Ron Friedman
The Jerusalem Post
May 15, 2011 - 12:00am

The breach of the Israeli border by Syrian protesters was an unprecedented act in modern history and a clear violation of Israeli sovereignty as determined by article 51 of the UN Charter, an international law expert said on Sunday.

At the same time, Dr. Daphne Richmond-Barak from the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, said that firing on civilians was also a breach of international law, and that once the details of the event were made clear, Israel would have to explain its actions.

“Most of the details surrounding the shooting are not yet known. Important considerations are whether the protesters were armed or not, whether they were an organized association of a paramilitary nature, whether the soldiers who fired felt they were in immediate danger and shot out of self-defense, and a series of other possibilities that are too vague to judge,” said Richmond-Barak.

While there were legal questions to be considered, the most urgent concern was a deterioration of the relations between the countries, she added.

“We must remember the current situation in Syria, where there is an absence of law and order because of the popular uprising against [President Bashar] Assad. It is conceivable that the guards who were supposed to man the border on the Syrian side were not at their posts because of the uprising,” she said.

The uncertainty in Syria could be a mitigating factor in allowing the soldiers to shoot at the protesters, Richmond-Barak, but she stressed that it was completely illegal for anyone to order the firing on unarmed civilians. Other factors that need to be considered are the number of people who tried to cross the border and the manner in which they did so.

“If we were talking about tanks and soldiers, there would be no question about Israel’s right to shoot as an act of protecting its sovereignty. This case, however, is different,” she said.

“In this case, there may have been other options open to the soldiers, like arresting or stopping the protesters in less violent ways.”

Prof. Asa Kasher, one of the authors of the IDF’s Code of Ethics, said, “The laws of war are not the appropriate framework for judging the events in the north. We are not talking about an attack by an invading army. It would be more appropriate to look to the US’s actions against Mexican infiltrators on its southern border to learn about legitimate use of force.”

Dr. Assaf Moghadem, an Interdisciplinary Center expert on counterterrorism, told The Jerusalem Post he believed Assad was behind the border breach, in an effort to reduce pressure on himself.

“What could be better for Assad than diverting the people’s anger from himself toward Israel. I wouldn’t put it beyond the range of the possible that he recruited people to cross the border in order to shift the pressure to Israel,” Moghadem said.

It was less likely that Hamas in Syria was behind the actions, he said. Despite the fact that Hamas enjoyed support of the Syrian administration, the Islamist movement’s control of Gaza suggested that if it wanted to act against Israel it would be from the Strip and not via the Syrian border, Moghadem said.

Richmond-Barak said she could not recall another incident in recent history in which a border between two sovereign states was breached in such a manner.

Moghadem painted a scenario in which the breach and Israel’s response could lead to an all out war with Syria. “I don’t want to be an alarmist, but this event does have the potential to spiral out of control, depending on political developments in Syria, Israel’s reactions and the response of the international community. It is incumbent on Israel to show restraint.”

Asked whether a border infringement on the Syrian front was an eventuality that had been anticipated by Israel, Moghadem said that in light of all the goings on across the Middle East, a breach from the north had likely been low on the probability scale.

Even if the breach was indeed coordinated by Assad’s regime, it would not necessarily work in his favor, Moghadem said.

“As we have seen in recent weeks and months, the Arab public views on their ruling regimes’ actions is more critical than was previously believed. There will assuredly be Syrians who recognize Assad’s diversionary tactic for what it is and call him on it,” Moghadem said.


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