Israel's siege mentality grows as refugee threat resurfaces

Wed, Jun 8, 2011, 01:00

There is a feeling the Palestinians and Arab states are trying to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, writes MARK WEISSin Jerusalem

A SPECTRE is haunting Israel: the spectre of Palestinian mass civil unrest. Twice in recent weeks troops have opened fire with live rounds in an effort to stop unarmed Palestinian civilians crossing into Israel.

The first time coincided with Nakba (Catastrophe) day, the day Palestinians mark the anniversary of Israel’s establishment in 1948. Although Israel had mobilised its forces in the West Bank and along the Gaza border, the focus of the protests was along the country’s northern borders with Lebanon and Syria.

About 100 Palestinian refugees living in Syria succeeded in breaching the border and crossed into the Golan Heights. One infiltrator even managed to reach Tel Aviv. Ten protesters were killed on the border.

The events sent shock waves throughout the Israeli establishment. Suddenly the Palestinian refugee problem was thrust into the limelight. The refugees and their descendants, some carrying what they claimed were keys to family homes in pre-1948 Mandate Palestine, were, for the first time , trying to fulfil the “right of return”.

There was a widespread consensus among the mainstream Zionist parties that, if the phenomenon was not stamped out quickly, it could escalate out of control and develop into a strategic threat with many thousands of refugees marching on Israel’s borders.

Palestinian activists were delighted by the Nakba day events. Facebook sites urged residents of the West Bank and Gaza to unite with the Palestinian Diaspora communities in neighbouring countries and step up protests in the months leading up to September, when the United Nations is expected to endorse Palestinian statehood, despite Israeli and American objections.

Round two in the struggle came on Sunday when Palestinians marked Naksa (Setback) day, the anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

This time the Israeli authorities were determined to stop any protesters getting across the border. The fence was reinforced, new ditches dug, barbed wire placed in position and new mines laid.

The orders were clear: sniper fire was to be directed at anyone trying to infiltrate the border.

Both sides claimed victory.

Not a single protester succeeded in breaching the border, but once again there were fatalities. Israel disputed the Syrian claim that 23 protesters had been killed. According to the Israeli army, the sniper fire was strictly controlled and the number of fatalities y number was closer to 10, eight of whom were killed when mines exploded in a field set alight by the protesters.

The Palestinian narrative stressed that wave after wave of brave demonstrators tried to reach the border, undeterred by Israeli fire.

“If anyone had a doubt,” said Mahmoud Fawzi, who stood on the border all day, “the protest will only increase. If anyone thinks that the unrest is over, he is mistaken. I know that the young people here are planning more surprises for the coming days.”

Later this month another flotilla carrying aid to Gaza is due to set sail carrying hundreds of international activists, including Irish citizens. Last year nine Turkish participants were killed in clashes with Israeli commandos on the main ship, the Mavi Marmara, which will also spearhead this year’s flotilla. Israel has vowed that the ships will not reach Gaza.

Activists are planning a mass arrival at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport in order to carry out a protest against the occupation.

In Israel the siege mentality is growing. There is a feeling that the Palestinians and Arab states, having failed to defeat Israel militarily, are now trying to undermine Israel’s legitimacy and sovereignty, whether on the borders, at the UN or via flotillas.

And there is no illusion that the struggle is only just beginning.