Golan protest fills returnees with pride

Published today (updated) 19/05/2011 12:16


Injured men lie wounded in their hospital beds close to the border crossing between Syria and the Golan Heights [AFP/Louai Beshara]

AL-QUNEITRA, Syria (AFP) — Ahmad As-Saadi, a hospitalized young Palestinian refugee, proudly shows off his left knee which he says was pierced by an Israeli army bullet when soldiers fired on unarmed protesters.

“I felt I was just steps away from returning to Palestine,” said the refugee, who along with other demonstrators marking the anniversary of their dispossession in May 1948, crossed into the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights from Syria during a protest march on Sunday.

“I was the first person hit,” said the 21-year-old, resting on a hospital bed in the Syrian village of Al-Quneitra, 70 kilometers from Damascus, at the edge of the Golan Heights which Israel captured in the 1967 war.

Four demonstrators were killed and dozens wounded during the event, according to the Syrian state news agency, increasing the number from two.

The demonstrates were killed when Israeli troops fired at mostly Palestinian refugees who crossed a ceasefire line to mark the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when some 800,000 were driven from their homes and villages during the fighting which accompanied the founding of the state of Israel.

The Israeli army said it opened fire in response to rocks thrown at its troops and a breach of the ceasefire line, which had been calm for decades.

An AFP correspondent at Al-Quneitra hospital, accompanied by a regime minder, interviewed several of the wounded, including As-Saadi, who recalled how his friend had replaced an Israeli flag with a Palestinian one before being killed.

“We yelled in a single voice: ‘We are marching to Jerusalem’ and ‘We will be martyrs by the millions,'” he said.

Spurred on by a rallying call on Facebook to take part in a “third Palestinian intifada (uprising),” Palestinian refugees insist their action was not linked to any political faction.

Washington, like Israel, accused Syria of having stoked the Golan protests “to distract attention” from its crackdown on anti-regime demonstrators that has drawn heavy fire from the international community. But Palestinians marched to the borders of Israel from Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank as well, all demanding their right to return to the 500 villages that were destroyed in 1948 by Jewish troops.

“This movement was launched spontaneously by Palestinians,” according to Abdul Hadi Hussein, an 18-year-old who was shot in the right leg.

“We went down from the valley aware of the danger,” Hussein said, referring to the Israeli soldiers and a minefield on the ceasefire line. “I wanted to die a martyr.”

Figures of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees show there are one million refugees in the Gaza Strip, 750,000 in the West Bank, two million in Jordan, 475,000 in Syria and 400,000 in Lebanon.

In the same hospital room, Ahmad Fawzi Makhluf, 17, said he scored a personal victory by hitting an Israeli soldier on the nose with a stone.

“My friends and I burst out laughing before scramming, but my trousers got caught in the barbed wire and I was hit by a bullet,” he said. “The fact that we crossed the security barrier fills us with pride.”

In the intensive care unit, Ahmad Herbawi was being treated for breathing problems caused by tear-gas inhalation. “Even if I am happy for my son’s feat, I feel so sorry to see him in this state,” said his mother.

In nearby Hadar, many Syrians complained of the destabilizing effect in what had been a calm region.

“We share their cause because our land is also occupied,” said a local merchant on condition of anonymity. “We were surprised by their presence and we warned them, but they did not listen.”

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