Border protests: Refugees reclaim their place in the debate

Several Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured as protesters tried to cross the fence into The Golan Heights. The event should remind Israelis of the need to reach a just political solution to the refugee problem, and to establish a mutually agreed and internationally recognized border with Syria


It’s unclear how many protesters were killed yesterday near the Syrian border. Reports range from eight – in the Israeli media – to more than 20, according to Syrian Television. According to Israeli sources, at least some of the protesters were killed from mines near the fence. Millions of landmines are buried in the ground of the Golan Heights.

The Syrian government has a vested interest in diverting attention from the daily killing of dozens of citizens by Assad’s regime to the confrontation near the border. Israel, on the other hand, wants to minimize the reported number of casualties – so the numbers from both sides should be taken a grain of salt.

Many people pointed to the hypocrisy of Damascus in blaming Israel for the killings while engaging in the ongoing murder of its own citizens. Such claims, however justified, do not exempt Israelis from the need examine the events and their moral and political implications. The Israeli leadership makes it sound as though the shooting of protesters couldn’t have been avoided, but there are many other ways to stop unarmed people – and those should have been at least tried. The “danger” of a few people entering Israel (only to be deported immediately) is not as serious as the lost of so many lives.


There are two points to be made here. First, Israel claims that it has the right – just like any other country – to defend its borders. But the fact is that Israel doesn’t have a mutually recognized border with Syria. The international border passes in the Hula Valley; the Golan Heights were occupied when Israel launched an attack on Syria in 1967.

The land conquered in the Six Day War was unilaterally annexed to Israel in 1981. Later, several governments in Jerusalem refused offers by Damascus to return the land in exchange for a peace agreement, asking instead to negotiate a new international border. No country, including the United States, has recognized Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan, which means that technically, as far as international law is concerned, the protesters crossed no border.

That doesn’t mean that Israel needs to allow free movement through the armistice line. But it does mean that as long as we don’t reach a solution that is mutually agreed upon and recognized by the international community – a presently impossible scenario due to events in Syria – Israel is likely to face more challenges to its control over the occupied territory.

Even more important is an effort to solve the refugee problem. For years, Israeli decision makers have simply denied this issue, claiming that the responsibility for the creation of the problem lies with the refugees themselves and the Arab world, due to the rejection of the 1947 partition offer (UN resolution 181) and the departure of Jews from Arab countries (even though it was mostly voluntarily). To use a phrase by Dahlia Shaham, Israeli leaders have once again replaced policy and end goals with justifications. They were aided by the Palestinian Authority’s tendency to focus the attention on the West bank and Gaza, and almost leave the Palestinian diaspora out of the political agenda. Now, for the first time since the Oslo agreement, the Refugees claim their place in the debate.

Israelis and their supporters need to understand that the refugee issue will not disappear. Apart from assuming responsibility for its creation – or at least, for a share in its creation – Israel must strive to reach a political solution to the issue of the Palestinian refugees, one that the refugees themselves will take part in.


Yesterday, when the dramatic events near the Syrian border unfolded, I went with a history-obsessed friend to visit the remains of Abu-Shusha, a Palestinian village near Kibbutz Gezer, some 25 minutes from Tel Aviv. We drove back and forth in the dirt road between the Kibbutz’s fields, walked on foot up and down the hill between the newly-planted olive and fig trees, but could hardly spot a trace of the community of more than a thousand Palestinians who once lived there. Later, as we drove back, my friend vowed to return there soon and continue the search. “Things don’t just disappear,” he told me.

Nor do people.


Read more on these issues:

Why Jews need to talk about the Nakba

How Nakba villages sunk into Israeli landscape