The simultaneous marches Sunday by thousands of Palestinian refugees who approached, and in places breached, the Israeli borders, causing Israeli troops to open fire and kill over a dozen refugees, have been treated by Israel as an existential threat – which is exactly what this is.
The fact that the grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees made this symbolic gesture on the anniversary of the dismemberment of Palestine and the creation of Israel in 1948 should worry the Israelis deeply, because it speaks volumes about the state of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict today.
The symbolism of what happened Sunday is terrifying for Israelis, in fact far more terrifying than any military threat that Israel has ever faced, because it reflects three cardinal realities that mean only trouble for Israel. The first is that the element of time is working against the Zionist strategy of creating a powerful Israeli state that can either intimidate the Palestinians into forgetting about their right to return to their homes in Israel, or simply generating hopelessness among the refugees that ultimately makes them give up their quest for repatriation or restitution. Time since 1948 has only turned the original 750,000 Palestinian refugees into 4.5 million refugees today whose attachment to their land, home and rights is stronger than ever.
In this respect, Israelis who take a moment to reflect on the meaning of what happened Sunday should see in the acts of the Palestinians a compressed historical image of the Jews’ own epic determination to return to their ancestral homeland in Palestine, after thousands of years of exile. The combination of historical memory, nationalist identity, and political activism is stronger than any military means that can be used to regain one’s national rights – as the Israelis should know from their own experiences and their own national struggle.
The second reality is that Palestinians are exploring new means of resisting Israel and its denial of Palestinian refugee rights, including nonviolent resistance through peaceful marches to the borders of Israel. The specter of refugees walking to the borders of Israel from four different points – in Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza – is a nightmare for Israel for what it portends for the future. If the Palestinians organize such nonviolent marches and other protests skillfully – which is more than likely – they will create situations that the Israelis will not be able to control. I would expect, for example, coordinated nonviolent protests that see all Palestinians mobilize simultaneously against Israel in the very near future.
Here is what I would look for in the months ahead. Palestinian refugees will continue to march peacefully to the borders of Israel from all directions; Palestinians living under Israeli occupation or siege in the West Bank, Gaza and Arab East Jerusalem would undertake their own nonviolent protests; Palestinians who are Israeli citizens would march peacefully in solidarity inside Israel; and, Palestinians around the world would march peacefully to Israeli embassies and consulates. All of them would carry Palestinian flags and chant nationalist songs. Israelis everywhere in the world would be besieged by hundreds of thousands of peaceful Palestinian protesters who collectively make the point that they have not forgotten or forfeited their rights for a redress of grievance and an end to their refugee status. Most of the world would almost certainly support such peaceful protests, forcing Israel to respond to the legitimate rights of the Palestinians through means other than shooting and killing them.
The third point that should worry Israelis is that the Palestinians themselves have started the process of reuniting their political leadership in the form of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the reconstitution and revitalization of the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization. This will create a unified Palestinian national leadership that represents all Palestinians in the world, and that is likely to commit to nonviolent protests as the most effective means of continuing the struggle against Israel and Zionism – until a fair political resolution to the conflict is achieved, based on the existing Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 that remains on the table.
This development could be bolstered by the political transformations now taking place across the Arab world, where more democratic, representative and legitimate Arab governments are certain to reflect their public opinions that would want to show solidarity with and support for the Palestinian struggle, especially a nonviolent struggle.
We may be on the verge of a historic shift in Palestinian tactics in fighting the Israeli threat, whereby coordinated nonviolent resistance will both neutralize the military might that Israel now enjoys and force Israelis to consider a more realistic and credible political response that would allow for a negotiated end to the conflict that satisfies both sides’ national aspirations and legal rights.
The Israelis are worried, and they should be – because they just saw in the Palestinians’ fortitude a mirror image of the same Jewish determination to struggle over generations, and ultimately to achieve their national rights in their ancestral homeland.