The Arab spring comes to Palestine

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Karl Vick reports for Time:

After more than 100 Palestinians breached Israel’s border with Syria on Sunday, knocking down a fence and striding into a village in the Golan Heights, overmatched Israeli security forces scrambled to glean what they could from the protesters who had just, without so much as a sidearm, penetrated farther into the country than any army in a generation.

Under close questioning, the infiltrators closed the intelligence gap with a shrug and one word: Facebook. The operation that had caught Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence complex flat-footed was announced, nursed and triggered on the social networking site that has figured in every uprising around the Arab World — and is helping young Palestinians change the terms of their fight against Israel.

The headlines Sunday were all about the violence of the day: at least four people were shot dead by Israeli forces on the Syrian fence line, and as many as 10 were killed either by Israeli or Lebanese army gunfire at a similar demonstration on the nearby frontier with southern Lebanon. The death toll, along with the accounts of stone-throwing and tear gas, comport with the familiar narrative of the conflict, one constructed over years of Israel describing efforts to defend itself. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu encouraged that narrative on Sunday, arguing that the protesters were undermining the very existence of the State of Israel.

But those closer to events found in the day the makings of a new narrative. The Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian enclaves of Gaza and the West Bank approached Israeli gun positions on Sunday without arms of their own. If some teenagers threw rocks, a protest leader said they had apparently failed to attend the workshops on nonviolence the organizers arranged in what they call a new paradigm for the conflict. The aim, which appears to be building support, aims to re-cast the Palestinian-Israel conflict on the same terms that brought down dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia.

Massive non-violent protests are aimed at winning international sympathy for the Palestinian perspective, and as a result, forcing Israel to pull out of territories its army has occupied since 1967. As the dust settled Sunday, senior Israeli officers acknowledged their vulnerability to the approach, which dovetails with the strategy of Palestinian leaders to ask the UN General Assembly to recognize a Palestininian state in September.

“What we saw today was the promo for what we might see in September on the day the United Nations declares a state: Thousands of Palestinians marching toward Israeli checkpoints, Israeli settlements and the fence along the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians coming with their bare hands to demonstrate,” a senior Israeli officer tells TIME. “This is a huge problem. Well have to study what happened today to do better.”

Read the entire article “Palestinian Border Protests: The Arab Spring Model for Confronting Israel” here. And for a more indepth report on the background to the protests see Matthew Cassel’s article “Refugees march to return” in the Electronic Intifada.

Update: Tony Karon hits a similar note writing on the Time website putting the protests in the context of the “post-peace process” world and the discourse’s shifting center of gravity from 1967 to 1948:

Welcome to the post-peace process: The drama that unfolded on Israel’s boundaries on Sunday as 12 Palestinians were killed in a wave of unarmed civil disobedience was but a taste of things to come. That was the warning from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Sunday night, and he’s certainly got reason to worry: Rather than pin their hopes on a moribund peace process, Palestinians have begun instead to align themselves with the Arab Spring  by pressing for their own rights through acts of people power. Even if there’s no immediate followup to Sunday’s protests, they represent a political crisis of epic proportions, not only for Israel and the United States, but also potentially even for the Palestinian leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas (and even, possibly, for his new Hamas partners in government).

Israel’s security establishment has always seen mass unarmed civil disobedience as far more threatening than rocket fire or suicide bombers, because military responses to non-military challenges weaken Israel’s diplomatic and political standing. The protests also represent a challenge for Abbas, whose proclivity to compromise on issues such as the rights of Palestinian refugees in order to achieve an agreement with Israel is not shared by those taking to the streets.

And while Sunday’s protests that turned deadly on the border with Lebanon and on the cease-fire line with Syria will have suited the agenda of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, those refugees — whose families have lived in squalor since their dispossession by Israel in the conflict over its founding in 1948 — do not need the Assad regime to spur them to stake their (often downplayed) claims in the outcome of any Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Not that there is any Israeli-Palestinian peace process left to speak of. Just last Friday, Obama’s Middle East Special Envoy, Sen. George Mitchell, gave up the pretense that defined his position and resigned. And Sunday’s events were a sharp reminder that the collapse of the peace process does not mean ordinary Palestinians are simply going to accept their lot. Indeed, the conflict is now heading into uncharted waters in which many of the assumption of the past two decades are called into question.

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