As the world continues to cover the demonstrations against the Ba’athist regime in Syria, the region’s oldest conflict flared up once again on Sunday, with thousands of Palestinians from Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank converging toward Israel in a show of force against the occupation. The four pronged protest came on the same day as Israel was commemorating its independence. To Israelis, the day was full of joy, unity and a relief from the usual turmoil that tends to dominate the country’s headlines. For Palestinians, on the other hand, the day marked the biggest setback for their cause.
While it is not uncommon for the anniversary (Israel was established in 1948 with the help of a United Nations mandate) to proceed with a few minor instances of violence, this year’s festivities turned out to be far bloodier than usual. At the end of the day, twelve people were reported killed and even more were injured when Israeli troops and Palestinian demonstrators clashed on Israel’s borders.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is scheduled to speak to the United States Congress this week, called the coordinated protests an effort to delegitimize Israel’s existence as a state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had a different take on the events, praising the participants fighting for Palestinian rights.
A dozen fatalities may not be earth shattering given how violent the conflict has gotten after more than sixty years, yet the toll illustrates that Israelis and Palestinians are still stubbornly holding on to their respective positions without any room for compromise. The latest American measure this past September produced nothing but a few rounds of feckless negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian delegations. Mediation from the United Nations, with the United States and Europe taking point, hasn’t resulted in anything noteworthy either, despite the resources devoted to a resolution. The resignation of George Mitchell as President Barack Obama’s Middle East Envoy only adds to the stagnation that has come to characterize the conflict since the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. A solution is as far off as ever, and with Hamas joining the Palestinian government last week, the chances that Israel will resume negotiations is exceedingly slim.
Both sides have much to gain from an eventual resolution. For Israel, security with Palestine and its Arab neighbors could finally be achieved after years of looking over their shoulders. For Palestinians, the goal is to have an independent, sovereign state joining the community of nations. Nearly every country involved with the negotiation process understands what needs to be done for a deal to be reached — Israel needs to withdraw to 1967 lines and the Palestinian leadership must accept the legitimacy of Israel’s Jewish character in return. The United States, on various proposals under different administrations, has put forth the same peace plan parameters for the past twenty years, albeit in multiple stages. Every human rights group in the world has endorsed, and continues to endorse, the two-state formula.
Yet politics on all sides drags reconciliation down. With the Israeli political system taking a sharp right turn, there is little confidence that Netanyahu will be able to convince his governing coalition to stop settlement construction or ease up on security restrictions on Palestinian land. Mahmoud Abbas is no better in his outlook either, refusing to negotiate directly until settlements are stopped permanently. The United States are perhaps the biggest lame duck of all, with messages of peace emanating from the White House downgrading to empty mantra. Washington hesitates to use its power as leverage to coax everyone around the same table.
Palestinians and Israelis are growing tired of the same old status quo while the rest of the Arab world fights for change in their own societies. With the latest violence on all sides of Israel, the Palestinians may be trying to remake the “Arab Spring” into their own reform instigator. That spring has now reached the borders and shores of Israel.
How will Israel respond? Or, better yet, will it respond constructively?