Defend our borders, but make a gesture

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The Arab revolutionary wave has already touched the Palestinian issue in more ways than one. The transitional military regime in Egypt has granted Hamas in Gaza greater legitimacy, opened the Rafah crossing and pressed for a Palestinian unity government. Fairly modest demonstrations and exploitation of social media by youth in Ramallah and Gaza clearly exerted additional pressure on the Palestinian leadership to reconcile.

On May 15 and June 5 we witnessed yet another manifestation, in the form of interaction between the Arab revolutionary spirit and the Palestinian refugee demand for "return". The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of refugees marched on border passages to Israel and in some cases tried to storm border fences. In Syria, the regime manipulated the border disturbances as a cynical provocation to distract public attention from its own atrocities as it suppresses revolution. In other cases, such as Lebanon on June 5, neighboring regimes seemed more intent on preventing provocation. On both days, the Israel Defense Forces were either taken by surprise or lacked the means and the tactics to deal humanely with attempts to breach border fences by unarmed civilians; the result thus far has been around 30 deaths on the Lebanon and Syria borders.

There were of course mitigating circumstances. In Lebanon on May 15, some of the casualties were inflicted by the Lebanese army. On the other hand, on the Golan Israel’s case against the refugee attempt to breach the border fence was compromised at the international level by the fact that only Israel claims the Golan Heights as its sovereign territory. In the eyes of everyone else, the refugees were trying to go from sovereign Syrian territory to occupied Syrian territory–hardly an exercise of the right of return.

We have almost certainly not seen the last of this synergy between Arab revolution and the Palestinian refugee issue. If another intifada breaks out, mass marches on Israel’s border fences could be a major new feature of Arab unarmed resistance.

The tactic, incidentally, is not new. In 1949 or 1950, refugees freshly arrived in the Gaza Strip proclaimed precisely such a "green march" on the Israel border. The IDF threatened in response to open fire, and the refugees backed off. Today, when Arab youth throughout the Middle East have seemingly lost any fear of their oppressive regimes’ security forces, it is reasonable to assume that they may lose fear of the IDF as well.

Even if they are fired upon and killed, refugees storming Israel’s border fences do not have the slightest chance of persuading the Israeli public that their demands for both the right of return and physical return itself are justified. Since Israelis and Palestinians first began negotiating the refugee final status issue at Camp David in July 2000, it has become clear to most Israelis that the concept of "return" represents a Palestinian and broader Arab narrative of delegitimizing Israel by locking into a peace agreement the determination that in 1948 Israel was "born in sin". Without reopening here the entire issue of the clash of the two sides’ narratives, suffice it to say that the Palestinian demand is a non-starter in Israel and that further attempts to breach Israel’s borders will merely reinforce Israelis’ perception that they do not have a viable Palestinian partner for a genuine solution of two states for two peoples.

Yet there will almost certainly be more such breaching attempts, and the question arises, how to deal with them with a minimum of bloodshed and provocation. In this regard, I was intrigued by media accounts of the adventures of one of the Syria-based Palestinian youth who actually managed to breach the Golan fence and evade attempts to apprehend him. With a little help from the local Druze villagers and Arab citizens of Israel, he made his way by bus to Jaffa, where he tried to no avail to find the home his grandparents had fled 63 years earlier. He then turned himself in to the Israeli police–what else could he do?–who handed him to the IDF, which returned him to Syria.

Is there a potential model here for dealing with future attempts by grandchildren of refugees to enter Israel? After all, almost none of the homes their grandparents left still exist; most of their pre-1948 villages have been erased. Nor, needless to say, does Israel look or behave at all like these youth are taught to believe. Perhaps, as we justifiably defend our borders against masses of demonstrators, we could offer a guided tour as a gesture to a select few. We could try to demonstrate to them that while Israel resettled its own Jewish refugees after 1948 without making a fuss about their rights and their abandoned property, the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees has been cynically exploited and inflated by their Arab hosts. They have nowhere in Israel to "return" to–only to a state of Palestine.

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