Israel braces for fresh protests in Golan

Published today (updated) 06/06/2011 15:40


Demonstrators wave the Palestinian flag as the Israeli army fires teargas along Syria’s border with Israel. Israeli forces are bracing for fresh unrest along the Syrian ceasefire line a day after they reportedly killed 23 trying to break through to mark the 1967 Six Day War. [AFP/Jack Guez]

MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights (AFP) — Israeli forces braced for fresh unrest on Monday along the Syrian ceasefire line a day after they reportedly killed 23 trying to break through to mark the 1967 Six Day War.

Israeli troops in the Golan were on high alert after Sunday’s bloodshed in which Syrian state television said 23 people were killed and 350 wounded when soldiers opened fire on protesters trying to cross the frontier.

The Israeli army said the Syrian death toll had been “exaggerated” with a spokeswoman saying just 10 protesters had been killed after they threw firebombs which set off land mines in the Syrian section of no-man’s land.

“We are aware that around 10 of the casualties that the Syrians reported yesterday, were killed by the fact that they used Molotov cocktails in the Quneitra area that hit some Syrian land mines,” Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovitz told AFP.

“I think there is solid ground to believe that [the Syrian figures] are exaggerated,” she said. “A big number of them died as a result of their own deeds.”

Asked whether any of the protesters were killed or injured by Israeli fire, she was non-committal.

“We don’t really know. There were a lot of charades. When someone was shot in the feet, they were carried away on a stretcher in front of the cameras,” she said.

On 15 May, when Palestinians marked the 63rd anniversary of the Nabka, “the catastrophe,” four were killed by Israeli fire on the Syrian ceasefire line, and ten along the Lebanon line.

By Monday morning, only a handful of protesters were still camped out along the border, the army said.

“The numbers are very low at the moment but we are just watching the situation,” another spokeswoman told AFP, saying the night had been “quiet.”

Sunday’s confrontation erupted as hundreds of protesters from Syria marched toward two points along the ceasefire line — Quneitra in no-mans land, and Majdal Shams, the Druze town located on the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan Heights plateau.

As they began cutting through a line of barbed wire fencing, troops urged them to stop in Arabic and fired tear gas, then, a military official said, firing warning shots and finally aiming at the “lower body” of individuals.

The protests were organized by Palestinian groups to mark 44 years since Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six Day War in an event known in Arabic as the “Naksa” or “setback.”

Three weeks earlier, thousands of protesters in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza tried to force their way across the borders in a mass show of mourning over the 1948 creation of Israel, when some 800,000 of Palestinians were driven from their homes.

At that time, hundreds of people from Syria had managed to force their way onto the Israeli side, prompting troops to open fire killing four, while a similar yet unsuccessful attempt along the Lebanon border had left six dead.

Although no-one succeeded in crossing the frontier on Sunday, they ran down a hill into no-mans land on the Syrian side and reached a ditch filled with barbed wire which had been dug by the Israeli army last week — which they were not able to cross.

The bloodshed provoked a concerned response from Washington and the United Nations.

“We are deeply troubled by events that took place earlier today in the Golan Heights resulting in injuries and the loss of life,” the US State Department said in a statement, calling for restraint while acknowledging Israel’s right to self-defense.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed “deep concern” over the events on the Golan Heights and said the UN was “seeking to confirm facts” about what had happened.

“The events of today and of 15 May on the Golan put the long-held cease-fire in jeopardy,” a statement from his office said, calling for “maximum restraint on all sides.”

Protests were also staged in Gaza and the West Bank, where 16 people sustained light injuries from rubber bullets, and 20 were treated for tear gas inhalation. But the Lebanese border was quiet after the military there banned demonstrations along the frontier.

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