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Israel clashes with protesters at Syrian border

Attempt to cross frontier leaves 22 dead

By Isabel Kershner
New York Times / June 6, 2011

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JERUSALEM — Israeli forces fired at pro-Palestinian protesters on the Syrian frontier yesterday as they tried to breach the border for the second time in three weeks, reflecting a new mode of popular struggle and deadly confrontation fueled by turmoil in the Arab world and the vacuum of stalled peace talks.

Wave after wave of protesters, mainly Palestinians from refugee camps in Syria, approached the frontier with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israeli soldiers opened fire on those who crossed a new trench and tried to attack the border fence near the towns of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights and Quneitra in Syria.

By nightfall, the Syrian news agency SANA reported that 22 protesters had been killed and more than 350 had been wounded. Israeli officials said that they had no information on casualties but suggested that the Syrian figures were exaggerated.

Even so, it was the worst bloodshed in the Golan Heights since Israel and Syria fought a war there in 1973.

The protest, on the anniversary of the start of the 1967 Middle East war, followed a larger, coordinated assault by demonstrators three weeks ago on four fronts — Syria, Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank — and attempts on two others, Egypt and Jordan, that were thwarted by those governments.

This time, Lebanon and the Hamas government in Gaza kept protesters away from their borders, and the turnout was low in the West Bank.

The focus was on Syria, where thousands of protesters tried to force their way across the border. Syria’s decision to allow the protest appeared to reflect a calculated strategy to divert attention from its own antigovernment uprising.

Still, the protesters said they counted the day a success because they drew Israeli fire on unarmed demonstrators, generating outrage at Israel. At a time when the peace process is already strained, that reaction is likely to increase international pressure on Israel to create the conditions for resumed negotiations with the Palestinians, and to bolster support in the UN for the Palestinian appeal for statehood.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not allow “extremist elements” to penetrate Israel’s borders. “I have instructed the security forces to act with determination, with maximum restraint, but with determination to maintain our sovereignty, our borders, our communities and our citizens,” he said.

A military spokeswoman, Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich, said that Israeli forces warned the protesters not to approach the border, in Arabic with megaphones; used nonlethal riot dispersal means like tear gas, which failed to deter them; and then fired warning shots in the air.

When the demonstrators reached the fence, soldiers were “left with no choice,” she said, “but to open fire at the feet of the protesters.”

Syria’s role also creates a quandary for Israel. Although the countries technically remain in a state of war, Syria has kept the border quiet for 37 years.

Protesters there could not have approached the border without government acquiescence, and analysts said the decision to allow the protest was aimed at deflecting attention from the protests sweeping Syria against the government of President Bashar Assad.

The protests marked the anniversary of the 1967 war, which Palestinians call the “naksa,” or setback, when Israel captured territory including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

Last month, President Obama laid out broad principles for negotiations toward a Palestinian state based on the borders before that war, with mutually agreed land swaps. He suggested that talks focus first on borders and security, and deal later with the contentious issues of the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants.

Israel has rejected the idea of talks based on the 1967 lines and has not responded to a French proposal to attend a peace conference in Paris next month.

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