Last week, I interviewed Rami Zurayk, an agronomist at the American University of Beirut and Palestinian refugee rights activist, about the planning of the May 15 and June 5 demonstrations in Lebanon. Zurayk described to me a meeting that took place in Beirut before the Fatah-Hamas unity deal took where the May 15 movement planned its strategy. All Palestinian factions were represented, however, each leader received only a single vote on the motions being deliberated. “It was unbelievable to see the Hamas guy who represents 100,000 people have the same power as an independent person from the camps,” Zurayk told me. “In this setting, the lines began to blur and you could not tell who was from what faction any more. In the past, it was impossible to get people from the camps to agree on rallying under one flag and one symbol. But in this meeting everything changed.”
Zurayk said the refugees and their Lebanese allies (the involvement of Lebanese youth and civil society also reflected a new trend) resolved to carry out a mode of resistance that was “pacifistic in nature.” “Like the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and throughout Tunisia, the [May 15] demonstrators were audacious, tenacious and most of all, repetitive,” he explained. “Repetition is why Tahrir worked — you put your body on the line against repression. So that became our modality.” Zurayk described scenes he witnessed of refugee youth rushing the Israeli controlled frontier at Maroun al-Ras with nothing but Palestinian flags in their hands, and of the Israeli response: soldiers shot the youth dead, killing one almost every five minutes.
After an international outcry, Israel blamed the Syrian regime and Iran for the demonstrations at the frontiers (it had little to say about the killings it committed in Maroun al Ras, Lebanon, however). I asked Zurayk about the Israeli claim. He remarked, “No amount of Syrian money can make people run to a border knowing they will be shot at. If the Syrians are being clever, that is their consideration. But do you really think Palestinians need Syrians to make them want to return to Palestine? They are living in camps with sewage running openly, with no jobs and no opportunities.”
While evidence that the Syrian regime directly organized the demonstrations is scant to non-existent, the regime clearly enabled the demonstrators to reach the fence by neglecting to repel them with its own troops. Not only does this fact fail to excuse Israel’s wanton killing, it highlights the irony of Israel and its allies condemning the Syrian regime for its brutal repression of Syrian citizens rising up against it (of course, the whole world should deplore Assad’s draconian rule), while at the same time demanding that the regime repress the Palestinian refugees who are protesting for their own internationally recognized rights.
Yesterday, on June 5, the commemoration of Naksa Day, Palestinian refugees and their supporters returned to the Israeli controlled frontiers to protest the 44th anniversary of the occupation. Protests swelled at the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, where according to Joseph Dana Israeli forces tested out new and unusual weapons on demonstrators, and spread to Nablus, where Israeli forces fired teargas shells at a group of people protesting the occupation by planting trees. The most intense protests took place at the Quneitra crossing near the occupied Golan Heights, where Israeli forces gunned down at least 20 unarmed demonstrators as they approached the frontier fence (be sure to watch the video at the link). “We could have taken the easier route of uncontrolled fire, but we decided to operate in a very limited manner,” an army spokesman said afterward, reassuring the world that Israel could have killed hundreds more, but chose to pick off about 20 unarmed civilians in the name of restraint.
In the hours following the bloodshed, the Israeli response grew increasingly contorted. Army spokespeopleclaimed the demonstrators “were responsible for their own deaths,” claiming they stepped on landmines. No evidence of landmine deaths was provided by the unnamed military sources, only conjecture. Next, Israel turned to its favorite Syrian cut-out in Washington, Farid Ghadry, an AIPAC member and discredited “serial entrepreneur” who is widely regarded as the Syrian version of Ahmed Chalabi — Ghadry actually met Chalabi in Richard Perle’s living room. In a statement published on the website of his astro-turfed Reform Party of Syria, Ghadry claimed that the protesters at Quneitra were not actual Palestinian refugees, but impoverished “Syrian farmers” who had been paid $1000 each by the Assad regime just to show up, and $10,000 to die. Ghadry claimed he gleaned the information from “intelligence sources close to the Assad regime in Lebanon.”
Israeli military spokespeople appear to be pushing Ghadry’s press release, because the canard immediately showed up in a report by Yediot Aharnoth’s Hanan Greenberg, one of the many military correspondents in the Israeli media who dutifully report any claim by any flack in an olive uniform as though it were a substantiated fact. “Syrian Opposition: Anti-Israel Rioters paid $1000,” read the Yediot headline. But the story has not graduated beyond the pro-Israel blogosphere, probably because Ghadry and his shell of an opposition group — it is quite clearly a neocon front organization — have no credibility in Syria or anywhere else.
Leaving aside the allegations about Syria’s role in the demonstrations on the Israeli occupied frontiers of Golan, it is worth questioning whether Israel actually wants to see Assad step down. Yaakov Katz, another military correspondent who serves as a tool for Israeli securitocrats and army spokespeople, making him occasionally useful as a window into the army’s thinking, wrote in the Jerusalem Post in March:
As Israel watches the ongoing demonstrations in Syria against President Bashar Assad, its greatest concern for the moment is the uncertainty that change in Syria would bring to the region. Israel has gotten used to Assad and he is almost predictable.
A new regime, led by a new actor, would likely be unpredictable and when considering the large arsenal of long-range Scud missiles Syria has stockpiled over the years and the accompanying chemical warheads, Israel needs to be considered…
But when Israel looks at Syria it also sees the possible development of a new enemy, far more radical and extreme than the Assad they are familiar with. While not as strong and large as the Egyptian military, the Syrian military has obtained some advanced capabilities which, if the country falls apart, could fall into terrorist hands or be used by the country against Israel…
In the meantime, Israeli intelligence services are cautious in trying to predict how the riots in Syria will end and whether Assad will be prepared to cede power as easily as Hosni Mubarak did in Egypt.
By this logic, Israel is trying to calibrate its approach to the anti-Assad protests, taking into account the fact that the opposition movement is likely to be more antagonistic to it than Assad has been. The military-intelligence apparatus will determine how and when Israel responds, seeking to derive maximum gain from Syria’s internal crisis. But since the Arab Spring arrived on Israel’s doorstep, Israel’s strategy has depended on lethal violence and little else. And it may be that it has no other strategy, that there is no Plan B. Meanwhile, as I write, the demonstrators who camped out at Quneitra are waking up.