Michael Totten

Nakba Day’s Deadly Political Theater

Four Syrians were shot and killed on the Golan Heights today by the Israel Defense Forces after hundreds amassed on the border and dozens trampled the fence and crossed into Israeli territory.

Daphne Richmond-Barak at the Herzilya Interdisciplinary Center, while acknowledging that what the “protestors” did was unprecedented, also said the Israeli response was a violation of international law. “It would be more appropriate to look to the US’s actions against Mexican infiltrators on its southern border to learn about legitimate use of force,” said Asa Kasher, one of the authors of the Israeli military’s code of ethics.

I’m glad the Israeli military has people among its ranks who think like this. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Syrian military and government paid some of its officers and intellectuals to spend so much time wrestling with difficult legal and ethical questions? The likes of Hamas and Hezbollah don’t give two hoots about this sort of thing, nor does any other government or army in the Middle East outside Israel.

In this case, though, the critics, I think, are misguided. The Mexican analogy doesn’t hold up. The United States and Mexico are not at war with each other and haven’t been at war with each other for a very long time. Some Mexicans who illegally cross the border into the U.S. are involved in drug and human trafficking, but most are looking for jobs and better lives.

Israel wants nothing more than peace and normal relations with its neighbors, including its Syrian neighbors, but that feeling has never been reciprocated by the majority of Syrians and is certainly not reciprocated by the Syrian government. The Assad regime in Damascus has placed violent “resistance” against the very existence of Israel at the core of its ideology in large part because it cannot survive without it. The Israelis therefore have every reason to believe that a large crowd of people dismantling the border fence and crossing into their territory is a threat. And as it turned out, they were at least a little bit right. Many threw rocks, and 10 Israeli soldiers were injured.

Some who crossed over from Syria really do appear to have had peaceful intentions, however, even if that wasn’t clear at the time. “I’m tired of living in Syria,” said one. “We’d rather die than see more bloodshed. We’ve crossed the border in order to stay with our families, away from all the killing in Syria. We ask the powers at be in Israel to help us stay and not send us back.” And he’s not the only one who wants to stay.

Those people really are like most Mexicans who cross into the United States. They’re even more like Cuban refugees who brave the Caribbean and land on the beaches of Florida. It will be a real shame if it turns out that Israel killed or even wounded one of those people, but they were mixed in with others who were belligerent, and the Israelis could not have possibly known their intentions until they were interrogated.

Perhaps tear gas rather than bullets could have dispersed them, but I don’t know because I wasn’t there. Either way, anyone who forces their way across the border of an enemy state as part of a large violent mob should expect to be shot even by soldiers who belong to an army with strict rules of engagement. I’ve been all over the Middle East’s dangerous border areas, and these are not places to act recklessly or like an idiot. They certainly aren’t places where one should act violently.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to peacefully arrest dozens and especially hundreds at the same time, and if the Israelis failed to defend their border with a hostile state, if they established a precedent that the fence is porous and soft and therefore safe to cross whenever somebody feels like it, they would all but ensure that genuinely threatening armed infiltration would follow.

No doubt the Syrian government is thrilled that the Israelis opened fire. Bashar al-Assad desperately wants his furious citizens to think of the “Zionist Entity,” rather than his Arab Socialist Baath Party, as their number one enemy. It is not, however, remotely likely to work even if most Syrians do burn with a hatred of Israel, not when Assad’s death toll is nearing one thousand.