Posted on: June 6, 2011 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 3

According to reports on Syrian television, 23 people were killed along the border with Israel as they tried to go across the border with Israel.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) disputed the numberand the circumstances.

Syrian President Bashar Assad

Considering the sources of both the accusation and the denial, both highly dubious with long track records of dissembling, I’m keeping my mind open on this. But there are some very important points to be made about the violent confrontations on the northern border.

Let’s start with this: Uri Avnery was right when he said the IDF used disproportionate force. The IDF itself said all the injuries were on the Syrian side of the border—this is why they say they cannot confirm any casualties. The IDF also says they shot live fire at the legs of protesters heading toward the border fence, but still on the Syrian side. Hard to see how that can be called proportionate force. And at least one witness, a journalist, said that the Israelis are understating the severity of their response.

Let’s also be clear about another point: Israel is not defending its borders here. The Golan Heights, which is the area Israel is defending in these incidents, is occupied territory, internationally recognized as Syrian. Unlike the West Bank, which is claimed by the Palestinians but was not previously part of any sovereign state (it was occupied by Jordan from 1949-1967 and part of Mandatory Palestine before that), the Golan is Syrian, and Israel’s annexation of it in 1981 is illegal and recognized by no other country, including the United States.

So, Israel is not defending its borders here, but is defending its occupation. And herein lies the problem, because what is happening on the Syrian border, though certainly heartfelt and significant, is counter-productive for the Palestinians.

Israel has made a very big deal of the fact that Bashar Assad has used the confrontations with Israel as “a distraction” from the ongoing protests in Syria and the murderous actions Assad has taken in response to them.

They’re not wrong, of course. And, while Assad has utterly failed to distract any international attention from his aggression against Syrian citizens fighting for their rights, he is harping on the one issue – getting the Golan Heights back – which resonates with virtually all Syrians across the political spectrum. It helps him to retain the loyalty of the military and other sectors which still support him, but even at that, it’s only marginally useful.

Assad’s cynical use of the Palestinian issue would not, in and of itself, be so objectionable. If it was helping the Palestinians to make their case, it merely becomes an issue that serves dual interests. It certainly has done nothing to quell the protests within Syria or the criticism of them outside, so, from the Palestinian point of view, what would be the harm?

But there is harm. The harm is visible in the coverage of the recent protests. They have focused on the Syrian “infiltration” quite naturally, because that is where the killing has been. It takes attention away from areas where Palestinians have been fighting the occupation directly. And it serves to muddy the picture.

The situation in the Golan Heights is very different from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Very few of the native inhabitants remained in the Golan after Israel captured it in 1967. While few of them accepted Israeli citizenship, they do not face the restrictions that Palestinians on the West Bank do.

While it is certainly important to remind the world that the Golan is not legally Israeli, right now it allows Bibi to argue that these actions are “attacks” on Israel’s borders.

Again, if it was just about the Golan, that would make some sense, although the loss of life is too high a price to pay (a reality for which both Assad’s cynical machinations and the IDF’s excessive force must be held to account) to  remind the world that the Golan isn’t Israel.

Because the Golan doesn’t feature the trappings of a military occupation as the West Bank does, it makes it much easier to paint the protests as an attack on Israel proper, and because of Syria’s involvement it makes it easier for Israel to paint this as an attack on its very existence. It’s not.

Meanwhile, the media in Israel and internationally largely ignored the other protests yesterday. Dozens of Palestinians were injured at Qalandia, near Jerusalem yesterday, but that protest was hardly covered at all.

This is not only the result of Assad supporting the protests, of course. Palestinian protesters had planned to symbolically “return” to Israel from numerous directions, but it is very difficult to do it from Egypt while Lebanon and Jordan have enacted measures to prevent such actions.

All Assad is doing is to simply allow the protests to happen.

But this is enough to divert and dilute the message of the protests, and it is to the detriment of the actions the Palestinians are trying to take.

A Palestinian tries to avoid the effects of tear gas at a protest at Qalandia yesterday. Photograph by Joseph Dana

Popular, largely non-violent actions by the Palestinians are all the more crucial now that the Obama Administration has made it clear that it will shield Israel from Palestinian diplomatic action and will only permit pursuit of a two-state solution inside the obviously failed Oslo framework.

Under those circumstances, the involvement of Bashar Assad cannot help the cause, it can only hurt. He taints the actions on the international level, and given what he is doing to Arab protesters, his support adds nothing in terms of the Arab world.

Of course, the tainting of these actions is actually done by Israel, as it plays Assad’s involvement to the hilt and distorts what is going on—claiming that this is a Syrian engineered action, rather than one that Assad is simply letting happen. Assad’s cynicism is more than matched by Israel’s, and none of this excuses the excessive force Israel has employed twice now to defend territory they claim is Israel, when it is, in fact, occupied Syrian territory.

But given the current state of affairs, Israel is acting rationally, and it’s not very reasonable to expect it to act differently.

Assad, on the other hand, is gaining very little by doing this and he’s seriously diminishing the effect these protests could be having for the Palestinian cause. He needs to stop, and one can only hope that the Palestinian protesters, or even the PA, would call on him to do so.

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