The corrosive results of prolonged Syrian border clashes

Analysis: How do you keep your borders from being breached in a way that doesn’t play into the other side’s hands?

June 7, 2011 01:55
IDF solders on the Syrian-Israeli border.

Naksa day at Syrian border FOR GALLERY 465 09. (photo credit: Reuters )

In the short term, Israel survived Sunday’s clashes on the Syrian border with limited damage.

There were no IDF casualties, and there was no outcry from the world over what was clearly the country’s right to protect the integrity of its borders. The Syrian deaths are regrettable, but the responsibility for them rests squarely on the shoulders of those trying to infiltrate Israel.

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No country can allow its sovereignty to be breached.

Imagine how the US would respond if thousands of Mexicans rushed the border with Texas, or how India would respond if thousands of Pakistanis tried to pour across that border.

Perhaps for that reason the clashes on the Syrian border, which according to the Syrian authorities – not exactly known for their reliability – left more than 20 dead and hundreds wounded, was not a dominant international news story on Sunday. It wasn’t even the dominant story in the Arabic media, where Yemen took those honors, and the clashes on the Israeli-Syrian border competed with President Bashar Assad’s gunning down of his own people.

Nor did countries of the world fall over themselves issuing strong statements condemning Israel for forcefully preventing the breach of its borders (although there were some exceptions, notably Russia).

Compare all that with the situation a year ago when nine Turks were killed on the Mavi Marmara after they attacked IDF commandos who boarded the ship to keep it from breaching the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The difference this time is not only because of an appreciation by many of Israel’s right to defend its borders, but also because following Assad’s butchering of his own people, there are few illusions left in the West of the nature of Assad’s regime. There also is a realization that busloads of people don’t just show up on the border without government collusion. It is clear to most that Assad is desperately trying to change the conversation.

So this time Israel dodged the bullet.

No overly harsh condemnations; no calls for international committees of inquiry; no demands to drag Israel to the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

But that doesn’t mean the images from the border don’t have a long-term, accumulative deleterious effect.

If pictures are seen of IDF snipers shooting at “demonstrators,” even if those demonstrators are trying to infiltrate the country, then eventually there will be those out there who will ask what the difference is between what Israel is doing, and what Assad is doing.

Those working to delegitimize Israel will use these images to reinforce their charge that Israel is a criminal state.

And that characterization is one the Palestinians are eager to promote in the run-up to their September statehood gambit at the UN.

There has been much discussion over the past few weeks, since the first rush on the borders on May 15, about how this is all a dress rehearsal for the way the Palestinians will react if the UN General Assembly recognizes a Palestinian state, but nothing changes on the ground.

But that misses the point. What suits the Palestinian narrative right now are pictures of “refugees” being killed by Israel as they try to “return” to their homes. This, on an emotional level, strengthens their argument to the UN for a Palestinian state for a stateless people. What won’t be discussed in the UN is that the Palestinians don’t see their future state as the refuge for the refugees clamoring on Israel’s northern borders, since they want to see those refugees “returned” to pre- 1967 Israel.

And as much as the Palestinians are looking for legitimization of their state at the UN, they are working round the clock to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world – and to cast it as a pariah, an apartheid state, an outcast that has no compunction about shooting unarmed protesters. Because if the world will delegitimize Israel, it will be more likely to legitimize the Palestinians.

And for Israel, therein lies the rub.

How do you keep your borders from being breached in a way that doesn’t play into the other side’s hands? The situation is made even more difficult by the fact that Assad right now is viewed in Jerusalem as having nothing to lose, which is the reason he is allowing busloads of people to reach the border for the first time in over 35 years, even as Jordan and Lebanon are both keeping protesters from their borders with Israel. Those countries realize they have more to lose in clashes with Israel. Assad, however, does not.

Moreover, it is not clear if anyone at all has leverage over the Syrian dictator. Moscow, to a certain degree, has helped keep the international community from coming down too hard on Assad, a product of the patron-client relationship that has long existed between the two countries. Russia’s response to Sunday’s events was telling, expressing “deep concern in relation to the new surge of Israeli-Palestinian confrontations.

The death and injury of many peaceful demonstrators in the course of these protests is of particular concern,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

There you have it: Moscow’s loyalty to its client to the bitter end. It is probable that Israel is trying to use its good relations with Moscow to convince Assad that the last thing he needs right now is problems with Israel on the border.

But if Sunday’s events are any indication, Moscow’s leverage is also limited.

And if Assad feels he is going down, he is not going to miss an opportunity – which he thinks might help him – to further chip away at Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Sunday’s clashes on the border, therefore, are very likely not going to be the last.

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