Nazareth: They are extraordinary
scenes. Film shot on mobile phones captured the moment on Sunday
when at least 1,000 Palestinian refugees marched across no-man's
land to one of the most heavily protected borders in the world,
the one separating Syria from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Waving Palestinian flags, the marchers braved a minefield, then
tore down a series of fences, allowing more than 100 to run into
Israeli-controlled territory. As they embraced Druze villagers on
the other side, voices could be heard saying: "This is what
liberation looks like."
Unlike previous years, this Nakba Day was not simply a
commemoration of the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians in
1948, when their homeland was forcibly reinvented as the Jewish
state. It briefly reminded Palestinians that, despite their
long-enforced dispersion, they still have the potential to forge a
common struggle against Israel.
As Israel violently cracked down on last Sunday's protests on many
fronts -- in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and on the borders
with Syria and Lebanon -- it looked less like a military
superpower and more like the proverbial boy with his finger in the
The Palestinian "Arab Spring" is arriving and Israel has no
diplomatic or political strategy to deal with it. Instead on
Sunday, Israel used the only weapon in its current arsenal --
brute force -- against unarmed demonstrators.
Along the northern borders, at least 14 protesters were killed and
dozens wounded, both at Majdal Shams in the Golan and near Maroun
al-Ras in Lebanon.
In Gaza, a teenager was shot dead and more than 100 other
demonstrators wounded as they massed at crossing points. At
Qalandiya, the main checkpoint Israel created to bar West Bank
Palestinians from reaching Jerusalem, at least 40 protesters were
badly injured. There were clashes in major West Bank towns too.
And inside Israel, the country's Palestinian minority took their
own Nakba march for the first time into the heart of Israel,
waving Palestinian flags in Jaffa, the once-famous Palestinian
city that has been transformed since 1948 into a minor suburb of
With characteristic obtuseness, Israel's leaders identified
Iranian "fingerprints" on the day's events -- as though
Palestinians lacked enough grievances of their own to initiate
But, in truth, Israeli intelligence has warned for months that
mass demonstrations of this kind were inevitable, stoked by the
intransigence of Israel's right-wing government in the face of
both Washington's renewed interest in creating a Palestinian state
and of the Arab Spring's mood of "change is possible".
Following in the footsteps of Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrators,
ordinary Palestinians used the new social media to organise and
coordinate their defiance - in their case challenging the walls,
fences and checkpoints Israel has erected everywhere to separate
them. Twitter, not Tehran, was the guiding hand behind these
Although the protests are not yet a third intifada, they hint at
what may be coming. Or, as one senior Israeli commander warned,
they looked ominously like a "warm-up" for September, when the
newly unified Palestinian leadership is threatening to defy Israel
and the United States and seek recognition at the United Nations
of Palestinian statehood inside the 1967 borders.
Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, alluded to similar
concerns when he cautioned: "We are just at the start of this
matter and it could be that we'll face far more complex
There are several lessons, none of them comfortable, for Israel to
draw from the weekend's clashes.
The first is that the Arab Spring cannot be dealt with simply by
battening down the hatches. The upheavals facing Israel's Arab
neighbours mean these regimes no longer have the legitimacy to
decide their own Palestinian populations' fates according to
Just as the post-Mubarak government in Egypt is now easing rather
than enforcing the blockade on Gaza, the Syrian regime's
precarious position makes it far less able or willing to restrain,
let alone shoot at, Palestinian demonstrators massing on Israel's
The second is that Palestinians have absorbed the meaning of the
recent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. In establishing a
unity government, the two rival factions have belatedly realised
that they cannot make headway against Israel as long as they are
politically and geographically divided.
Ordinary Palestinians are drawing the same conclusion: in the face
of tanks and fighter jets, Palestinian strength lies in a unified
national liberation movement that refuses to be defined by
Israel's policies of fragmentation.
The third lesson is that Israel has relied on relative quiet on
its borders to enforce the occupations of the West Bank, Jerusalem
and Gaza. The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, in particular,
have allowed the Israeli army to divert its energies into
controlling the Palestinians under its rule.
But the question is whether Israel has the manpower to deal with
coordinated and sustained Palestinian revolts on multiple fronts.
Can it withstand such pressure without the resort to mass
slaughter of unarmed Palestinian protesters?
The fourth is that the Palestinian refugees are not likely to
remain quiet if their interests are sidelined by Israel or by a
Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations in September
that fails to address their concerns.
The protesters in Syria and Lebanon showed that they will not be
pushed to the margins of the Palestinian Arab Spring. That message
will not be lost on either Hamas or Fatah as they begin
negotiations to develop a shared strategy over the next few
And the fifth lesson is that the scenes of Palestinian defiance on
Israel's borders will fuel the imaginations of Palestinians
everywhere to start thinking the impossible - just as the Tahrir
Square protests galvanised Egyptians into believing they could
remove their dictator.
Israel is in a diplomatic and strategic dead-end. Last weekend it
may have got its first taste of the likely future.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth,
Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of
Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East”
(Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in
Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is
A version of this article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae),
published in Abu Dhabi.