Palestinian Border Protests: The Arab Spring Model for Confronting Israel

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Yaron Kaminsky / AP

Demonstrators use a makeshift stretcher to carry the body of a man who was killed as protesters from Syria tried to approach the village of Majdal Shams, in the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel, on May 15, 2011

After more than 100 Palestinians breached Israel's border with Syria on Sunday, May 15, 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, comports with the familiar narrative of the conflict, one constructed over years of Israel's 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, Gaza and the occupied Palestinian enclaves of 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 had arranged in what they call a new paradigm for the conflict. The aim, which appears to be building support, aims to recast the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the same terms that brought down dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia.

Massive nonviolent 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 U.N. General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian 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. We'll have to study what happened today to do better."

Sunday's protests marked the anniversary of Israel's 1948 declaration of statehood, a day known as Nakba, or the catastrophe, to Palestinians who lost their land to the Jewish state. The day is routinely occasion for protests, and Israel had prepared for unrest. But in the Golan Heights, high ground Israel took from Syria in 1967, only 30 to 40 soldiers were on duty when hundreds of Palestinians began arriving by bus and marching toward the fence. Troops were ordered to shoot to maim. Four protesters were killed, and at least 100 scrambled into Majdal Shams, a Druze village so close to the Syrian frontier that it's known for the "shouting hill," where families separated by the fence gather to exchange news by hollering across no-man's-land.

Less clear was how the protesters navigated the Syrian security, which usually maintains strict control over the border area. Israeli officials interpreted protesters' apparent ease of access to a military zone as evidence of sponsorship by the battered government of President Bashar Assad. With street protests threatening his regime in cities across Syria, the reasoning goes, Assad found in the Nakba protests a perfect opportunity to shift the focus to Israel.

But Fadi Quran, a Ramallah organizer in the Palestinian youth movement that promoted the marches, says his contacts in Syria were actually terrified of the Assad government, which took steps to prevent some from traveling to the protests from refugee camps near Damascus, where they have lived since fleeing their homes in what is now northern Israel.

Governments of other neighboring states that host large Palestinian populations apparently were aware of the protest plans and responded according to their own interests. Egypt and Jordan, which have treaties with Israel, impeded the demonstrations. Those who are hostile, including Lebanon, eased their way into military zones. But Damascus appeared to be preoccupied with its own domestic unrest, according to Quran. "I honestly think, to a very large extent, they took the Syrian government by surprise," he tells TIME.

Demonstrators also gathered in Gaza and on the West Bank. Even there, on a march toward the Qalandia checkpoint near Ramallah, Quran insists no stones were thrown until Israeli troops fired tear gas, and then only by adolescents. But the overall makeup of the crowd, featuring older women and men as well as students, was a change from previous years, according to Shawan Jabarin of the human-rights advocacy group Al Haq.

"They say the Arab Spring gives people encouragement and makes people feel they can make a difference," says Jabarin. "The consciousness of the people, you feel it's something different."

Also encouraging people into the streets: the complete breakdown of peace talks with Israel. If Palestinians needed any additional reminder, the resignation of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell as President Obama's special envoy for peace was announced two days before Nakba.

"We have to come up with an improvement in nonlethal weapons, no doubt," says an aide to an Israeli Cabinet Minister. "But if we have a new approach to peace talks, then we won't have to deal with nonlethal weapons in September."

For their part, Palestinian protesters feel they've found a winning formula. The main political factions, Hamas and Fatah, were forced into embrace by the same nonviolent youth movement that now summons ordinary Palestinians to unite in shaming Israel into concessions.

"They understand the path to freedom is going to be long," Quran says, "but we're going to continue training in nonviolence, and we're going to continue marching in nonviolence until it is very clear in the international media who is violating human rights."

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein