Apologies to all you youngsters out there who don’t remember the hilarious comedy spoof of the 1970s starring Alan Arkin and an amazing cast, The Russians are Coming! The Russian are Coming! The plot revolved around a Russian submarine which runs aground on the New England coast, thus throwing the populace into a hysterical uproar, believing that the arrival of the sub presaged a Russian invasion of America.
Of course the recent Nakba Day protests in which thousands of Palestinians and their supporters penetrated the Israeli border from territory of five frontline nations are no comedy, unless it’s one of the darkest kinds. The joy felt by the Druze on the Israeli side of the border when their brethren crossed a mine field and leapt over a fence to meet them, quickly turned to horror when the IDF mowed down four of their number though they were completely unarmed. Israel has faced no consequences for its heinous overreaction.
What I wanted to get at in the reference to the movie though is the vast divide between the average Israeli Jewish response to the border violation and the response of foreigners. For Israelis, these were looming hordes come to rape and pillage Israel. They had to be stopped by any means necessary including lethal violence. They had to be taught a lesson not to tinker with Israel lest they repeat these theatrics.
For the average foreign observer, the Israeli response was typically bellicose, aggressive and brutal. It showed the obtuseness of Israel both to the injustices it has perpetrated and to the perception of its behavior on the world stage. So in my film analogy, the Israelis were the hysterical New England residents believing their country was about the be overrun.
Returning to Nakba Day…what did Israel expect from its own counter-provocation? The demonstrations will now take on a continuing life of their own. The IDF responded in precisely the way the organizers of this protest would’ve expected. And now that Israel has drawn blood, the protesters have been in effect dared to take up the challenge. If the IDF had merely treated the border violations as a civil matter and turned the protesters away in a non-lethal manner, the protests would’ve likely petered out or taken a different form.
But now, Israel has thrown down the gauntlet. And one thing Israel may find is that the Arab world, in the aftermath of the democratic revolutions which convulsed Arab capitals from Tunis to Damascus, is in no mood to back down in the face of bullies. Israel may have the most powerful army in the Middle East, but what can it do against the possibility of tens of thousands or protesters piercing its borders? Can it afford to murder hundreds as has happened in Syria? Does it have enough political capital left in the international community to withstand the universal condemnation this would arouse? Not to mention calls for international criminal prosecution? Does Bibi think Barack will cheer him on as Bush did when Israel slaughtered over 1,000 Lebanese civilians in 2006?
Similarly, when Israel mowed down nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists on the Mavi Marmara, it provoked a series of such flotillas chugging to Gaza. Now, the Turkish foreign minister has warned Israel not to toy with Turkey by considering another military attack on a Turkish convoy planning to set sail for Gaza in June. This could set up some sort of armed confrontation between the two former allies. Isn’t it interesting how quickly relations and alliances shift in the Middle East?
I predict Bibi will fold in the face of the Turkish threat and these ships will reach Gaza. Israel tends to back down when it realizes its opponent is as strong as it is. Israel’s army and political leadership prefers to bully states and entities with weak military forces like Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. That’s why there hasn’t been an armed confrontation with Jordan since 1967. And conversely, it’s why it attacked the Mavi Marmara and forcibly prevents other unarmed ships from breaching the Gaza siege. If any of these ships had a military escort, the situation would be different.
With the UN General Assembly vote looming in September, Palestinian activists will test Israel to determine how it will react to such protests. If Israel continues to overreact and kills more activists and gets into a pissing match with Turkey, it will strengthen the movement for statehood. This will also take the wind out of the sails of the Obama administration in its effort to carry water for Israel by vetoing the resolution in the Security Council if it makes its way there.