Despicable as he is, Bashar Assad is not crazy. By allowing Palestinians to storm the border with Israel for the second time in the last three weeks, he guaranteed that, for a day at least, shootings by Israeli troops would take over the front pages from shootings by his own forces. There is, of course, no comparison between the two. Assad is slaughtering his own people indiscriminately to stay in power. Israeli troops, by contrast, are using the minimum possible force to defend their own border from outside attack. But as the Israelis are well aware, any time that IDF soldiers open fire on “unarmed protesters” (as they are inevitably depicted by the news media) it is a public relations loss for the Jewish State and a win for its enemies.
I doubt that these attacks wil do much to preserve Assad’s rule in the long term. Most of his own people have long since turned against him and they will not be swayed by cheap theatrics of the kind he has just orchestrated. But these border assaults help to further Palestinian attempts to “delegitimize” Israel—the main Fatah tactic since the failure of the Second Intifada became clear around the time of Yasir Arafat’s demise in 2004.
The Palestinians seem to have learned from history. Their most successful assault on the Israeli state was the First Intifada, which began in 1987 and paved the way for the Oslo Peace Process, i.e. for Israel giving up much of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to the control of groups pledged to its eradication. The First Intifada was not exactly nonviolent, in as far as it featured Palestinian youths assaulting Israeli security forces and citizens with rocks and Molotov cocktails, but it wasn’t premeditated, cold-blooded terrorism either—it wasn’t terrorism of the kind that Arafat had made his hallmark.
Whenever Israelis face such bloody assaults they tend to draw together and gain in international sympathy. This allows Israel to respond strongly and decisively as it did during the Second Intifada. The challenge of the First Intifada, by contrast, divided Israelis, hurt military morale, and reduced the country’s international standing. Shooting civilians may be standard duty for the security forces of dictatorships like Assad’s, but for the soldiers of a liberal democracy like Israel, it is the hardest action to carry out—no matter the provocation. The Palestinians know that and are seeking to take advantage of that fact by using their own civilians as cannon fodder. They will not succeed in driving the Jews out of the Holy Land by such tactics; the Israelis are not like the French in Algeria or the British in India—they have nowhere else to go. But the Palestinians may very well succeed in increasing Israel’s international isolation, especially if Israel’s main ally—the United States—does not speak out strongly against such cynical and immoral acts.