre-1967) “border,” Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip clashed with Israeli soldiers. One activist was killed by sniper fire while attempting, according to Israeli military sources, to plant an explosive device on the fence.

At other (legitimate and peaceful) border crossings, Jordanian and Egyptian police dispersed refugees who tried to reach the Israel-controlled sides of the West Bank and Gaza.

When he travels to Washington this week for a scheduled meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and a much-anticipated policy speech before Congress, Netanyahu will try to leverage Sunday’s events in order to justify the legitimacy of his ingrained abhorrence—of at last agreeing to define the borders of a two-state solution along the pre-1967 lines.

Most Israeli political pundits concur that Netanyahu has three months, till August, to present an acceptable initiative. In a sign that a U.S. challenge to his current policy is not for now, U.S. special envoy to the Mideast Sen. George Mitchell resigned Friday after over two years of fruitless attempts at launching meaningful peace negotiations.

The departure of the presidential mediator confirms the assumption that while Obama will throw his support behind Arab peoples fighting for freedom and democracy in his own upcoming speech, he won’t yet be presenting a fresh U.S. peace strategy.

Another sign that the moment of truth for the Israeli leader is not for now lies in the White House announcement that Obama will address the U.S. pro-Israel lobby AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). The president couldn’t possibly appear before staunch Netanyahu supporters had he wanted to knock Israel’s occupation and its settlement enterprise.

But if by August, a month before Palestine is recognized, Netanyahu still hasn’t declared his willingness, even if reluctantly, to withdraw to the pre-1967 line, Israel might well be heading for another prescient pronouncement, that of his own right-hand man Barak, of a “diplomatic tsunami.”

If Netanyahu sticks to his policy of stagnation, Sunday’s rallies of Palestinian refugee civilians might be but the prelude to something much, much bigger. Caught off-guard in what looks increasingly like a rearguard battle for the persistence of its occupation of Palestinian lands, Israel may have finally started to grapple with the Barghouti challenge.

(Inter Press Service)