May 15, 2011

Just Another Sunday in the Levant

By now, you have read the news that protesters who attempted to march into Israel and Israeli-controlled territory* (here I am referring to the Golan Heights, which are disputed) were shot at by the Israel Defense Force (IDF). More than a dozen have been reported killed.

1. This will shock all some none of you, but Arab regimes have often cynically used the Palestinian cause to shift the focus away from their own failures and abuses. The clashes today are the best of news for Bashar al-Asad, and only the Lord knows how many brave Syrians will now be gunned down or thrown into prison in Homs, Douma, Hama, Baniyas, etc. while everyone's eyes are on the Lebanese, Syrian and Gazan borders with Israel. Just yesterday, we were all talking about terrified Syrians fleeing into northern Lebanon. Now Syria and its allies have either engineered or have been presented with the mother of all distractions from their own wretched and criminal behavior. 

2. The Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Palestinians and Israeli peoples are all getting played right now. If you're a Palestinian marking the Nakba on the border with Israel right now, that's all fine and well, but you should be aware of those actors for whom this distraction is most welcome and who have every interest in using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and your own suffering for their own cynical purposes right now. If you're Lebanese, meanwhile, and you're watching Hizballah mobilize, ask yourself this: is Hizballah mobilizing to protect Lebanon and its people or because escalation benefits Hizballah's allies in Damascus?

3. This kind of non-violent march into Israeli-controlled territory is not without precedent. Some brave Lebanese did this very thing in the year leading up to Israel's 2000 withdrawal from their security zone in southern Lebanon. There is a huge difference, obviously, between Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon and Israel proper, but the point here is that this is not really a first, and as far as Israeli-controlled territory like Majdal Shams is concerned, you can forgive the protesters killed there for wondering what the difference is between there and, say, Jezzine or Marjayoun a decade ago. From the Israeli perspective, the difference is a great one, but that might not be the case for the witnesses to the non-violent marches into Israeli-occupied Lebanese territories in 1999 and 2000.

4. The IDF almost always seems to do the strategically stupid thing in these situations, either using force more than is necessary or using force indiscriminately, but I will not judge the decisions or actions of the IDF just yet and, as tough as I have been on the IDF in cases, I have some sympathy for them here. What were they supposed to do in the face of a breach of the border? And what did the protesters think would happen? (I know what Syria and some particularly cynical actors in Gaza and Lebanon probably hoped would happen: exactly what did happen.) But you can't really fault a military for protecting the territorial integrity of its state by force.  

5. Israel has been kidding itself if it had imagined itself immune from the non-violent, peaceful protests that have been sweeping the Arabic-speaking world. You can dismiss today's events in northern Israel as a plot engineered by the Syrians, Iranians and their proxies. But the Palestinian cause is a real and enduring one. What happens when the Palestinians in the West Bank start demanding statehood not through violence but through peaceful protests? How will Israel respond? One option they do not have is to bury their heads in the sand and pretend like the call for Palestinian statehood will go away. And good luck whenever some clever Palestinian leader starts organizing peaceful marches on some crazy hilltop settlements in the West Bank, counting on provoking the kind of response that the media in Israel and abroad will eat up.

6. Finally, remember the one rule I follow with respect to Levantine politics: just be cynical about the motives and actions of everyone, and you will never go wrong.

*Just to clarify, the only actual breach of which I know took place on the Syrian border. I look forward to hearing accounts from witnesses regarding what happened on the Lebanese border.