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Palestinian "Arab Spring" confronts Israel on borders

May 16, 2011

Israeli-Arabs wave Palestinian flags during a rally to mark the upcoming "Nakba Day" in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv May 14, 2011. Palestinians marked "Nakba Day" (Catastrophe) on May 15 to commemorate the expulsion or fleeing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in the war that led to the founding of Israel in 1948. – Reuters Photo

JERUSALEM: Founded as a Jewish homeland and post-Holocaust haven, forged in border wars with Arab forces, Israel now confronts a redefinition of the conflict after Palestinian refugees massed fearlessly on its frontiers.

The thousands of protesters who surged from Syria, Lebanon and Gaza on Sunday, flattening some buffer-zone fences and drawing deadly Israeli gunfire, reminded many in the country of the image-corroding consequences of pitting the region's mightiest military against stone-throwing demonstrators.

That the unprecedented rallies fired up annual Palestinian events mourning Israel's creation, and were mobilised like the citizen revolts of the "Arab Spring" welcomed by the West, only deepened Israeli doubt about finding acceptable countermeasures.

Officials and commentators agreed a repeat of the "Nakba Day" marches was likely imminent, given Palestinians' campaign to challenge Israel at the UN assembly in September with their own declaration of independence if peace talks remain stalled.

"The danger is that more mass processions like these will appear, not necessarily near the border, but also other places," Defence Minister Ehud Barak said in a television interview, apparently referring to Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians want statehood, or even Israel itself.

"We're only at the outset. We could see more complex things and complex challenges in this area. I recommend not to expect plans to be prepared systematically and be ready right on time."

Most Israeli analysts wrote off any option of adapting police anti-riot tactics for such large-scale clashes over tense armistice lines. Some recommended sowing new minefields instead.

A senior Barak aide, Amos Gilad, hinted that Israel would hone and perhaps even harshen its response. He likened the rallies to lethal attacks by organised guerrillas in the past.

"We already had very tough challenges that looked impossible," he told Army Radio. "There were terrorist attacks by sea, of a kind we have not heard about in decades because of our (operational) successes. For many long years, we had suicide attacks. Now the country is quiet and stable."

Security Coordination

As it happened, the Nakba protests were relatively peaceful in the West Bank. Israelis credited their continued coordination with the security forces of US-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The demonstrations were similarly muted in Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states to have signed peace accords with Israel.

Moshe Yaalon, a deputy to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accused the governments of Lebanon and Syria of encouraging the protesters to reach the borders in a bid to destabilise Israel.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Israeli officials said, may have seen a reprieve in shifting the violence to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights after cracking down for weeks on domestic unrest over his authoritarian rule.

But the tinderbox issue of Palestinian refugees will remain, regardless. Hundreds of thousands were dispossessed by the 1948 Middle East war and, along with millions of their descendants, they demand the right to return to lands lost to the Israelis.

Israel rules that out as demographic suicide and two decades worth of American-sponsored peace efforts have often foundered over murky proposals -- never taken up formally by the Palestinian leadership -- that refugees be resettled elsewhere.

So even if U.S. President Barack Obama, who hosts Netanyahu in Washington on Friday, finds the elusive formula for reviving negotiations, it is unlikely to placate Nakba-style protesters.

"(Israel) lacks means to prevent the breaching of its borders by tens and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who will succeed in organising and fulfilling the dream of return with their own feet," wrote Alex Fishman, defence analyst for Israel's best selling Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

"The more people talk about the possibility of a diplomatic arrangement or the establishment of a Palestinian state, the right of return will become the flag of the Palestinian struggle."