By Matt Duss
The clashes Sunday at the provisional border between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights—a virtual repeat of the demonstrations on May 15—reveal the continuing significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Middle East politics both in its genuine resonance and the way it’s often exploited by regional actors. The Arab Spring protests—which have now hit Palestine—are only intensifying pressure on the affected parties to work out a resolution.
On Sunday hundreds of Syrian Palestinian refugees approached the border fence near the towns of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights and Quneitra in Syria to mark the 44th anniversary of the Six Day War—commemorated by Palestinians as Yawm al-Naksa, or “day of the setback,” when thousands of Palestinians were displaced by the occupying Israeli army.
Israeli soldiers responded first with warnings and then with live fire. Syrian sources reported the deaths of some 22 Palestinian protesters, a number Israel disputes. Syrian forces demonstrated their ability to allow or prevent such protests in the area the following day by blocking Palestinian demonstrators from approaching the fence line as they had done on Sunday.
Some attempt to cast the clashes as simply an attempt by the embattled Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad—which has been dealing with several months of antiregime protests—to divert attention from its own troubles. But this is only part of the story. While the Palestinian issue may be constantly exploited by Middle East demagogues—such as al-Assad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and recently deceased Osama bin Laden—Arabs’ concern for Palestine is not their invention. It is an inescapable political reality—one that President Barack Obama has correctly analyzed as a key source of instability in the region.
In poll after poll, Arab publics have consistently placed Palestine high on their list of concerns and perceived U.S. support for the Israeli occupation high on their list of grievances. Military leaders such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus have recognized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a central challenge for the United States in the region. Its irresolution makes achieving U.S. interests more difficult, driving anti-American sentiment and making cooperation with U.S. goals more politically costly.
The Arab uprisings only make solving the problem more urgent. Speaking at the pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street’s national conference in February, journalist Mona Eltahaway reported that young protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square had told her that, “The hatred for Israel … will not end until you lift the siege on Gaza and treat Palestinians with freedom and dignity.” Eltahaway explains that the same young people who powered the uprisings against Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak are now saying, “It’s time to march for the freedom and dignity of our Palestinian sisters and brothers.”
Commenting on Sunday’s events, Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouti echoed that view. “What happened at Qalandia checkpoint in the West Bank [where unarmed protesters were met with Israeli tear gas on Sunday] and in the Golan Heights was proof that the Arab spring has reached Palestine.”
President Obama devoted 20 percent of his May 19 Middle East speech to discussing the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It showed that the president’s belief in the importance of resolving the conflict has not changed even if his approach to resolving it has.
Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that the Obama administration is now trying to restart indirect talks between the two sides (which have stalled since December 2010) aided by a new French initiative outlining basic parameters.
But time is short. Some tangible progress toward ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is needed to avert what could possibly be a massively destabilizing third intifada. The Palestinian initiative to have the United Nations vote on statehood is scheduled for September, and Palestinians themselves are growing increasingly (and understandably) disillusioned with a peace process that they believe has delivered them little.
One shouldn’t be surprised that demagogues and dictators like al-Assad would cynically exploit this issue. They will continue to do so as long as it’s a tool available to them. It is clearly in the U.S. interest to deny them that tool and to continue to press ahead toward a fair and lasting resolution of the conflict.