Israeli troops on Sunday battled hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters who tried to burst across Syria’s frontier with the Golan Heights, killing a reported 20 people and wounding scores more in the second outbreak of deadly violence in the border area in less than a month.
The clashes, marking the anniversary of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Mideast war, drew Israeli accusations that Syria was orchestrating the violence to shift attention away from a bloody crackdown on opposition protests at home. The marchers, who had organized on Facebook, passed by Syrian and U.N. outposts on their way to the front lines.
“The Syrian government is trying to created a provocation,” said Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai. “This border has been quiet for decades, but only now with all the unrest in Syrian towns is there an attempt to draw attention to the border.”
Human rights groups say President Bashar Assad’s forces killed at least 25 people in northern Syria over the weekend, and another 65 activists were killed in the central city of Hama on Friday, as anti-government protests spread through the country demanding his resignation.
There was no Syrian comment on why the protesters were allowed to storm the border, apparently undisturbed by authorities. But Syria’s state-run media portrayed the event as a spontaneous uprising of Palestinian youths from a nearby refugee camp.
After nightfall Sunday, Syria’s state TV said there would be an open-ended sit-in at the border, and thousands more protesters were on their way.
The protests began around 11 a.m. with what appeared to be several dozen youths, brought in on buses. It gained strength through the day.
By evening, the crowd had swelled to more than 1,000 people, who milled about, prayed and chanted slogans in an uneasy standoff with Israeli troops in the distance. The army bolstered its positions, posting a dozen armoured vehicles and jeeps along the border road.
A small group of youths managed to cut through a recently fortified coil of barbed-wire and took up positions in a trench inside a buffer zone about 20 yards (meters) from a final border fence. Israeli troops periodically opened fire at young activists jumping into the ditch, sending puffs of soil flying into the air.
As the standoff stretched into the evening, Israeli forces fired heavy barrages of tear gas to break up the crowds. Hundreds of people fled the area in panic, while some 20 people laying on the ground received treatment. It was not immediately clear whether the crowd would return to the front lines.
At nightfall, crowds of people fell to the ground in Muslim prayer, and several small groups lit bonfires, indicating the standoff would continue.
Israel had promised a tough response after being caught off guard in last month’s demonstrations, when troops killed more than a dozen people in clashes along the Syrian and Lebanese borders. In Syria, hundreds of unarmed protesters managed to breach the border and entered the Israel-controlled Golan for several hours.
The May 15 unrest occurred on the anniversary of Israel’s birth in 1948, a day the Palestinians refer to as the “nakba,” or catastrophe.
Sunday’s clashes marked the “naksa,” or setback, the term the Palestinians use for the defeat in the 1967 Mideast war. During that war, Israel conquered the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai peninsula from Egypt in just six days of fighting.
Israel returned Sinai to Egypt under a 1979 peace accord, and withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank and east Jerusalem, along with Gaza, for a future state, while Syria demands a return of the Golan, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel which Israel has annexed, as the price for peace.
Still, until last month, Syria has steadfastly kept its border with Israel quiet for nearly 40 years, fueling the Israeli accusations that Syria was trying to draw attention away from the months of protests that have left more than 1,200 Syrians dead.
Ahead of Sunday’s unrest, the army said it would deploy large numbers of forces, along with anti-riot weaponry like tear gas and water cannons, to prevent a repeat of the May clashes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered forces to show “maximum restraint,” but also said Israel would protect its sovereignty.
“Unfortunately, extremist forces around us are trying today to breach our borders and threaten our communities and our citizens. We will not let them do that,” he told his Cabinet.
The Israeli military said it used live fire only after firing warning shots into the air and issuing verbal warnings to protesters to stay away.
Protesters waved Palestinian flags and threw rocks and trash over the fence, and the sporadic pops of Israeli gunfire were heard throughout the day. The wounded were taken away on stretchers by groups of young men.
“We were trying to cut the barbed wire when the Israeli soldiers began shooting directly at us,” Ghayath Awad, a 29-year-old Palestinian who had been shot in the waist, told the AP at the hospital.
Residents of Majdal Shams, ethnic Druse who remain Syrian citizens while living on the Israeli side of the frontier, watched the protest from rooftops, booing each time the military tried to speak and cheering on the protesters. When troops fired tear gas, a crowd of residents — some holding Syrian or Palestinian flags — began to scream and hurl stones from rooftops at the nearby forces. Israeli anti-riot police fired tear gas and moved into the town. Village elders with thick moustaches argued with the forces, but there were no signs of violence.
Throughout the day, ambulances raced to the hospital in the Syrian border town of Quneitra with the wounded and dead. State-run Syrian TV said 20 people were killed, including a woman and teenage boy, and 325 were wounded, 12 critically. Hospital officials confirmed the casualty count, providing names of all the dead.
Capt. Barak Raz, an Israeli military spokesman, confirmed that protesters made it through a first layer of the border fence — the area protected by barbed wire — but got no closer than 160 yards (meters) away from the final fence. He said the army would “continue to operate” throughout the night to prevent border breaches.
He refused to confirm reports that Israel had laid land mines along the area, saying only that the army “took measures to ensure we wouldn’t allow any crossing into Israel.”
The army claimed that protesters threw firebombs that ignited land mines on the Syrian side of the border. There was no confirmation from the Syrian side.
The recent protests have drawn attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during Israel’s war of independence in 1948. The original refugees, and their descendants, now number several million, and they demand “the right to return” to the families’ former properties.
“We want on this occasion to remind America and the whole world that we have a right to return to our country,” said Mohammed Hasan, a 16-year-old student who was wounded in both feet.
As a Palestinian living in Syria, he is likely the descendant of people who left or fled the area that became Israel during the 1948-49 Middle East war.
Israel opposes the return of these people, saying it would spell the end of the country as a Jewish state. The plight of the refugees and their descendants is one of the most difficult issues in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
Around half a million Palestinian refugees live across 13 camps in Syria, a country with a population of 23 million. Palestinians are allowed to work and study in government and private schools, but they do not have citizenship and cannot vote. In neighbouring Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are largely discriminated against and banned from all but the most menial professions.
Things were relatively calm on Israel’s other borders on Sunday.
About 400 Gazans hoisting Palestinian flags and posters gathered near the main passenger crossing into Israel, but riot police from Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, prevented them from marching toward the crossing.
At the West Bank’s main crossing into Jerusalem, several hundred Palestinian young people tried to approach the checkpoint. They threw stones at Israeli forces, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. No major injuries were reported.
Palestinian organizers in Lebanon called off a planned march to the Israeli border after Lebanese authorities had declared the area a closed military zone.
With contributions from AP writers Albert Aji in Quneitra, Syria, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip and Matti Friedman in Jerusalem.