June 5, 2011 marked the forty-fourth anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel annexed the West Bank and Gaza strip. Palestinians commemorate the day as Yawm an-Naksa, their “Day of Defeat.” Historically, Palestinian refugees, as well as Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories as well as within Israel, stage protests on this anniversary. Often, they gather at contentious border towns to dispute the occupation of the Territories as well as ongoing Israeli settlements. At the Syrian border of the Golan Heights on Sunday, Israeli Defense Forces opened fire on unarmed Palestinian civilians trying to cross the border fence into the Occupied Territory.
The details are murky. Syrian state television, as of this writing, says the shootings claimed 23 lives and injured 350, but Reuters makes somewhat more modest claims. Meanwhile, Israel says the Syrian government instigated the protests in order to provoke a violent reaction from the IDF. Whether or not this is true, the video that captured the violence shows nonviolent protesters climbing the fence. This contradicts the official Israel report suggesting the the IDF merely defended Israel against violent “enemy nationals.” We also know that one of these “enemy nationals” was a 12 year-old boy.
Netanyahu’s hawkish government aside, the Syrian state is not particularly concerned with the rights and well-being of either its citizens or its Palestinian refugees. The U.S. government has extricated itself from the debate altogether, with the cop out plea for “all sides to exercise restraint”. And just to ensure that the international community knows where it stands, the U.S. government spouted that old, politically-empty slogan about how “Israel has a right to defend itself. Meanwhile, no one in power—not the international community, not Syria and certainly not Israel—is fully on the side of people living in Syria.
At the moment, it is not that far-fetched to suggest that Syrians and Israelis colluded to achieve the slaughter of peaceful protesters. Syria has been quietly slaughtering its own for weeks now. And though such conspiracies usually seem unbelievable, is it really such a stretch to wonder whether Syrian and Israeli officials finally—albeit accidentally—found something to agree on? That is, the inconvenience of the Palestinians. Syria is in the midst of an “Arab Spring” that neither Syria nor Israel really wants to contend with.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reports that some of the families of those killed believe that the Syrian government fomented the clash with the help of a paramilitary group in Syria called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP):
Sources have told Al Jazeera that families of Palestinian refugees who were killed along the border with Israel [Sunday] on the Golan Heights, have attacked the headquarters of the PFLP-General command, while two senior members were there and burnt it. Families accuse the Ahmad Jibril [paramilitary] group of encouraging their sons and manipulating their nationalist feelings to serve the Syrian government.
In other words, there is palpable suspicion among Palestinians that they are being used as political pawns in Syria. They may very well be right.
The Syrian government’s recent brutality against its own people does not help matters. The human toll in the country is astounding. No one watching the atrocities against the Syrian people can forget the devastating Hama massacres, in which 20,000 to 40,000 people were killed in a small Sunni anti-government uprising. Now, as then, there are disappearances. And just as it did so many years ago, the Syrian government indiscriminately continues its campaign of killing and torture against civilians, including children.
And the human rights atrocities are only escalating. Human Rights Watch released a 54 page document alleging war crimes in Syria last week. And just yesterday Al Jazeera reported that “Amnesty International…condemned Syrian authorities’ brutal treatment of protesters following one of the bloodiest weekends in months of pro-reform demonstrations, with more than 120 people reportedly shot dead. And while Syrian state TV frequently confuses the body count, CNN reports suggest that it passed at least a thousand last weekend.
Yesterday, a group of activists and scholars representing Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and a coalition of transnational human rights organizations submitted documents to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Citing Article 15 of the Rome Statute that created the court, these activists are demanding that the Syrian government be held accountable for “crimes against humanity.” Based on this documentation, the ICC will hopefully pursue the criminal prosecution of Syrian officials and those most directly responsible for the atrocities. And the European Union today issued a call for economic sanctions against Syria.
Certainly, these are important steps, but we cannot forget that human rights statutes are notoriously difficult to enforce. Or that sanctions often hurt the poor and vulnerable in any population. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, of course, non-actionable, and while the ICC may soon pursue individual war criminals in Syria, a handful of arrests will not stop the widespread violence. Meanwhile, there are no good options for the international community. On one hand, any hint of military involvement that involves the U.S. is unlikely to be welcomed in Syria. But without direct intervention, the ongoing people’s movement in Syria is likely to face more and more atrocities at the hands of the Syrian state, with little relief in sight.
There are no easy policy solutions in Syria. And, of course, the Palestinians are likely to be forgotten. Those who died over the weekend will seem inconsequential given the scale of violence in Syria. And the international community, wanting to avoid more sniping with Netanyahu, will keep its head down. But we all need to understand that this is just one more example of the Israeli right wing’s blatant disregard for human life in an Arab country. And just as we condemn the abuses in Syria, we must also condemn Israel’s crimes.
While Israel may “have a right to defend itself,” we must not forget that the Palestinians involved were unarmed, counted children among them and posed no serious security threat. Likewise, we must keep in mind that the border breached was not a legitimate one, but a wall preventing outsiders from entering the Occupied Territory in the Golan Heights. And according to international law, Israel does not have authorization to protect its disputed Territories. And even if it did, there would be no justification for shooting to kill protesters. Why should these protesters be branded as violent “enemy nationals” when we are lauding protesters throughout the rest of the region for heralding an “Arab Spring”?
The IDF troops who shot at Palestinians over the weekend were not defending themselves against a legitimate threat of violence. Like the Syrians and like so many despotic governments throughout the Middle East, they just wanted to quell the protesters. I believe there is much more violence in store in Syria, but I am hopeful that the pro-democracy protestors will continue to fight, and will ultimately prevail. And I firmly believe that this democratic uprising will assume an important roll in making Israel accountable to its neighbors and to human rights norms. We must hold the Israeli government responsible for the atrocities it commits just as we should any other state. There cannot be any kind of lasting, sustainable “Spring”—and there certainly will not be security for the state of Israel—unless there is a just and humane peace for all people in the region.