Monday, June 06, 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.

05 Jun 2011 Al Jazeera

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

"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

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

Interview with UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk

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

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

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

"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

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.

Israeli troops battle protesters in Syria, 20 dead

By DANIELLA CHESLOW, Associated Press June 5, 2011

MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights – Israeli troops on Sunday battled hundreds of
pro-Palestinian protesters who tried to burst across Syria's frontier with
the Golan Heights, killing a reported 20 people and wounding scores more
in the second outbreak of deadly violence in the border area in less than
a month.

The clashes, marking the anniversary of the Arab defeat in the 1967
Mideast war, drew Israeli accusations that Syria was orchestrating the
violence to shift attention away from a bloody crackdown on opposition
protests at home. The marchers, who had organized on Facebook, passed by
Syrian and U.N. outposts on their way to the front lines.

"The Syrian government is trying to created a provocation," said Israel's
chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai. "This border has been
quiet for decades, but only now with all the unrest in Syrian towns is
there an attempt to draw attention to the border."

Human rights groups say President Bashar Assad's forces killed at least 25
people in northern Syria over the weekend, and another 65 activists were
killed in the central city of Hama on Friday, as anti-government protests
spread through the country demanding his resignation.

There was no Syrian comment on why the protesters were allowed to storm
the border, apparently undisturbed by authorities. But Syria's state-run
media portrayed the event as a spontaneous uprising of Palestinian youths
from a nearby refugee camp.

After nightfall Sunday, Syria's state TV said there would be an open-ended
sit-in at the border, and thousands more protesters were on their way.

The protests began around 11 a.m. with what appeared to be several dozen
youths, brought in on buses. It gained strength through the day.

By evening, the crowd had swelled to more than 1,000 people, who milled
about, prayed and chanted slogans in an uneasy standoff with Israeli
troops in the distance. The army bolstered its positions, posting a dozen
armored vehicles and jeeps along the border road.

A small group of youths managed to cut through a recently fortified coil
of barbed-wire and took up positions in a trench inside a buffer zone
about 20 yards (meters) from a final border fence. Israeli troops
periodically opened fire at young activists jumping into the ditch,
sending puffs of soil flying into the air.

As the standoff stretched into the evening, Israeli forces fired heavy
barrages of tear gas to break up the crowds. Hundreds of people fled the
area in panic, while some 20 people laying on the ground received
treatment. It was not immediately clear whether the crowd would return to
the front lines.

At nightfall, crowds of people fell to the ground in Muslim prayer, and
several small groups lit bonfires, indicating the standoff would continue.

Israel had promised a tough response after being caught off guard in last
month's demonstrations, when troops killed more than a dozen people in
clashes along the Syrian and Lebanese borders. In Syria, hundreds of
unarmed protesters managed to breach the border and entered the
Israel-controlled Golan for several hours.

The May 15 unrest occurred on the anniversary of Israel's birth in 1948, a
day the Palestinians refer to as the "nakba," or catastrophe.

Sunday's clashes marked the "naksa," or setback, the term the Palestinians
use for the defeat in the 1967 Mideast war. During that war, Israel
conquered the Golan Heights from Syria, 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 accord, and withdrew
from Gaza in 2005.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank and east Jerusalem, along with Gaza,
for a future state, while Syria demands a return of the Golan, a strategic
plateau overlooking northern Israel which Israel has annexed, as the price
for peace.

Still, until last month, Syria has steadfastly kept its border with Israel
quiet for nearly 40 years, fueling the Israeli accusations that Syria was
trying to draw attention away from the months of protests that have left
more than 1,200 Syrians dead.

Ahead of Sunday's unrest, the army said it would deploy large numbers of
forces, along with anti-riot weaponry like tear gas and water cannons, to
prevent a repeat of the May clashes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered forces to show "maximum
restraint," but also said Israel would protect its sovereignty.

"Unfortunately, extremist forces around us are trying today to breach our
borders and threaten our communities and our citizens. We will not let
them do that," he told his Cabinet.

The Israeli military said it used live fire only after firing warning
shots into the air and issuing verbal warnings to protesters to stay away.

Protesters waved Palestinian flags and threw rocks and trash over the
fence, and the sporadic pops of Israeli gunfire were heard throughout the
day. The wounded were taken away on stretchers by groups of young men.

"We were trying to cut the barbed wire when the Israeli soldiers began
shooting directly at us," Ghayath Awad, a 29-year-old Palestinian who had
been shot in the waist, told the AP at the hospital.

Residents of Majdal Shams, ethnic Druse who remain Syrian citizens while
living on the Israeli side of the frontier, watched the protest from
rooftops, booing each time the military tried to speak and cheering on the
protesters. When troops fired tear gas, a crowd of residents — some
holding Syrian or Palestinian flags — began to scream and hurl stones from
rooftops at the nearby forces. Israeli anti-riot police fired tear gas and
moved into the town. Village elders with thick mustaches argued with the
forces, but there were no signs of violence.

Throughout the day, ambulances raced to the hospital in the Syrian border
town of Quneitra with the wounded and dead. State-run Syrian TV said 20
people were killed, including a woman and teenage boy, and 325 were
wounded, 12 critically. Hospital officials confirmed the casualty count,
providing names of all the dead.

Capt. Barak Raz, an Israeli military spokesman, confirmed that protesters
made it through a first layer of the border fence — the area protected by
barbed wire — but got no closer than 160 yards (meters) away from the
final fence. He said the army would "continue to operate" throughout the
night to prevent border breaches.

He refused to confirm reports that Israel had laid land mines along the
area, saying only that the army "took measures to ensure we wouldn't allow
any crossing into Israel."

The army claimed that protesters threw firebombs that ignited land mines
on the Syrian side of the border. There was no confirmation from the
Syrian side.

The recent protests have drawn attention to the plight of Palestinian
refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during Israel's war of
independence in 1948. The original refugees, and their descendants, now
number several million, and they demand "the right to return" to the
families' former properties.

"We want on this occasion to remind America and the whole world that we
have a right to return to our country," said Mohammed Hasan, a 16-year-old
student who was wounded in both feet.

As a Palestinian living in Syria, he is likely the descendant of people
who left or fled the area that became Israel during the 1948-49 Middle
East war.

Israel opposes the return of these people, saying it would spell the end
of the country as a Jewish state. The plight of the refugees and their
descendants is one of the most difficult issues in any future
Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Around half a million Palestinian refugees live across 13 camps in Syria,
a country with a population of 23 million. Palestinians are allowed to
work and study in government and private schools, but they do not have
citizenship and cannot vote. In neighboring Lebanon, Palestinian refugees
are largely discriminated against and banned from all but the most menial

Things were relatively calm on Israel's other borders on Sunday.

About 400 Gazans hoisting Palestinian flags and posters gathered near the
main passenger crossing into Israel, but riot police from Hamas, which
runs the Gaza Strip, prevented them from marching toward the crossing.

At the West Bank's main crossing into Jerusalem, several hundred
Palestinian young people tried to approach the checkpoint. They threw
stones at Israeli forces, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
No major injuries were reported.

Palestinian organizers in Lebanon called off a planned march to the
Israeli border after Lebanese authorities had declared the area a closed
military zone.


With contributions from AP writers Albert Aji in Quneitra, Syria, Zeina
Karam in Beirut, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Ibrahim Barzak
in Gaza City, Gaza Strip and Matti Friedman in Jerusalem.

35 reported killed in crackdown in northern Syria

By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press – Sun Jun 5, 2011

BEIRUT – The death toll in a government security crackdown in two northern
Syrian towns rose to 35 Sunday, human rights groups said. Exiled
opposition figures said any dialogue now with President Bashar Assad's
regime would be a joke.

Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the
deaths in the town of Jisr al-Shughour and nearby Khan Sheikhoun included
six policemen. The operation is part of a crackdown that began Saturday.

Human rights groups say more than 1,200 people have died in the brutal
crackdown against anti-government protesters since March. Assad has
coupled military operations with symbolic overtures toward the opposition,
including an amnesty for many prisoners and a call for national dialogue.

The activists' reports could not be independently confirmed. The Syrian
government has severely restricted the media and expelled foreign
reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events

Details of the operations in Jisr al-Shughour were also sketchy and
attempts to reach residents of the town were unsuccessful, indicating that
communications have been cut.

State-run news agency SANA said Sunday four policemen were killed and more
than 20 wounded in the area when "armed terrorist" groups attacked
government buildings and police stations.

It said the groups have been launching attacks against government
buildings since Saturday, setting fire to a number of public and private
buildings, cutting off roads and intimidating residents.

At a meeting of Syria's mostly expatriate opposition in Brussels Sunday,
leaders said talks with the regime would be "a joke" as long as the
violent crackdown continues.

Obeda Nahas, one of the representatives chosen at a two-day Conference of
the National Coalition to Support the Syrian Revolution, said any
opposition figures who talked to the regime now would not be taken
seriously by the Syrian people.

"We can't sit at the table and have some killers with us at the table," he
said at a news conference.

Nahas and other representatives renewed calls on foreign governments and
the United Nations to increase political and legal steps against Assad's

"We want more pressure on this regime, because it doesn't seem to be
listening to its own people," he told reporters.

Ausama Monajed, another participant, said opposition figures were working
to put together legal cases against the Assad regime in federal courts in
the U.S., several European courts and the International Criminal Court in
The Hague.

In Syria, activist Abdul-Rahman and other activists said the Syrian
military pulled back tanks from the outskirts of the tense central city of
Hama and in southern villages.

A resident of the city, where least 65 anti-government protesters were
killed Friday, said the tanks retreated from the outskirts of Hama

He said the situation in Hama remained "very tense." Residents were
conducting a general strike in memory of those previously killed when
security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters Friday.

"Most of the shops here are closed, people are grieving and worried," he
said by telephone on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The deaths in Hama and reports of tanks headed there had caused new alarm.
The city rose up against Assad's father in 1982, only to be crushed in a
three-week bombing campaign that killed thousands. Memories of those days
are still raw.

Activists on Sunday also said the army withdrew from the villages of Dael
and Hirak near the city of Daraa where the uprising against President
Bashar Assad's regime began in mid-March.

The military had been conducting military operations in the area for days.

The Local Coordination Committees, which helps organize and document the
protests calling for an end to the Assad regime, said a total of 18 people
died in Hirak and 12 in Dael since the start of the operations.


AP writer Gabriele Steinhauser contributed to this report from Brussels.

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