Monday, 6 June 2011

Deaths reported as Israeli troops open fire

At least 20 reportedly killed along Syrian frontier during pro-Palestinian rally marking "Day of Defeat" in 1967 war.
Last Modified: 05 Jun 2011 09:52
The protesters had gathered to observe the anniversary of the 'Day of Defeat' marking the end of the 1967 war

Syrian state TV says at least 20 people have died and 220 more wounded after Israeli forces opened fire along the frontier to disperse pro-Palestinian demonstrators attempting to breach the border.

The reported deaths, including that of a 12-year-old boy, occurred as the protesters marching from the Golan Heights approached the border on Sunday, a day observed as "Naksa Day" or "Day of Defeat", marking the 44th anniversary of the 1967 war, when Israel occupied the area.

Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons, reporting from occupied Jerusalem, said Israeli forces opened fire in the air, but made no comment on any casualties.

"Although Syrian television is reporting casualties, there is no way of verifying it at this stage," he said.

"But we have seen this advance of a large number of protesters who managed to breach one line of razor wire and then effectively got positioned in the centre of it all in a trench area."

Protesters, most of them young men, eventually managed to cut through coils of barbed wire marking the frontier, entering a buffer zone and crawling towards a second fence guarded by Israeli troops.

Every so often, demonstrators were seen evacuating a dead or wounded protester.

US 'deeply troubled'

The protests along Israel's borders are designed to draw attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during Israel's war of independence in 1948.

Now, around half a million Palestinian refugees live across 13 camps in Syria.

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The US state department expressed its concern over the clashes, saying: "We are deeply troubled by events that took place earlier today in the Golan Heights resulting in injuries and the loss of life.

"We call for all sides to exercise restraint. Provocative actions like this should be avoided."

The US statement emphasised that "Israel, like any sovereign nation, has a right to defend itself".

Reacting to Sunday's incidents, Mustafa Barghouthi, an independent Palestinian politician, told Al Jazeera: "What we saw in the Golan Heights, in front of the checkpoint to Jerusalem, were peaceful Palestinian demonstrators demanding their freedom and the end of occupation, which has become the longest in modern history.

"And they were encountered by terrible violence from Israel. They have used gunshots, tear gas, sound bombs and canisters emanating dangerous chemicals against demonstrators.

"They also beat us. I was one of those who was beaten today by the Israel soldiers today while we were peacefully trying to reach the checkpoint to Jerusalem."

Israeli account

Giving Israel's version of the events, Avital Leibovich, the Israeli army's spokesman, told Al Jazeera: "We [the military] saw near 12 noon an angry mob of a few hundreds of Syrians trying to reach the border fence between Israel and Syria.

"We did three steps. We first warned them verbally, we told them not to get close to the fence in order for them not to endanger their lives.

"When this failed, we fired warning shots into the air. When this failed, we had to open fire selectively at their feet in order to prevent an escalation."

The Israeli military also accused the Syrian government of instigating the protests to deflect attention from its crackdown of a popular uprising at home.

"This is an attempt to divert international attention from the bloodbath going on in Syria,'' Leibovich said.

Israel had vowed to prevent a repeat of a similar demonstration last month, in which hundreds of people burst across the border into the Golan Heights.

More than a dozen people were killed in that unrest, in which protesters had gathered to mark the 63rd anniversary of the "Nakba", to mark the expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians following Israel's 1948 declaration of statehood.