Mordechai Kedar
The Jerusalem Post (Analysis)
May 16, 2011 - 12:00am

For years, I have been hearing of plans by Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria to march en masse toward the Israeli border, under the watchful, headline-making eye of the international media – especially the Arab media. Israel would never dare shoot the marchers, it was reasoned, especially if they walked unarmed and showed no violence.

I wrote and spoke about these plans in Israeli media outlets.

Recently, a few things changed in the Arab milieu, and we saw the consequences on Sunday.

First and foremost is the development of a “Yes, we can” sentiment – the belief that unarmed masses can overcome and defeat dictators. The “exposed body” protest is the new nonconventional weapon of frustrated, unemployed young people, a weapon against which the regime is expected to be helpless. Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis and Syrians use and have used this weapon against their rulers; now the Palestinians have adopted it for use against Israel.

The second development is Facebook and Twitter, means by which a public can organize despite the regime’s efforts to stifle it, and where leaders can mobilize a rebellion without the danger of revealing their real names. Social media was indeed the way Sunday’s events were organized.

The third change is the involvement of the Syrian and Lebanese regimes in events, since bus upon bus of disgruntled Palestinians could not have reached the border with Israel on Sunday without those governments’ knowledge and consent. The regimes’ cooperation stems from their effort to export their internal problems to Israel, and turn TV cameras away from what happens in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip to Israel and its actions against the Arabs.

Syrian residents of Deraa recently shouted at the cameras, “We hope Israel will occupy us, because the Syrian military is more cruel than the Israeli army.” The Syrian regime believes that dead bodies near the border with Israel will “restore sanity” to the civilians in Deraa.

The fourth fresh element is the link between Syria, Lebanon and Gaza – the Iranian link. These three arenas are all under the influence of the ayatollahs, and there is no better date on which to blame Israel for the mess in the Middle East than May 15, the notorious “Nakba.”

But we must not overlook the Israeli factor, which has an important role: In past years, Arab players have seen and heard that Israel concedes whenever it is subject to external pressure. The Likud, which historically was strongly opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, is today willing to accept one. A unified Jerusalem, an Israeli consensus for years, is today on the verge of division. Even the return of refugees – once considered anathema across the political spectrum – is contemplated, at least to a limited extent, by some politicians on the left.

And when Israel’s enemies see it compromising its core “principles” under external pressure, and realize its “red lines” are at most pale pink, hope rises that further pressure will be rewarded with further concessions; strong pressure from the refugees, for instance, will bring war-weary Israelis to give up on that point, too.

Israel’s image today – despite the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 – is that of a weak, wimpy state, a state that can be nailed to the global cross by Richard Goldstone, a state where announcing plans to build 1,600 homes in Jerusalem is enough to raise the ire of the current resident of the White House. Its neighboring countries are certain that Israeli society – especially the elite living in ostensibly hedonist, pacifist, post-Zionist Tel Aviv – will sell out all that it once held sacred in return for peace and quiet on Shenkin Street, because it has lost the will to fight.

At the same time, in the eyes of the rest of the world, Israel is becoming a leprous country – thanks to classical anti-Semitism amplified by European guilt over the evils of the Holocaust and colonialism. (It is always easier to beat the Jew’s breast in contrition than one’s own.) Israel is therefore expected to never resort to force against the unarmed “returnees”; those are the means used by the likes of Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad.

Sunday’s events are not the last word. The dynamic in the Middle East is one of escalation and enhancement. Every person killed today is the martyr of tomorrow’s funeral, the funeral itself becoming a violent protest and its victims, in turn, the next day’s martyrs. Israel must thus be resolute on the one hand, but restrained and measured on the other, since a rising death toll will only exacerbate the situation.

This country must carefully weigh its actions in confronting the new realities. It has no interest in sharing a cell with this region’s dictators.

Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University and a research associate at the University's Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.


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