Scores of Syrian protesters breach Israeli border

One Syrian killed, dozens wounded in clashes with IDF; Violent "Nakba Day" protests on Lebanese border leave up to 10 dead.

majdal shams nakba day 311 (photo credit: Channel 10)
majdal shams nakba day 311
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Around 100 Syrian protesters infiltrated the northern border on Sunday and clashed with IDF troops, at one of many flashpoints along the various borders and in the West Bank amid demonstrations marking the Palestinian “Nakba Day.”
At least one Syrian was killed by IDF gunfire. In similar strife along the Lebanese border, conflicting reports spoke of between three and 10 people killed, while the IDF said that most and possibly all of the casualties were caused by the Lebanese Armed Forces.
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Senior IDF officers accused Syrian President Bashar Assad as well as the Islamic regime in Iran of supporting the violent infiltration of the border near the Golan Druse village of Majdal Shams, in an attempt to shift the focus from Assad’s domestic troubles to Israel.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he hoped the confrontations would not escalate.
“We hope calm and quiet will quickly return. But let nobody be misled: We are determined to defend our borders and our sovereignty,” the prime minister said. “It is important to note that the events were held on a day that marked the establishment of the State of Israel.”
The organizers of these violent events have themselves explained that “their struggle is not for the ’67 line,” but rather an attempt to undermine the very existence of the State of Israel, whose creation they have described as a disaster that must be corrected, Netanyahu said.
“It was important to look at the reality with open eyes and to understand who Israel is dealing with and who it is fighting against,” he said.
IDF officers admitted that they were not adequately prepared for the demonstration that developed along the border and that fewer than 60 soldiers were deployed near Majdal Shams when the trouble started, since intelligence assessments spoke of a larger demonstration near the Quneitra Crossing to the south.
“This appears to be a cynical and transparent act by the Syrian leadership to deliberately create a crisis on the border so as to distract attention from the very real problems that regime is facing at home,” a senior Israeli government official said. “Syria is a police state. People don’t randomly approach the border without the approval of the regime.”
No Syrian border policemen appeared to be on hand.
The protest began as in past years at the “Shouting Hill” – a place 400 meters east of the border where relatives of Druse in Israel stand and shout to them. Around noon, 1,000 people on the Syrian side began marching toward the border fence and a few hundred then rammed it, trying to cross into Israel.
IDF soldiers under Col. Eshkol Shukran, commander of the Golan Regional Brigade used crowd dispersion techniques to push back the crowd.
“We tried to contain it by shooting in the air,” Shukran, who was hit in the face by a large rock thrown by the demonstrators and was later evacuated to Ziv Hospital in Safed, said on Sunday night. He said that he ordered his men to open fire at the protesters’ legs after they began storming the fence.
“I gave the order when I understood that we will find ourselves with thousands of people in Majdal,” he said.
One protester was killed and dozens of others were wounded. The IDF brought 30 of the wounded Syrians to Ziv Hospital.
The other infiltrators were returned to Syria by nightfall when soldiers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) arrived.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry condemned what it called Israel’s “criminal activities.”
“We used crowd dispersion techniques, but the number of people involved made this difficult,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.
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“There comes a moment when there’s no choice but to fire at their legs, and it is very good that forces acted with restraint and judgment and we did not end with a bloodbath.”
This type of incident might reoccur, the defense minister warned.
“We are only at the beginning of things and it could be that we will see even more complicated challenges of this kind.”
“The IDF must defend the state’s sovereignty, and, all told, succeeded in doing so today,” Barak told Channel 2.
He added, however, that the fact that infiltrators succeeded in breaking through the border fence and storming Majdal Shams demanded an investigation from which lessons would be learned.
“There were deaths in a few places, and we are sorry for the deaths, but those who tested Israel’s sovereignty and those who sent them and encouraged them are responsible,” Barak said.
There were also clashes along the Lebanese border near the town of Maroun a-Ras.
Lebanese media reports said 10 people were killed by Israeli gunfire. The IDF said, however, that most and possibly all of the casualties were caused by the Lebanese army, which used heavy gunfire to keep the protesters away from the border.
Israel had warned the Lebanese military and the UNIFIL peacekeeping force – which the IDF said did not actively work to prevent the violence – that it would respond harshly if the protesters tried to force the border.
At one point, IDF troops shot at the legs of the protesters after they tried to destroy the border fence.
Maroun a-Ras is a Hezbollah stronghold and was the site of some of the fiercest fighting between the IDF and the Lebanese Shi’ite militia during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
In the West Bank, scores of Palestinian youths attacked IDF soldiers for hours at the Kalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem with stones and gasoline bombs. They set tires on fire and soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas to drive them away.
In the Gaza Strip, one Palestinian was killed and at least 80 others were wounded when thousands of Palestinians marched toward IDF troops at the Nahal Oz and Erez border crossings, sources in Gaza City said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a televised address to mark “Nakba Day” that those killed in clashes with the IDF on Sunday were martyrs to the Palestinian cause.
“Their precious blood will not be wasted. It was spilt for the sake of our nation’s freedom,” Abbas said.
Thirty-six people were arrested for throwing stones and disturbing the peace in Arab neighborhoods across Jerusalem, though the demonstrations were “much quieter” than expected, Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said.
The largest demonstrations were in the Isawiya neighborhood, where nine youths were arrested for throwing rocks at security personnel in violence that lasted nearly 12 hours.
There were also skirmishes in A-Tur and the Shuafat refugee camp, and a protest by 400 left-wing Israelis in Walaja in the capital’s south, who tried to block the road.
Riots also broke out in Jordan, where police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists who had gathered at a village on the border to mourn the creation of the State of Israel, witnesses said.
In Sinai, Egyptian forces arrested six people and blocked hundreds of others from marching to the border with Israel.
A Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, Sami Abu Zuhri, called Sunday “a turning point in the Israeli-Arab conflict” that proved the Palestinian people and Arabs were committed to ending Israeli “occupation.”
Hezbollah condemned the “Israeli aggression on unarmed civilians in Maroun a-Ras and on the Golan, which constitutes a dangerous violation of human rights,” the movement’s lawmaker, Hassan Fadlallah, said. He participated in a protest in Maroun a-Ras.
“The resistance movement in Lebanon [Hezbollah] will continue to be an advocate for Palestinian national rights and calls on everyone to stand united in confronting Israeli occupation,” he said.
“What happened today in Maroun a-Ras and in the Golan is an embodiment of the will of the Palestinian people who are committed to the right of return,” Fadlallah said.
Early on Sunday, Netanyahu spoke in defense of Israel’s democracy and its extension to Arab citizens.
“The state was founded 63 years ago on the basis of the Declaration of Independence, which promises equality of rights for all of our citizens regardless of religion, race and sex. We extended our hand in peace to our Arab neighbors and promised equality, progress and partnership to Israel’s Arab citizens. When one looks at the region today, Israeli Arabs are the only Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa who enjoy democratic rights, equality and civil rights,” Netanyahu told the cabinet at its regular weekly meeting.
As part of its investment in the minority sector, the cabinet approved spending NIS 350 million to strengthen Beduin communities in northern Israel, the prime minister said.
“I regret that there are extremists among Israeli Arabs and in neighboring countries who have turned the day on which the State of Israel was established, the day on which the Israeli democracy was established, into a day of incitement, violence and rage. There is no place for this, for denying the existence of the State of Israel. No to extremism and no to violence. The opposite is true,” Netanyahu said.
Melanie Lidman and Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.