The “Nakba” day incidents on Israel’s borders showed that the Palestinians have undoubtedly been caught up at last in the Arab revolutionary spring fever. In a very different position from most Arab nations, the Palestinians had so far been largely left out as the spirit of assertive demands for rights and freedoms swept the region and threatened its dictators.
The pent-up frustrations of the Palestinians largely took the form of pressure on their own divided leaderships to unite, something that has now happened. The 15 May challenges to Israel on its borders with Lebanon and Syria, within the fragmented West Bank and on the Gaza frontier, undoubtedly embodied the same kind of risk-taking, confrontational people-power ethos that has fired the revolts in many parts of the Arab world.
Palestinian militancy and desire for self-assertion in keeping with revolutionary Arab times are very strong and can be taken as a given. But the ability to express those sentiments is something else.
There is clearly another dimension to the unprecedented eruptions on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria, in which a number of protesters are reported to have been shot dead and many others wounded. The common denominators in both cases are Syria and its ally Iran.
In past years, Syria has prevented Palestinian protesters from getting anywhere near the sensitive Golan border, where Damascus has in the past scrupulously respected its truce agreement with Israel. Nearly half a million registered Palestinian refugees live in Syria, some of them in camps not far from the Golan. Syria may be distracted and preoccupied by events inside the country, but so much that it could not have prevented the Golan incident if it had wanted it not to happen?
The real power in southern Lebanon is Hezbollah, the militant Shia movement that was created in the early 1980s by Iran and Syria to counter Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. If Hezbollah had not wanted the display of Palestinian refugee militancy at Maroun al-Ras on the south Lebanon border with Israel to happen, it would not have happened. Damascus and Tehran retain extremely strong ties with Hezbollah, so by extension, the same is true of them.
Lebanon, like Syria, also has getting on for half a million Palestinian refugees on its soil. But Jordan has something like two million, yet its borders with Israel, running along the Jordan river, did not see any such incidents because Amman did not want it to happen. Jordanian police intervened to prevent a mere 200 Palestinian students from marching towards the border, and six of them were injured when they were restrained.
The unusual flare-ups on the Golan and on the Lebanese border came as President Bashar al-Assad’s regime moved into its third month of confronting its biggest internal challenge in more than 40 years of rule by his family and the Baath Party. It would be hard not to see a link between the two developments.
To allow a controlled burst of tension on the borders with Israel might have been seen by the Syrian regime as serving several useful purposes: to divert attention from its internal troubles, and to burnish its nationalist credentials of steadfast resistance to Israel.
It may also have been aimed at conveying to Israel and the Americans the message that if Mr Assad’s grip on power should slip, Israel might face a much more militant Syria. In a recent New York Times interview, the president’s controversial businessman cousin, Rami Makhlouf, said that if Syria had no security, Israel would have no security – remarks from which the regime has officially distanced itself, but which came from a key figure within the inner circle of power.
‘Playing with fire’
One question Israel will be asking itself is whether the outbursts on the borders might be sustained and turn into a running situation. That is not impossible. But Damascus and its allies in Lebanon know that they are playing with fire. Syria would be unlikely to permit a situation on the Golan that could get out of hand and lead to a serious engagement with the Israelis that could be deeply damaging, and might even hasten a decision by Washington to move towards a call for regime change.
A warning skirmish is one thing, a serious confrontation something else. In Lebanon, while anything is possible, Hezbollah is also unlikely to want an open-ended situation in which Palestinians play a leading role. The Palestinian presence triggered the Israeli invasion in 1982 and other interventions which greatly hurt Hezbollah’s Shia community.
The Palestinians in Lebanon played no part in Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel. But clearly, these are uncharted waters. For the first time ever, Lebanon had the extraordinary experience of having people shot dead on its northern border by Syrian security forces because of the upheavals inside Syria, and a larger number shot dead on its southern border because of the Palestinian issue.
Whatever the degree of possible manipulation by Syria and its allies, the message from Palestinians both inside and outside is that the Arab revolution has found another home.