'Nakba' clashes: Iran, Syria trying to turn Arab Spring fury into attacks on Israel?

Israeli officials have warned in recent weeks that 'radical' Islamist groups and Iran are trying to leverage the unrest in the Middle East to expand their influence and pull Israel into the conflict.

By , Correspondent

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    A boy covers his ears during a "Nakba" protest outside the UN office in Amman, Jordan, on May 15.
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During nearly four months of turmoil around the Arab world, Israel has tried its best to say little lest the revolutionary fervor morph into anger toward the Jewish state.

But deadly clashes Sunday with Arab demonstrators who challenged Israeli forces at the Lebanese, Syrian, Gazan, and West Bank borders showed it may be difficult for Israel to remain above the fray.

Israeli officials have warned in recent weeks that "radical" Islamist groups and Iran are trying to leverage the unrest in the Middle East to expand their influence and pull Israel into the conflict.

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Now, the unprecedented breadth of Sunday's border protests, which marked the anniversary of Israel’s independence in 1948 – known to Palestinians as the "nakba’’ or "catastrophe" – are likely to strengthen Israel’s anxiety that the so-called Arab Spring will destabilize its neighborhood. And that will make the Jewish state less likely offer concessions for peace, security and political analysts say.

"For decades, the Arab leaders used Israel as an alternative focus. In my view, this is a return to the era of trying to divert internal dissent into attacks against Israel," says Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University. "It is possible that if Egypt and Syria were replaced by more open, pluralist regimes, they would be more focused on dealing with the internal issues, and less capable of diverting the population to targeting Israel, but this is still a long way off.’’

Destabilization ahead of Netanyahu's US visit

The clashes come on the eve of a trip by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the US to meet with President Obama and address a joint session of Congress, where he is expected to lay out Israel’s vision of the peace process and how the Jewish state sees the turmoil engulfing its neighbors.

Although there were dozens injured when demonstrators marched toward Israeli positions on the Gaza and the West Bank borders, the Lebanese and Syrian border clashes – which, together, killed at least 10 protesters – risk a destabilization.

Dozens of Palestinians infiltrated the cease-fire border with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights on Sunday in the most serious border incident with Syria since a 1974 disengagement agreement monitored by the United Nations.

Did Iran and Syria play a role?

Israeli analysts speculated the incident occurred with the blessing of the Syrian government, but was actually a sign of the weakness of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which has maintained a quiet border for decades.

On Sunday, the chief spokesman of Israel’s military, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, argued that the border protests in Lebanon and Syria bore the "fingerprints of Iranian provocation."

"[Israeli officials] are going to see this as a plot to pull Israel in as a scapegoat. This will not be the first time that many countries have tried to blame things on Israel,’’ says Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv. "Israel needs to be careful in terms of protecting its security, but it has to be careful in how it reacts, because it could hurt its diplomatic position.’’

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