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This week in the news

Marching on Israel’s borders

The Israeli army was caught by surprise two weeks ago when thousands of Arabs from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza used the occasion of Nakba Day — the date marking the anniversary of the "catastrophe" of Israel’s birth on May 15 — to march on Israel’s borders. More than a dozen protesters were killed as IDF troops tried to stop border breaches on the country’s boundaries with Lebanon and Syria.

With the 44th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War coming this weekend (which Palestinians call the Naska, or "setback"), plans are in the works for a repeat. This time, however, Israel says it’s prepared. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his instructions to the IDF are clear: "To act with restraint, but with the necessary decisiveness to protect our borders, our communities and our citizens."

It’s a tough spot for Israel. If the military acts too harshly and casualites mount, the Israeli government will face criticism at home and abroad for failing to avoid a bloody mess, increasing pressure from overseas and the possibility of Palestinian unrest. If the protests are deemed a public relations success for the Arabs, they will grow in popularity and require further Israeli manpower and resources to ensure they don’t become a security problem. The protests could end up paralleling demonstrations at flash points along Israel’s West Bank security fence, like those at Bil’in, which have become a public relations headache for Israel. The key difference here is that Israel’s borders to the north are internationally recognized boundaries, while the line of the West Bank fence is not.

In any case, Arab protesters may find their plans thwarted this time from their own side. To Israel’s north, the Lebanese Army has declared the border area with Israel a closed military zone, sealing it off. Whether Syria again will allow access to its border with Israel — an opportunity to divert global attention from its own violent repression of anti-government protesters — remains to be seen.

Egpyt border worries ease

To the south, Israel’s worries about the newly opened Egypt-Gaza border at Rafah were assuaged somewhat when it turned out that Egypt’s new open-border policy isn’t so open.

For one thing, the border opened only to people, not goods. For another, Palestinian males aged 18-40 were required to obtain visas to enter Egypt. Still, hundreds of Palestinians from the Hamas-ruled territory flocked to the southern Gazan town of Rafah this week to cross into Egypt.

By midweek, however, it appeared that most would be disappointed. On Wednesday, Egypt allowed in only 150 Palestinians — three busloads — sending the rest home, according to The New York Times. Apparently, Hamas officials were so upset by the border restrictions that they reportedly were considering shutting down their side of the border in protest.

Some Israeli analysts view the opening of the Gaza-Egypt border as a positive development for Israel because it will undercut the notion that the Gaza Strip is under siege and that Israel bears sole responsibility for its welfare.

“This illustrates to the world that Gaza is not under an Israeli siege,” Israeli Cabinet minister Dan Meridor told Israel Radio, the N.Y. Jewish Week reported. “Gaza is not under closure, because it is open to Egypt. Precisely on the eve of the planned flotillas, which claim that Gaza is surrounded and besieged, it is important that the world hear that Gaza is not surrounded.”

Elsewhere along the Egyptian border, Israeli crews completed construction of the first 15-mile section of a new 135-mile border fence between Israel and Egypt in an area where, until now, no border fence had existed. Despite the punishing terrain in the area and frequent Israeli and Egyptian security patrols, thousands of African migrants have snuck across the border and into Israel. Since construction of the fence began last November, infiltrations by migrants has fallen 50 percent, according to Israeli officials. The Egypt-Israel border also long has been a major conduit from the flow of illegal drugs into the Jewish state.

The flow from Egypt into Israel that the energy industry is most concerned about — the natural gas in a pipeline running from Egypt into Israel — still hasn’t resumed since bombers in the Sinai sabotaged the pipeline several weeks ago. Though the damage has been repaired, Egyptian officials have yet to turn on the valves to restore the flow into Israel due to domestic displeasure with the gas arrangement with the Jewish state. Some Egyptians allege that Israel got a sweetheart deal from the corrupt government of the now-deposed Hosni Mubarak, but energy experts say the wide variation in natural gas prices — which depend in large part on the distance the gas must travel from origin to destination — makes that difficult to assess.

Boycotting Durban III

The U.S. announcement on Thursday that it would not participate in this September’s U.N. review conference marking the 10th anniversary of the Durban conference — the U.N.’s World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which turned into an anti-Israel hate fest — was warmly welcomed by Jewish groups across the spectrum. This marks the second time the Obama administration is boycotting a Durban review conference out of concern for its singling out of Israel; the last time was at the April 2009 Durban Review Conference, held in Geneva, Switzerland.

"The United States will not participate in the Durban Commemoration," Joseph Macmanus, acting assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, wrote in a letter to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). "In December, we voted against the resolution establishing this event because the Durban process included ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and we did not want to see that commemorated."

Canada and Israel also have announced they will not participate. The foreign policy umbrella of U.S. Jewish groups, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, used the occasion to call on European nations to do the same.

Also this week, the U.S. House of Representatives awarded the highest-ever level of funding to the joint U.S.-Israel missile defense program, appropriating $236 million for the coming year.

Iran’s nuclear program: building or bluffing?

A New Yorker article by Seymour Hirsh had the commentariot atwitter this week with its argument that Iran is bluffing, not building a nuclear weapon. The article relied heavily on an unpublished National Intelligence Estimate that found no evidence Iran has resumed its nuclear weapons program after halting it in 2003, arguing that the Obama administration is overstating the threat from Tehran.

But the article was belied by last week’s report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which traditionally had assumed a more sanguine view of the Iranian nuclear program. Agency officials disclosed last week that there are new signs Iran is building a nuclear bomb, including evidence of the construction of a trigger mechanism whose only purpose could be to launch a weapon. Obama administration officials pointed to last week’s report in dismissing Hersh’s argument.

In Israel, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan again spoke out against the idea of a military strike against Iran, saying it would ignite a regional war that would pose an "impossible" challenge for Israel. A nuclear Iran can be delayed, but not forever, Dagan said. The solution, he said, is a diplomatic settlement between Israel and its neighbors.