Syria Says 20 Dead as Israel Opens Fire on Golan Protesters

Posted June 5th, 2011 at 4:50 pm (UTC-5)
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Israeli troops on Sunday fired at hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters who attempted to cross the barbed-wire fence between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Syrian state media reported that 20 protesters were killed, including a woman and a teenage boy, and more than 325 wounded. Syrian hospital officials confirmed the casualty count, providing names of all the dead.

By evening, the crowd had grown to more than 1,000 people, praying and chanting slogans in an uneasy standoff with Israeli soldiers in the distance.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said that despite numerous warnings, “both verbal and later warning shots in the air,” dozens of Syrians continued to approach the border. She said Israeli forces were “left with no choice” but to open fire at the feet of protesters in order to deter further actions.

Israeli officials accused Syrian authorities of permitting Sunday's disturbance in order to deflect international attention from their bloody suppression of the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's authoritarian rule. The Syrian border cannot be approached without government compliance.

At the West Bank's main crossing into Jerusalem, several hundred Palestinian youths approaching the Qalandia checkpoint clashed with Israeli soldiers who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. But the borders with Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan were quiet as those governments prevented demonstrators from reaching the frontier.

Hours before the violence flared, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered Israeli forces to act with restraint, but determination, to prevent the border from being breached.

The protests marked the 44th anniversary of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Middle East war, defying Israeli warnings to stay clear of the boundary fence. Israel captured the Golan from Syria in that conflict, as well as the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt in just six days of fighting.

Israel returned Sinai to Egypt under a 1979 peace deal, and withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Israeli officials say they were determined to prevent a repeat of last month's deadly demonstrations during which thousands of Palestinians stormed Israel's borders with Syria and Lebanon. Those protests took place on the anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel.

Both sets of demonstrations are part of a campaign by activists leading up to September when the Palestinian leadership plans to seek United Nations membership as an independent state.

In another development, Mr. Netanyahu said he is considering an initiative by the French government to revive peace talks with the Palestinians. He told his Cabinet he first wants to discuss the proposal with the United States.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who visited both Israel and the West Bank last week, has suggested that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators attend a peace conference in Paris at the end of next month. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accepted the proposal on Saturday.