May 16, 2011
The surging tide of popular unrest in the Arab world reached Israel’s borders Sunday for the first time as thousands of Palestinian refugees and fellow Arab protesters attempted to cross tightly secured frontiers from Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Israeli soldiers opened fire on the rock-throwing demonstrators, leaving at least 12 people dead and scores wounded, officials said, at the Lebanese border village of Maroun Ras and along the Golan Heights border with Syria.
The clashes took place on what Palestinians call Nakba Day, Arabic for “catastrophe,” which marks Israel’s 1948 founding and the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians, many of whom now live in Lebanon and Syria.
The unprecedented breach along the normally quiet Syrian border rattled the sense of security felt by many Israelis, who have tended to view their country as an island of stability in a turbulent region.
Afterward, some analysts said Israel’s military would need to reexamine its defense strategy to include not only a possible uprising by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but also potential threats from the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries. Israeli analysts expressed concern that Palestinian refugees may have become been emboldened by the so-called Arab Spring uprisings against longstanding autocratic regimes in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria.
“A fear barrier was crossed today,” said Israeli military analyst Yoav Limor on Israel’s Channel 1 television station. “If before, such options were discussed in the local Palestinian context, then tomorrow it could happen with the Palestinian diaspora in the neighboring Arab countries.”
Israeli officials blamed Syrian and Lebanese soldiers for failing to keep the protesters away from the border as they have in the past and accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of attempting to use the protests to distract attention from the popular uprising in his own country.
Independent Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani said Assad may have been trying to send a message to Israel and the international community about the chaos that could erupt in the region if his government collapses. “Syria could be saying, ‘If we lose, you lose, too,’ and this is a taste of what might happen,” Rabbani said.
Similarly, Israel’s use of deadly force against the protesters probably was intended to demonstrate to Arab neighbors that the Jewish state would not tolerate the spread of unrest across its borders. “They are saying that even though the Arab world might be changing, Israel is the same, and it’s just as capable and not intimidated,” Rabbani said.
In a televised address Sunday, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck such a tone, saying, “Nobody should be mistaken. We are determined to defend our borders and sovereignty.”
Some participants defined the clashes in the context of the unrest sweeping the region. When hundreds of Palestinians arrived Sunday at the Lebanese border town of Maroun Ras, they declared the mountaintop village their “Tahrir Square,” a reference to the central site of the Egyptian protests that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Hundreds of Palestinians marched toward the Israeli border, tossing rocks at the Israeli soldiers across the fence, according to witness accounts. They were met with gunfire that killed at least 10 and injured 112, according to the Lebanese army.
In Syria, several thousand Palestinian refugees bused in from camps gathered on a bluff overlooking the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War.
“At first they were shouting and demonstrating, but then they just got so excited that they decided to try and run across,” said Shifa abu Jabal, a resident and activist in the Golan Heights village of Majdal Shams, where scores of protesters tried to cross the border. “It was a huge surprise.”
About 40 protesters made it into the village, but most were later returned by Israeli soldiers.
At least two people were killed along the border there, according to Israeli military officials, though some reports put the death toll as high as 10.
Syrian officials on Sunday called upon the international community to condemn what they said was Israel’s “criminal” use of force against unarmed protesters. Assad’s security forces have been widely criticized in recent weeks for killing antigovernment protesters across Syria.
Israeli military officials defended their use of live ammunition on protesters, saying warning shots were ignored and they had no other choice after mobs broke through border fences. A dozen Israeli soldiers were wounded in the attempted incursions from Syria and Lebanon, Israeli officials said.
“When you have thousands of people at your borders and dozens attempt to infiltrate in a very violent manner, you want to prevent them from reaching Israeli communities,” said Lt. Col. Avital Leibowitz, spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces.