Ramallah, West Bank — It has surrounded the Jewish state on all sides for months, a roiling wave from Egypt to Jordan to Syria, but this week the Arab Spring came to Israel.
The thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon who Sunday tried to surge across the border with Israel introduced a new tactic in the Palestinian struggle to reclaim what they see as their homeland. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he feared it is just the start of a new initiative that could present “far more complex challenges.”
The would-be Palestinian invaders were not chanting for a two-state solution but rather for a return to the Galilee and to Jaffa. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out, they were carrying keys to “our homes in Jaffa, Acre, Haifa and Ramle,” not to their homes in Ramallah or Nablus, he said.
Whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas heard their chants is questionable because two days later he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which he detailed his plans to ask the United Nations General Assembly in September to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.
“Until Sunday we thought this revolution of the youth of the Arab world was against Arab dictators and that we were out of the equation, that it was not about us,” said Morchechai Kedar, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “That is correct when it comes to the people from those countries, but when it comes to the Palestinians who have been held in refugee camps there, they are demonstrating in Israel because of the repression of the Arab world.”
The Palestinian longing for a return to their former homes in Israel is perhaps best exemplified by a 28-year-old Syrian man who managed to breach the Israeli border Sunday. He hitchhiked and took a bus 130 miles to Jaffa and later told police he was searching for the home of his parents before they and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven to neighboring Arab countries during Israel’s War of Independence.
“This is something they will try again and again,” Kedar said. “This is today the modus operandi in the Arab world. The weaker you are, the stronger you are. If you don’t have weapons and exposed hands, you are the most powerful. The ones who shoot are illegitimate and are weaker than you. Israel will have to find a way to send them back without killing them, such as with the use of tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.”
He said Syrian President Bashar Assad instigated the Palestinian demonstration to “divert the media from what he is doing” in various Syrian cities to forcibly crush a popular uprising in which more than 800 have been reportedly shot dead by Syrian forces.
There were also protests by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, which Nashat Aqtash, a communications professor at Bir Zeit University, said were organized over Facebook by youths who don’t belong to Hamas or Fatah.
“This is a new trend that the Palestinian learned from Egypt and Tunisia — that they can change things by non-violent methods,” he said, though many in the crowds threw Molotov cocktails and rocks. “It’s a new message that could be understood by the world.”
President Abbas praised the Palestinians who engaged in violent demonstrations, saying “their blood was not spilled in vain” and that they had “died for the Palestinian people’s rights and freedom.”
His comments were criticized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, saying they were “not the words of someone committed to peaceful resolution through negotiations.”
And the American Jewish Committee criticized Abbas’ op-ed for its skewed view of Mideast history and the PA’s effort to create a state without resolving its differences with Israel.
The AJC said Abbas is “hurtling toward confrontation not only with Israel, but also with other key nations, including the United States, which have publicly declared their opposition to this shortsighted path. Such a strategy contributes not to the quest for peace, but rather its opposite — intensification of the conflict. Let’s be clear: this strategy will effectively end the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”
Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that should the Palestinians opt for UN recognition, “you’re going to see this kind of diplomatic train wreck in which the Palestinians declare statehood unilaterally — something that they’ve done before — but now … you’re going to see more and more countries actually recognize that state.”
In a conference call with reporters, he said he did not expect the U.S. to back away from Israel, “but it’s going to be in an extraordinarily tough position if it is seen as vetoing or opposing a Palestinian declaration of statehood. This is the metric by which the Arab world is going to view what the Obama administration is doing in the region.”
Mass Demonstrations To Come
Although the confrontation on Israel’s northern border Sunday ended in bloodshed, demonstrations in the West Bank were kept under control because the Palestinian Authority still exercises control here.
If, as expected, the UN recognizes Palestinian statehood later this year, many believe the PA will give its blessing to mass demonstrations. If Israel’s army were to face down thousands of unarmed protesters in the West Bank, there would be little tolerance for the use of force.
“[The Palestinians] have been talking about this for a long time,” said Dror Bar Yosef, an expert on the Palestinians based in Jerusalem.
“It’s about changing the struggle’s strategy, and changing the way of fighting Israel,” he said, to make Israel “look like Assad and Kaddafy” in using arms to stop the protests.
In central Ramallah Sunday, children marched with giant key cutouts as if they were guns, and protest leaders vowed: “It is time to be like Egypt and Tunisia. … We are resistance fighters … we have to act.’’
Palestinians said the turnout of demonstrators was higher this year than in past years. They also voiced some optimism that a unity deal between Fatah and Hamas could help heal a domestic rift that is seen as a precondition to statehood. Others said they felt buoyed by the Palestinian campaign for statehood recognition by the UN General Assembly.
Wearing an army green jacket and headband with a kefiyyeh pattern, Majed Qatabia, a 21-year-old finance student, said he would have preferred to demonstrate near Israel’s Qalandiya checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, but instead heeded parents and political leaders who discouraged it.
Bar Yosef, the expert on Palestinians, said he believes that prior to a UN vote on statehood, the PA would avoid popular uprisings but that afterward anything is possible.
“The Palestinian security forces didn’t want things to go out of control now,” Yosef said. “In September, they will want things to go out of control. You’ll have thousands of people marching toward Jewish settlements. Who knows what is going to happen if hundreds of Jewish settlers are surrounded by thousands of Palestinians. It’s a frightening scenario.’’
Pressure On Netanyahu
The demonstrations came just days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to arrive in the U.S. to layout his vision of peace with the Palestinians and give an assessment on the changes in the region.
There’s rising anxiety among many Israelis at the stalemate in the peace process and the looming UN approval for statehood. In a speech to parliament Monday, seen as a preview of his talk to the U.S. House and Senate next week, Netanyahu laid out several principles for talks with the Palestinians that he claimed enjoy support of the Israeli consensus.
After ruling out talks with a government that includes Hamas, he said Israel wants to keep Jerusalem its undivided capital; to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel; to keep a military presence in the Jordan Valley; to retain control over settlement blocs, and ensure that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also offered to make “painful concessions’’ on the “homeland’’ of the Jewish people as part of a final settlement for peace.
His comments immediately were dismissed by Abbas of the PA as insufficient, as well as Yaakov Katz, on the Israeli right, as too conciliatory. Katz, chairman of the National Union party, said this was the “first time that the prime minister has stood up and declared, contrary to the platform of his Likud party, that he is prepared to expel 130,000 Jews, residents of the hills of Judea and Samaria. There has been no such wholesale expulsion since the Spanish Inquisition by the worst Jew-haters of Europe.”
While analysts said Netanyahu implied that Israel would withdraw from isolated settlements, they said his insistence on a united Jerusalem undercut his seeming willingness to negotiate on territory. They suggested he would have to offer more during his U.S. visit to catalyze a new round of talks to avert a Palestinian drive for UN statehood.
“He seemed to be throwing the peace camp a bone, while repeating slogans that keep the right-wing happy,’’ said analyst Yossi Alpher. “Despite giving the peace camp the bone of something approaching the ‘67 lines, this speech is hardly the basis for any kind of serious negotiations.’’
Other analysts said the speech was an attempt to keep Netanyahu’s coalition together on the eve of this week’s meeting at the White House and next week’s address to Congress.
“He is trying to sell himself as the ‘Israeli Everyman’ — putting him at the center of the Israeli consensus on the major issues,’’ said a Western diplomat. “ His battle plan is as unclear as ever — he is making declarations that make it impossible for Abbas to sit down with him, at the same time de-facto he is limiting settlement growth particularly in east Jerusalem.”
Joshua Mitnick is Israel correspondent. Stewart Ain is a staff writer.