Syrian demonstrators flee border - AFP - June 5, 2011
Demonstrators flee from IDF teargas along Syria's border with Israel while trying to cut through a line of barbed wire, as seen from Majdal Shams, on June 5, 2011. Photo by AFP
Text size

Israel Defense Forces soldiers opened fire at hundreds of Syrian-Palestinians amassing near Israel's border with Syria on the Golan Heights on Sunday, firing tear gas and other demonstration dispersal weaponry in an attempt to prevent border infiltration and break up rallies marking Naksa Day, the anniversary of the start of the 1967 Six-Day War.

Reports by Syrian media claimed that between six and 20 protesters were killed, with 227 others wounded. 500 Syrian-Palestinians were reported to have arrived at the border, hiding from IDF fire in a ditch dug by the army after the Nakba Day protests on May 15, approximately 20 meters from the border fence.

"Anyone who tries to cross the border will be killed," Israeli soldiers shouted through loudspeakers at the crowd of several hundred. Protesters cut through strands of barbed wire that Israel placed in an area between the fence, which is located inside Israeli territory, and the Syrian frontier designated by UN stone markers.

At least four anti-tank mines were reported to have exploded near the Syrian town of Quneitra, injuring many protesters. According to reports, protesters hurling Molotov cocktails led to a fire in the area, which resulted in triggering the mines' explosions.

The IDF has thus far only given a brief response to the reports regarding the protest, saying that the situation is under control and calling the protests a "clear provocation intended to divert attention from what is happening in Syria."

Israel is concerned that the border protests by unarmed demonstrators are a tactic adopted by Palestinians, inspired by popular revolts in the Arab world, to draw a violent response and gain more world sympathy for their cause.

An IDF spokesman did not confirm the reports of casualties, yet said that a dozen protesters were indeed wounded by "controlled fire from commanders on the ground." Soldiers first warned the protesters with loudspeakers and shots in the air, and finally with shots aimed at the protesters' legs.

Senior IDF officials have doubted Syrian TV reports regarding casualties in clashes with Palestinian protesters, saying that the soldiers fired only accurate sniper shots guided by senior officers on the ground. They added that they did not estimate any of the protesters were killed as a result of the fire.

Events began earlier Sunday, as dozens of Syrians amassed near the country's border with Israel, while Israeli security forces braced for possible border clashes with protesters marking Naksa Day, the anniversary of the start of the 1967 Six-Day War.

Initial reports claimed that the protesters had begun to gather at the foot of what is known as "The Hill of Shouting," opposite the Druze Golan town of Majdal Shams.

The IDF Central Command and Southern Command also declared a high alert in case of an outbreak of violence near the West Bank and the Gaza Strip respectively, although the northern border seemed the most likely flashpoint for clashes.

The possibility that refugees will seek to storm the border from the direction of Maroun al-Rass in Lebanon, opposite Moshav Avivim, is considered less likely following the Lebanese army's announcement that the entire area opposite the border with Israel is a closed military zone.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Sunday's cabinet meeting accused "radical elements" of seeking provocations.

Hours before the violence flared, Netanyahu said he had ordered Israeli forces to act with restraint, but with determination, to prevent any border breach.

"To my regret, today there are extremists around us trying to breach our borders, and threaten our towns and citizens. We will not allow this," Netanyahu told his cabinet.

"Like any country in the world, Israel has the right and obligation to guard and defend its borders," he said earlier this week.