Israel: Protests show fight over state's existence

JOSEF FEDERMAN - Associated Press
Israeli troops patrol along the border between Israel and Syria near the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights early Monday, June 6, 2011. Israeli troops are bracing for more border violence after a day of deadly clashes with pro-Palestinian protesters who tried to surge into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights from Syria. Several dozen demonstrators were camped out on the Syrian side of the border overnight, but the Israeli military says all is quiet early Monday. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
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Israeli troops patrol along the border between Israel and Syria near the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights early Monday, June 6, 2011. Israeli troops are bracing for more border violence after a day of deadly clashes with pro-Palestinian protesters who tried to surge into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights from Syria. Several dozen demonstrators were camped out on the Syrian side of the border overnight, but the Israeli military says all is quiet early Monday.

JERUSALEM (AP) — A second round of deadly clashes with Palestinian protesters trying to breach the border from Syria has made Israel's leadership even more skeptical about reaching peace with its Arab neighbors.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday angrily accused Syria's embattled president of orchestrating the protests to deflect attention from internal unrest. More broadly, Netanyahu said the Syrian-backed assault on Israel's borders was fueling a Palestinian challenge to the very existence of the Jewish state.

"The argument is over the fact of the establishment of the state of Israel" in 1948, he told reporters after a meeting of his Likud Party.

For the second time in a month, hundreds of unarmed protesters from Syria, many of them the descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948, surged toward the frontier with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights on Sunday and tried to burst through the border. Israeli forces kept the crowd from making it through, but 23 protesters were killed, according to Syrian officials. Those numbers were impossible to independently verify.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Monday that the American administration was "deeply troubled" by the Syrian protests, which he said appeared to be "an effort by the Syrian government to incite events and draw attention away from its own internal issue."

"Israel, like any sovereign nation, has a right to defend itself," he said.

Three weeks earlier, hundreds of protesters successfully breached the border for several hours before they were rounded up and sent back to Syria. Four were reported killed.

The protesters were not calling for a Palestinian state alongside Israel — the stated goal of peace talks. Instead, they demanded a return to the homes of ancestors who lost properties during Israel's war of independence six decades ago.

These repeated attempts to challenge Israel's borders have played into widespread Israeli fears that the Palestinians do not seek a state only in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war — but ultimately want to take over all of present-day Israel as well.

"The demand that has been raised over the last few days that descendants of Palestinian refugees return to the Jewish state is a demand that will kill the peace process," said Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev. "Those who want to flood Israel with the descendants of Palestinian refugees want to destroy the Jewish state."

The plight of Palestinian refugees is one of the most difficult and emotional issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948-49 Mideast war. Today, those refugees and their descendants number several million. The Palestinians claim these people have an inalienable "right to return" to lost properties.

Israel rejects any large-scale return of refugees, saying it would destroy the country's Jewish character. It says refugees should be resettled in a future Palestinian state.

Israel has been shaken by the political turmoil sweeping the Middle East. Netanyahu has warned of Islamic militants gaining strength from the unrest, and Israelis are nervous about the prospect of a new Egyptian regime that might be more hostile to Israel, though the two nations have a peace treaty.

The latest round of peace talks with the Palestinians broke down in September, just three weeks after their launch, over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the Palestinian's hoped-for capital.

Azzam Ahmed, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the Palestinians remain committed to reaching peace with Israel.

"We have been negotiating with Israel to establish an independent state on the 1967 borders and resolve the refugees issue in an agreed-upon solution, but Israel always declined and created huge obstacles by building settlements in the Palestinian territories," he said.

He said the protests in Syria "are not about undermining Israel. It's about individual rights for each one driven out of his home to return to his home."

The protests have added to Netanyahu's skepticism toward the Palestinians. He has said it would be impossible to resume peace talks with Abbas if the Palestinian leader goes through with plans to form a unity government with the rival Hamas group. The Iranian-backed Hamas opposes peace with Israel.

Israel has also criticized Palestinian plans to seek U.N. recognition of their independence in September, with or without a peace deal.

Israeli defense officials believe the Syrian unrest could be a dry run for much wider protests in the West Bank and east Jerusalem after a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence in September. Israeli military officials acknowledge they are intensely preparing for September, though they have said little about how they will respond.

On Monday, Syrian police blocked dozens of protesters from approaching the Israeli frontier, apparently fearing a repeat of the deadly clashes a day earlier.

Syria gave no reason for the move, but could be wary of provoking Israel too much. While the two countries have not fought a war in nearly 40 years, Israel has occasionally struck targets inside Syria in response to perceived threats.

Israeli leaders made it clear they held Syria responsible for the latest violence. "It allowed these people to carry out provocations that challenged Israel's sovereignty," Netanyahu said. "This is an attempt to divert international attention from events in Syria."

Human rights groups say more than 1,200 people have died in Syria's crackdown on anti-government protesters since March.

Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, predicted that Syrian President Bashar Assad's days in office were numbered, and said there was no point in pursuing peace with the teetering Syrian government.

Israel has conducted several rounds of talks with Syria, most recently in 2008, but never reached an agreement.

"I think he will fall. He has lost his legitimacy," Barak told Israel Radio.

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Federman can be reached at www.twitter.com/joseffederman