Israeli Forces Fire at ‘Naksa’ Protesters; At Least 20 Reported Killed

(AlJazeera English) – Israeli forces have opened fire along the Syrian frontier to disperse a large crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators attempting to breach the border.

At least 20 protesters were killed, including a 12-year-old boy, and 220 others were wounded as they marched from the Golan Heights on Sunday, Syrian state TV said.

The crowd had 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 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 toward a second fence guarded by Israeli troops.

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

‘Terrible violence’

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.”

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

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

The United States State Department on Sunday expressed its concern over the clashes.

“We are deeply troubled by events that took place earlier today in the Golan Heights resulting in injuries and the loss of life,” the State Department said in a statement.

“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”.

The recent protests 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.

Deflecting attention

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 accused the Syrian government of instigating the protests to deflect attention from its bloody crackdown of a popular uprising at home.

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

Israel had vowed to prevent a repeat of a similar demonstration last month, in which hundreds of people burst across the border into Israeli-controlled 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 day”, to mark the expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians following Israel’s 1948 declaration of statehood.

Original Article – http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/06/20116591150521659.html

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