Fourteen Killed as Northern Border Breached by Palestinians During Nakba Day Demonstrations

Nakba Day events passed relatively quietly in the West Bank, but caught Israel unawares on its northern borders. Thousands of Palestinian refugees stormed the fences on the Lebanese and Syrian borders, some managing to cross into Israel. The IDF and the Lebanese army fired at the protesters, killing at least 14 people altogether.

Another person was killed in the Gaza Strip, after hundreds of protesters came close to the border fence and an IDF force opened fire. On the Israeli-Syrian border, 12 soldiers were injured from stones thrown by protesters.

Lebanese boy Nakba - AP - May 15, 2011

Earlier in the day, a Kafr Qasem truck driver ploughed through traffic on a major road in south Tel Aviv, killing Aviv Morag, 29, of Givatayim, and injuring 18, in what police said was likely to have been a deliberate attack. (See separate story at bottom of page. )

Four people were killed and forty were wounded by Israeli fire after protesters from Syria marking Nakba Day broke through the border fence on the Golan Heights, and made their way into the nearby Druze town of Majdal Shams.

Some 137 people managed to cross the fence, and staged a protest on one of the town's main squares. They were allowed to continue demonstrating while the town was sealed off by large forces of army and police, and were eventually escorted by Druze elders back to the border and into Syria.

This was the first serious incident on the Israel-Syria border, Israel's calmest frontier in 36 years. Despite extensive preparations, IDF intelligence anticipated the main point of friction would be the Quneitra border crossing, which was beefed up with reinforcements, while only two jeeps with 10 soldiers were securing the fence when it was breached.

The army estimated that the demonstration taking place on the Golan's "Shouting Hill," a popular place for protests in recent years, would proceed without unusual incident, and was taken completely by surprise when some 1,000 people, including women and children, began sliding down a steep slope towards the fence.

The unit had clear orders not to shoot without authorization by the brigade commander.After using their few riot control munitions, the army said the soldiers held their fire until the demonstrators began surrounding the jeeps. The order to fire live rounds was given by the brigade commander, Colonel Eshkol Shukrun, who arrived at the scene.

He said yesterday he feared situation would get completely out of control, and ordered the troops to fire toward the lower body of the protesters. One person was killed on the Israeli side of the fence and three on the Syrian side, 40 were injured, and all but the 137 already on the Israeli side fled.

"I realized that this was spinning out of control and that we needed to do something before 10,000 infiltrators made their way to Majdal Shams," said Shukrun, who was injured in the face by stone throwers. "It became clear that we needed to shift it into higher gear."

Shukrun gave the order to his soldiers to shoot at the lower extremities of those who crossed into Majdal Shams.

"That was when the whole [flow of infiltrators] stopped," he said. "Whoever was on the fence ran away in fear and those who crossed into Majdal stayed there."

After the infiltrators protested in the main town square, the IDF sought to coordinate their return to Syria with UN forces stationed on the Golan Heights. By 5:00 P.M., all of the infiltrators were loaded onto buses and taken back to Syria via the Quneitra crossing.

Upon returning to Syria, the infiltrators were greeted as heroes who managed to penetrate the Israeli border despite the efforts by the Israeli army to turn them away.

The bloody incidents on the northern border overshadowed the events that until yesterday were seen as the more likely flashpoint of Nakba Day protests - the West Bank. The IDF Central Command, which was encouraged by the low level of violence during weekend demonstrations in the territories, prepared for a large protest in Ramallah.

While 5,000 Palestinians crowded Manara Square, a few hundred youths clashed with IDF and Border Police forces in the Qalandiyah refugee camp. An IDF unit entered the camp, where they created a buffer zone that denied the demonstrators access to the checkpoint leading to Jerusalem.

The army and the demonstrators engaged in a cat-and-mouse game for some seven hours, during which 200 Palestinians hurled rocks and burning tires in the direction of the Israeli troops. The soldiers responded with tear gas in a bid to disperse the rioters. Dozens of Palestinian were reported to be injured by the gas canisters.

IDF Central Command head Major General Avi Mizrahi arrived at the scene to survey the events. Mizrahi noted with satisfaction that the army succeeded in "containing the disturbances."

A number of demonstrators from Manara Square tried to reach Qalandiyah to reinforce the contingent of protesters, but they were turned back by the Palestinian Authority's security forces.

In Hebron, Palestinian security personnel detained a number of Hamas members who tried to reach the Jewish settlement enclave in the heart of the city. This was the second time in three days that the Palestinian security forces prevented clashes in Hebron.

Israel's tight-knit cooperation with the Palestinian Authority's security apparatus, which was maintained over the last three days in preparation for yesterday, was evident in Qalandiyah. At the height of the clashes, Red Crescent officials requested that the IDF's liaison unit in the West Bank permit the entry of an ambulance to extricate a Palestinian who was injured by tear gas. The IDF obliged the request, holding its fire of tear gas canisters and directing the ambulance to the wounded Palestinian. Some of the demonstrators used the ambulance as cover to resume rock-throwing at IDF soldiers.

Along the Gaza-Israel frontier, a few hundred Palestinians overran Hamas checkpoints and tried to reach the security fence at the Erez crossing. IDF troops fired shots at the demonstrators' legs, resulting in numerous wounded. IDF soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian who was suspected of planting a roadside bomb near the Nahal Oz section of the security fence.

IDF Central Command officers were pleased with the army's response to the Nakba Day events. From Israel's vantage point, the reinforcement of IDF troops and the security cooperation with the Palestinians paid dividends despite the shooting death of Milad Ayash, the Palestinian teenager who was shot on Friday in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. The rioting in the capital did not spread to the West Bank, as Israeli authorities had feared.

The IDF Northern Command, however, will be forced to adapt to a new reality, one in which it cannot rely on the Syrian border remaining quiet.