May 2011 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
PALESTIANS ON THE MARCH AS REGION BOILS
In mid May Israel experienced its worst coordinated assault along its shared Golan Heights border with Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur War as hundreds of Palestinians and their supporters flocked to the border fence and attempted to infiltrate it. Several people were killed as Israeli army forces scrambled to prevent the swarming throng from breeching the border. Similar violent scenes took place along the borders with Lebanon and the Gaza Strip as thousands of Arabs answered an internet-generated call for stepped up demonstrations to protest Israel's reappearance as a sovereign state in May, 1948. Demonstrations were also held outside Israeli embassies in several countries, including in Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries with formal diplomatic ties to Israel.
Israeli officials fingered Iran's nefarious Shiite regime for instigating the border demonstrations in an attempt to help their longtime ally Syria deflect internal attention away from a continuing ruthless crackdown against Syrian civilians protesting their government's repressive police-state tactics and policies. This came as the crisis in Syria further escalated during the month, with hundreds more people killed or wounded by the Assad regime's brutal security forces. Tank fire was deployed for the first time on several occasions to break up anti-regime demonstrations throughout the troubled Arab country.
As clashes were taking place along the three borders, Israeli security forces were busy elsewhere breaking up violent protests in Jerusalem and many other places around the land. Dozens of Arab protestors and Israeli security personnel were injured in the melee. In Tel Aviv, an Arab truck driver went on a rampage, killing one Israeli civilian and wounding many others when he deliberately plowed his vehicle into a group of pedestrians alongside a major road in the large city. Israeli political and military leaders worried that the widespread unrest might be the start of a new Palestinian terrorist uprising campaign, or at least a rehearsal for more sustained violence as the time draws nearer for the anticipated unilateral PA declaration of statehood this coming September. Calls for a new uprising have been increasing in recent months. In a major speech delivered in Washington DC, US President Barack Obama denounced the PA intentions to make a one-sided statehood declaration even as he strongly hinted that Israeli leaders must abandon all of the land captured from Jordan in 1967, which would mean the uprooting of hundreds of thousand of Jews from their homes near Judaism's holiest sites on earth.
The border clashes and internal Arab demonstrations came just days after Palestinian Authority leaders signed a reconciliation pact with the rival Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement which runs the Gaza Strip. The announcement of the long-negotiated pact prodded Israeli government leaders to declare that frozen peace talks with the Palestinians cannot be resumed with the radical Islamic movement serving as a coalition partner in the Fatah-dominated PA government. The PA-Hamas pact also forced Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to make significant changes to an important address he was preparing to give before a joint session of the United States Congress in late May. Media reports said the Israeli leader had previously been planning to present a new peace initiative to the Palestinians during the speech. In a preview of his remarks delivered before the Israeli Knesset, Netanyahu again reiterated that Israel cannot deal with Hamas unless the radical Iranian-backed group renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist in the mostly Muslim Middle East.
The violence that broke out on Israel's sixty-third birthday did not stop the Jewish citizens of the Promised Land from celebrating their ancient people's remarkable reappearance as a singular country on the world stage nearly 2,000 years after the Romans drove most Jews out of Jerusalem and other parts of the land. Celebrations were held in every city and town despite the unsettling clashes in many areas. The continuing "Arab Spring" upheaval unfolding in several regional countries only served to remind the Israeli public, including its over one million Arab citizens, that they live in the only stable democracy that exists in any part of the turbulent Middle East and North Africa.
It was an unprecedented day of coordinated action against Israel, said several Israeli newspapers as they reported on the border breechings and internal violence that rocked Israel and the disputed territories on May 15, the Gregorian calendar date of Israel's modern reappearance as a sovereign country in 1948. Of course, the day's incidents were far less severe than an actual enemy military attack would have been along the borders. Still, the fact that thousands of rioting Arab civilians would dare to overrun the border fences erected to separate Israeli territory from Syria and Lebanon was indeed without precedence. The border assaults and the march to the Gaza Strip fence-on the date that the Palestinians call Al Naqba, Arabic for "the catastrophe"-were perpetuated via the popular Facebook social network. This fact only added to concerns that such actions might be replicated on an even grander scale in the near future. Indeed, the organizers of the May 15th actions are calling for a similar day of protest marches on June 5th, the 44th anniversary of the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967.
Concerns over the potential for major unrest on Israel's annual Independence Day had already been increasing in recent months as the Israeli government leaders and private citizens anxiously watched the dramatic anti-government upheaval in the neighboring Arab countries of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, not to mention massive turbulence in several other North Africa countries, especially Libya, and also in Yemen and Bahrain situated on the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula. Still, Israeli military leaders had played down the potential for serious violence along the northern border fences, especially along the Golan barrier with Syria. All noted that the border had been basically quiet since the end of the Yom Kippur war in October 1973. That might partially explain why IDF soldiers stationed in the area seemed to be unprepared to deal with protestors who tore sections of the fence down before crossing over into Israeli-controlled territory. In the past, the despotic Syrian regime would have prevented such an assault, but with the country's troubled cities and towns under virtual siege by the government, the situation had obviously dramatically changed, prompting many to ask what other surprises might spring up just ahead.
The most serious incident of the tumultuous day was undoubtedly the Golan Heights border breech. Israeli troops looked on with disbelief as over one hundred mostly male protestors from a crowd of several thousand surged forward and literally ripped down whole sections of the barbed wire border fence near the Golan Druze town of Majdal Shams. The usually peaceful town at the base of Mount Hermon was the site of serious clashes earlier this year between Israeli police forces and local residents who claim allegiance to Syria, not to the Jewish state which formally annexed the area in 1981. Syrian soldiers literally stood by idly as the throng moved toward the fence. UN peacekeeping forces stationed in the area also did not intervene, prompting some Israeli politicians to wonder aloud what they might do if the Syrian army attempted to penetrate the border in any future conflict. IDF troops opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets on the infiltrating mob, killing some and wounding others. Several soldiers were also wounded in the clashes. Hundreds of Majdal Shams residents came out to greet the intruders, to the dismay of Israeli authorities.
Israeli media reports said that government and military leaders had discussed the possibility that Syrian soldiers might stand aside if a large mob swarmed the border fence. Indeed, some predicted that this would be the case, given the escalating anti-Assad regime protests that have reportedly left over 800 Syrians dead and untold numbers wounded since widespread unrest broke out in March. The thinking was that the dictatorial regime, allied with Iran and heavily armed by it and also by Russia, might adopt the old Soviet methodology of attempting to divert domestic attention from any internal crisis by striking at an external enemy, in other words, at the hated "Zionist entity." However most pundits had predicted that such any such lashing out would probably take place via the missile-laden Shiite Hizbullah militia force that operates with Syrian connivance from Lebanon. It must be noted that the prospect of a fresh Hizbullah missile assault upon Israeli population centers, possibly including Tel Aviv, is still very much on the table as the crisis continues to unfold in Syria.
Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately pointed a finger of blame at Tehran, saying that the clerical Shiite regime which has enslaved that country since 1979 had orchestrated the cross-border assault. Speaking during a special address on national television the evening of the coordinated assaults, he said that "Nobody should be mistaken that we are determined to defend our borders and our sovereignty." Nevertheless, he vowed that IDF soldiers will continue to employ "maximum restraint" as they quell any further attempts to disrupt the peace. Warning that more violence probably lies ahead, Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged that the IDF had been caught by surprise by the cross-border penetrations. However he said the army will "learn" from the incident and also praised IDF soldiers for acting with restraint to prevent an ever higher death toll during the serious border clash.
Although the Syrian regime is not Shiite in orientation, it is mostly controlled by members of the small Alawite Islamic sect that emerged in the tenth century from the minority Shiite branch of Islam. Centered in the western mountains of Syria, the Alawites comprise only around ten per cent of the Syrian population. However their influence in the country is far beyond their numbers since the Assad family and many members of the regime come from the small Islamic sect. The vast majority of Syrian citizens are Sunni Muslims, and reports say the growing anti-government protests are mostly comprised of them.
Thousands of Palestinians and their supporters living in Lebanon mirrored the demonstrators in Syria by marching to the border fence along Israel's northern border. Similar marches took place along the Gaza Strip security fence with Israel. However unlike in Syria, Lebanese army soldiers did attempt to prevent the agitators from reaching the fence. Analysts said this was probably the result of last August's deadly clashes between Lebanese army soldiers and IDF border guards which left two Israeli soldiers dead, one of them a reserve officer, along with four Lebanese men, one a journalist associated with Hizbullah. They said the government in Beirut was undoubtedly not eager to see a repeat of that incident which nearly led to a major Israeli military operation against Lebanon. IDF soldiers opened fire on the surging crowd after rocks and stones, metal pipes and bottles were hurled at them over the border barrier. Several of the protestors were killed or injured. The United Nations said it was unclear whether it was IDF or Lebanese army fire that struck the demonstrators, although journalists at the scene indicated it was a bit of both.
In response to the serious border violations, the Israeli diplomatic delegation stationed at United Nations headquarters in New York filed a formal complaint with the Security Council against both the Syrian and Lebanese governments-the latter now controlled by a puppet prime minister beholding to Hizbullah, Syria and Iran. The complaint noted that the attempted cross-border infiltrations violated international law and various UN resolutions which ended both the 1973 conflict and the 2006 Hizbullah rocket assault on northern Israel.
Among other clashes that took place on May 15th were large street protests in the town of Jaffa in south Tel Aviv and in various parts of Jerusalem. Palestinian rioters hurled firebombs at the back side of Hadassah University Hospital located on Mount Scopus in north Jerusalem. Rocks and other objects were tossed at Israeli security forces in the village of Isawiyah. Other clashes took place in various Palestinian cities and towns, especially in Kalandia not far from Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, and near the Gush Etzion block of Jewish communities south of Jerusalem. Israeli forces used tear gas and other methods to break up those demonstrations that threatened IDF positions. Dozens of Palestinians were inured in the melee, along with several Israeli soldiers and border policemen. An unknown number of protestors were arrested. Fortunately Israeli forces had been reinforced earlier in the weekend in anticipation of clashes.
Rioting had actually broken out one day before in Jerusalem after a young Palestinian man was killed outside an Israeli civilian enclave on May 13 in the Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Silwan, adjacent to the sacred Temple Mount. The area has been the scene of several violent clashes over the past year. The dead man's funeral the following day turned into a mass demonstration as thousands of Muslims gathered for his emotional internment.
In all, officials said at least 17 people were killed and hundreds wounded in the various confrontations along the northern borders with Syria and Lebanon, along the security fence near the Gaza Strip (where officials said a terrorist was shot dead while attempting to plant a bomb) and in Jerusalem and surrounding areas. In Tel Aviv, an Israeli civilian was killed and some 15 people were injured when an Arab truck driver rammed his vehicle into pedestrians walking along a major street in the city. Although police initially suspected the incident was an accident, it later became clear that the driver had acted on calls from various Arab sources to attack Israelis on the anniversary of the country's modern birth 63 years ago.
Israeli leaders were distressed to hear PA leader Mahmoud Abbas praise the dead Arab demonstrators as "shahids" (martyrs in Arabic) for the Palestinian cause. He vowed that "their precious blood will not be wasted," adding that it was "spilt for the sake of out national freedom." Hamas leaders termed the day's widespread violence as "the beginning of the end of the occupation of Palestine," which in their minds means the total destruction of Israel.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
After months of protracted negotiations guided by Egyptian government officials, a "unity pact" between the PLO-dominated Palestinian Authority and the rival Hamas movement was signed in Cairo on May 4th. The pact brings the radical anti-peace Islamic movement, which won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections but was later tossed out of the government, back into the PA. The potential fragility of the "reconciliation accord," as it was called by both sides, was already demonstrated during the Cairo ceremony. A dispute arose over exactly where Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal would sit, with Hamas officials demanding he be positioned on the main podium next to PA President Abbas and Arab League Secretary General Abu Mousa, who is running for president of Egypt. In the end, Mashaal was allowed to give a speech from the podium, but not to sit on it.
Although full details of the pact were not released, media reports said it included a Hamas pledge to halt all rocket firings into Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. An "interim unity government" was established later in the month to prepare for new Palestinian presidential and legislative elections expected to be held around this time next year. PA and Hamas leaders pledged to release all political prisoners belonging to the other side. The PA vowed to continue security cooperation with Israel under American auspices, but Hamas will not be required to recognize Israel or participate in any future peace negotiations with it. This part of the deal was later confirmed by Nabil Shaath, a veteran member of the PLO Fatah central committee, who told reporters it was "not necessary" for Hamas to recognize Israel's existence since "Russia and many other" members of the so-called "peace quartet" (Russia, the US, the EU and the UN) "agree with us that the old rules for including Hamas in a PA government were not logical, and are no longer workable."
Prime Minister Netanyahu wasted no time in denouncing the inclusion of Hamas in the PA cabinet. He said Israel could not enter peace negotiations with the PA as long as Hamas sits in the Palestinian government since the group refuses to recognize Israel's right to a permanent existence in the center of the Middle East. He repeated his 2010 bombshell proclamation that his nationalistic Likud party was ready to "cede parts of our homeland" to a future Palestinian state as long as this was done as part of a negotiated accord that finally ended the long and bitter Arab-Israel conflict. However he also noted that such an outcome cannot ever become reality as long as Hamas is back on board the Palestinian government train.
OBAMA'S SPEECH DRAWS SHARP RESPONSE
The veteran Israeli leader reiterated his position about the 1967 border in reaction to President Barack Obama's May 19th speech in which the American leader denounced the Palestinian Authority's declared intention to unilaterally proclaim statehood at the United Nations next September. Speaking in his usual articulate English after meeting with President Obama at the White House on May 20th, Netanyahu also noted that just as American leaders felt they were fully justified in killing Al Qaida founder Osama Bin Laden after branding his nefarious group a terrorist organization, so Hamas was accurately labeled a terrorist group. Therefore Israel's allies cannot expect the constantly threatened country to deal with Hamas at all, even if the group is merely a junior partner in a Fatah-led PA government.
As for beginning any future peace negotiations with a pledge to abandon a large portion of Israel's biblical heartland, Netanyahu made clear that all of his current government partners agree with him that such an offer cannot be made. The Israeli leader noted how tiny his country had been inside the pre-1967 borders (which were actually just ceasefire lines created at the end of the 1948-49 War of Independence, not legal borders that were recognized as such), saying the de facto borders were "not defendable." The Premier spoke in particular of Israel's so-called "narrow hips" near the coastal city of Netanya, noting that the Israeli territory located there was merely eight miles across before 1967. He added that this reality was especially dangerous given the fact that in those years the coastal plane was the only land bridge connecting the northern Galilee region and the port city of Haifa with the densely populated center and the desert south. President Obama later told an AIPAC conference held in the American capital city that he was not against mutual land swaps between Israel and the PA as part of any final accord as long as both parties fully agreed upon them.
Although Netanyahu focused most of his public White House comments on the important 1967 border issue (to the obvious unease of the American President who nearly grimaced as some of the remarks were delivered to reporters), he did take time to applaud Obama's call for the Palestinians to refrain from making a unilateral statehood proclamation next September. He said he was also pleased with the President's expressed disgust over the brutal suppression taking place in Syria, and with Iran's rogue nuclear development program. Defense Minister Ehud Barak later told Israel's Channel Two news that Obama's speech was actually quite positive in tone overall, although he also reiterated his party's opposition to abandoning all Jewish communities located in Judea and Samaria.
Political pundits said that PM Netanyahu was probably giving a preview of his Washington Congressional speech when he addressed the Israeli Knesset just a few days before traveling to the United States. He said that while Israel was ready to make major concessions to achieve a final peace accord with the PA, the Palestinians were not ready to enter true negotiations. He chided the Israeli people for blaming themselves for the lack of such a treaty, adding that the conflict is not really about the 1967 borders, "but about 1948 when the state of Israel was established." He added that the ultimate reason there is no lasting peace is that "the Palestinians don't have a leadership that is ready to recognize Israel as a Jewish state." He also repeated earlier statements that Israel can never negotiate with Hamas, a fanatical group with a charter that formally calls for Israel's ultimate destruction.
As dramatic developments continue to unfold with lighting-like speed in the volatile Middle East, national leaders everywhere might do well to ponder a word of warning about the disputed lands they many are currently fiddling with-a word delivered by Israel's Maker in ancient days via the prophet Zechariah: The Lord will possess Judah as His portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem. Be silent all flesh before the Lord for He is aroused from His holy habitation (Zech 2:12-13).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.