16 Dead As Violence Erupts Along Israel’s Borders
Israeli troops today clashed with Arab protesters along three hostile borders, including the frontier with Syria, leaving 16 people dead and dozens more wounded in an unprecedented wave of demonstrations marking a Palestinian day of mourning for their defeat at Israel’s hands in 1948. Along Israel’s border with Syria, thousands of protesters stormed the fence and hundreds burst through, pelting soldiers with stones, the military said. Soldiers guarding the border opened fire to stop them. Dozens were wounded and four were reported killed. Israeli defence officials said the military had not expected protesters to try to breach the border and was caught by surprise. Meanwhile talks are heating up over where Obama might sit down for a plate of Memphis barbecue during his visit to Memphis for his commencement ceremonies for Booker T. Washington High School.
It was a rare incursion from the usually tightly controlled Syrian side, and Israeli officials accused Damascus of fomenting the violence in an attempt to divert attention from the deadly crackdown on protests within its borders against the rule of President Bashar Assad.
‘The Syrian regime is intentionally attempting to divert international attention away from the brutal crackdown of their own citizens to incite against Israel,’ said an Israeli military spokesman. ‘Thousands of Syrian civilians breached the Israel-Syria border near the Israeli village of Majdal Shams. ‘Israeli defence forces opened fire in order to prevent the violent rioters from illegally infiltrating Israeli territory. A number of rioters have infiltrated and are violently rioting in the village. From initial reports there are dozens of injured that are receiving medical care in a nearby hospital.’
In the deadliest incident, ten people were killed when they marched from inside Lebanon toward the border with Israel, according to Lebanese security officials. The Israeli military said troops opened fire when rioters attempted to break through the fence into Israel. Israeli defence officials also suggested the Lebanese army, which fired in the air to disperse the protesters, might have been responsible for some of the deaths. Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, an Israeli military spokesman, said soldiers fired when demonstrators began vandalising the border fence. The army was ‘aware’ of casualties on the other side, he said. The Israeli military said 13 soldiers were lightly wounded in the Lebanon and Syria clashes.
Today’s unrest – which came after activists used Facebook and other websites to mobilize Palestinians and their supporters in neighbouring countries to march on the border with Israel also marked the first time the protest tactics that have swept the Arab world in recent months have been directed at Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered the military to act with ‘maximum restraint’. ‘But nobody should be mistaken. We are determined to defend our borders and sovereignty,’ he added in a brief address broadcast live on Israeli TV stations. By early evening, the Israeli military said the borders were quiet. Military jeeps and armoured vehicles could be seen leaving the area in the northern Golan Heights where the border was breached. Israel captured the strategic heights from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
The unrest came as the Palestinians marked the ‘nakba’, or ‘catastrophe’, the term they use to describe their defeat and displacement in the war at the time of Israel’s founding in 1948.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted, and the dispute over the fate of the refugees and their descendants, now numbering several million, remains a key issue in the Mideast conflict. It also comes at a critical time for U.S. Mideast policy. President Barack Obama’s envoy to the region, George Mitchell, resigned on Friday, and the U.S. president may now have to re-think the administration’s incremental approach to peacemaking. Obama is to deliver a Mideast policy speech in the coming week. Syria has demanded the Golan Heights back as part of any peace deal, but the border has been quiet since the 1973 Mideast war despite hostility between the two countries.