Palestinians protest to mark 62 years since the Nakba, or catastrophe May 17, 2010
Palestinians protest to mark 62 years since the Nakba, or catastrophe May 17, 2010 Photo by AP
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Looking at the Palestinian city sprawling in every direction outside his office window, the colonel smiled and said wryly, "of course we don't have an answer for 5,000 protesters marching on a roadblock. Tear gas and rubber bullets cannot stop a large group of people determined to go forward."

The other option remained unspoken. The veteran officer, nearing the end of his two-year stint in this position, perfectly understands the reality of the situation he is leaving behind him, and in his quiet way, he was sounding an alarm bell.

Over the past four months, a number of friends and colleagues have accused me of taking a naive and romantic view of the revolutions that began sweeping Arab countries in January. The criticism has centered mainly on my perspective of events while reporting from Egypt. The revolutionaries, charged the critics, are not as they seemed to the foreign journalists in Tahrir Square; they are basically anti-Israel and anti-Western, harboring Islamist or nationalist pan-Arab sentiments, not liberal democrats at all. And for all his faults, they added, we will sorely miss Hosni Mubarak.

Besides the standard answer that it is just too early to credibly interpret the Egyptian revolution, or any of the others, or to predict their aftermaths, there is one conclusion we can draw for sure: Arab civilians have proved to their rulers and the world that where they have the will, they can face down the might of police, security forces and even the military to overthrow long-entrenched dictatorships.

Political scientists and, in the future, historians as well can place these insurrections in context and show how they were part of a continuous process. But there is also a point in time, a watershed moment, at which the hold of fear is broken. Such a moment came on the fourth day of protests in Cairo, January 28, when after a day of running battles on the overpasses leading to Tahrir, the tear gas and batons, the black paddy wagons, the power of relentless repression all ceased to be effective and their potency died away.

That moment is an unmistakable tipping point, transcending politics, ideology and religion, after which nothing is ever the same. Such a moment came in Cairo and in Tunis in January, and in Sana'a this week. Though it may be tarrying, it seems certain to come in Tripoli and Damascus.

No one knows whether what will come next will be better; it may not. But the toppling of an old order, after decades of unquestioned rule, is irreversible once the tipping point has been reached.

The limits of containment

This cannot be irrelevant to the situation still faced by Israel and the Palestinians as the occupation enters its 45th year this week. The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, admitted as much when he told a session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last Tuesday that "we have a new central player in the region, the street."

Just as no set of circumstances in any two Arab states is identical, the Israeli-Palestinian equation is certainly unique in the region. For a start, populations elsewhere faced their own regimes; here, we are speaking about two different nations.

Second, the Palestinians, regardless of where they are, not only have to overcome the Israelis to gain self-determination; they first have to challenge an Arab government. In the West Bank that is the Palestinian Authority, whose security forces have so far prevented demonstrations from getting out of hand and coming face to face with Israeli forces. In Gaza, Hamas is not allowing any wide-scale independent confrontations for fear of losing control of their own territory. The same is true in Lebanon, where the army closed of the border region on Sunday.

So far, the only major showdown has been on the Syrian border - twice in the last four weeks. But while it took place under the guise of a refugees' march back to Palestine, there is growing evidence that it was, at least in part, orchestrated by the Assad regime in a desperate bid to deflect international attention away from its increasingly bloody repression of pro-democracy protests in Syria. This was a disturbing development, but not yet the tipping point.

But there is growing recognition that the point is not far off. "The Palestinians now have the initiative," said the colonel. "If they decide to go down that path, there is little we can do to stop them."

The IDF's new watchword is "containment," which currently means confining any confrontation with Palestinian civilians to as limited an area as possible and preventing widespread casualties that would cause the unrest to spread and escalate. Containment necessitates real-time intelligence that provides early warning of planned marches and protests, thus giving enough time to mass large forces equipped with riot gear. Hopefully, they will be capable of blocking the marchers without using too much lethal force before they succeed in entering a settlement or crossing the separation fence.

But these means are limited and, to a large degree, reliant on continuing cooperation with the Palestinian security forces. Once the thousands march and the Palestinian police decide to step aside, the only thing stopping them would be a bloodbath, which the IDF seems extremely reluctant to contemplate. But under the current government, can such an outcome be ruled out?

Many see this as a dream come true. Supporters of the Palestinians believe this will finally push Israel over the brink into pariah status. Others see this as the only way to break the diplomatic impasse and the deadlock over the two-state solution. Even some of those who claim to have Israel's best interests at heart see this as the ideal outcome.

But the truth is that it would be a nightmare for both Israelis and Palestinians. Neither side has any credibility when it comes to using nonviolent methods. Both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are panicky administrations with little taste for taking responsibility, and in neither society is there a moral consensus over the limits of force and violence.

The IDF would be torn from within if it had to forge a response to thousands of civilians marching from Ramallah to the center of Beit El, undeterred by tear gas and water cannons. The standard orders of using "selective" fire "at their legs" would not work in such a situation. Some soldiers and their officers will feel a mounting death toll is justified; others will disobey orders, leaving the IDF in disarray.

Who would join in next as the bodies pile up? The settlers? The Palestinian police? Israeli Arabs? Don't expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or PA President Mahmoud Abbas to step in at this point and restore order.

Intransigence on both sides has created this situation, but Israelis can only look to themselves and their government for answers. The firing on civilians aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla last year and at Majdal Shams this month may have been isolated and legally justified cases, but the army is being pushed by the politicians into a morally intolerable situation where it may have to shoot hundreds, even thousands, of unarmed protesters or else lay down its rifles. We should be sounding the alarm bell loud and clear.