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05.15.11

Israel Opens Fire on Nakba Day Rioters

After thousands of protesters from Lebanon and Syria stormed Israel's borders in honor of Nakba Day, the anniversary of Palestinians' displacement, soldiers opened fire, killing more than a dozen. Dan Ephron reports how the violence could affect this week's White House peace talks.

After thousands of protesters from Lebanon and Syria stormed Israel's borders in honor of Nakba Day, the anniversary of Palestinians' displacement, soldiers opened fire, killing more than a dozen. Dan Ephron reports how the violence could impact this week's White House peace talks. Plus, Peter Beinart on Israel’s Palestinian Arab Spring.

Israel had been bracing for riots in the West Bank on Sunday—the Nakba anniversary, when Palestinians commemorate their displacement in 1948, with the creation of Israel.

Instead, attention shifted to Lebanon and Syria, where thousands of protesters marched to the Jewish state's borders, drawing fire from Israeli troops. As of this writing, at least a dozen people who tried to breach the contested borders are reported to be dead and hundreds injured.

The events raise two interesting points—both of which President Obama will no doubt bear in mind when he hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House later this week.

One is that the Palestinian Authority is trying to prevent confrontations in the West Bank, for now. While Sunday's marches in the West Bank included some rock throwing, no serious clashes broke out, in part because Palestinian security forces blocked the demonstrators from reaching their destination. After striking a power-sharing agreement with the Islamic Hamas group last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appears eager to show that Palestine's commitment to security cooperation with Israel has not waned. Ahead of the Nakba commemoration, he ordered Palestinian forces to prevent acts of violence.

Even as Arabs rise up against their own governments, for many, the Palestinian issue remains an irritant—a source of anger against Israel and by extension the U.S.

The second point is broader: even as Arabs rise up against their own governments, for many, the Palestinian issue remains an irritant—a source of anger against Israel and by extension the U.S. In places where autocrats have been overthrown, like Egypt, fewer restrictions on speech and street protests could mean a greater venting of that anger. And in countries like Syria, dictators just barely surviving are happy to see that rage channeled at something other than their regimes.

The events could influence Obama and Bibi's discourse at this week's White House meeting—the latest in what have, until now, proven frustrating for the administration. In almost every session with the Israeli leader, White House officials have pressed him to spell out what he means when he talks about a Palestinian state, believing that an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help improve America's standing in the region. But Netanyahu remains opaque.

Ahead of the meeting this week, Obama had been contemplating a new approach. According to two people familiar with White House discussions, the president had talked to aides about the idea of making a speech in which he outlines America's vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace: a deal based on the 1967 borders, plus land swaps, that would allow Israel to retain some Jewish settlements. Based on those parameters, the president would then invite Israelis and Palestinians to renew the negotiations they'd abandoned last September. White House officials assessed that a reference to the '67 lines would be enough to entice Abbas back to the bargaining table. And it would compel Netanyahu to show his hand. If he said no, the administration would scale back efforts to broker a deal.

The plan fell apart on April 27, the day Abbas announced the deal with Hamas. Abbas' Fatah party had been battling with Hamas since the latter seized power in the Gaza Strip four years ago. And while their split raised doubts about Abbas' ability to implement any future peace deal with Israel, their reconciliation posed new problems. America designates Hamas as a terrorist organization, meaning U.S. officials are banned from contacts with members of the group. If, by law, the U.S. can no longer engage the Palestinian government (or parts of it), how can Obama expect Netanyahu to get back in the room with its representatives—and make concessions? "The reconciliation deal changed everything," says Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York with a keen understanding of the U.S. relationship with Israel. "Whatever the president might have been planning is now off the table."

Peter Beinart: Israel’s Palestinian Arab Spring The agreement could also prove expensive for Abbas. America provides more than $500 million in aid to the Palestinians, underwriting dozens of government and humanitarian programs. One of those programs involves training the Palestinian security forces, a five-year-old undertaking that has bolstered law-and-order in the West Bank and prevented violence against Israelis. Officials involved in the training said no decision has been made yet regarding the program's future. But Ackerman, the U.S. congressman, said its defunding was only a matter of time. "U.S. law is very very clear [sic]. We cannot, will not and don't want to give aid to anyone who has terrorists in their government." He said the financing would "dry up pretty rapidly" if the power-sharing goes forward.

In response to the criticism, Abbas says he will remain in charge of most of his country's policies. He insists little will change with the appointment of a new government. Preventing the West Bank from boiling over on Nakba Day is a good start.

Dan Ephron has been Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief since January, 2010. Previously, he served as a national security correspondent and deputy bureau chief for the magazine in Washington. His stories have also appeared in the Boston Globe, The New Republic and Esquire.