Monday, 16 May 2011

Protesters shot dead by Israel as Arab Spring crosses borders

THE INDEPENDENT Monday, 16 May 2011

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

A Palestinian throws stones at Israeli police at a checkpoint near Ramallah

A Palestinian throws stones at Israeli police at a checkpoint near Ramallah

The Arab spring finally found its way to Israel's borders yesterday, with deadly results.

At least eight people were reported killed after Palestinians marched on three different frontier posts with Lebanon, Syria and Gaza to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba ("catastrophe") of the founding of Israel on 15 May, 1948, and the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis.

Two people were killed and more than 100 wounded after Israeli troops opened fire when 200 protesters broke through the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and marched to the centre of the village of Majdal Shams. The village has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Six Day War. It was the first time anyone had breached the heavily guarded border fence, which is flanked by minefields and patrolled by the UN, Israeli and Syrian forces.

Syria condemned the shootings as "criminal acts" by Israel, while Israeli officials said the deadly "provocation"bore "the fingerprints of Iran".

"I instructed the Israel Defence Forces to act with maximum restraint but to prevent any infiltration into our borders," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Everyone should know that we are determined to protect our borders and our sovereignty."

The worst incident occurred when thousands of protesters, transported to the southern Lebanese village of Maroun Al-Ras by bus, threatened to break down the border fence after hanging flags on the barbed wire and singing songs. Israeli and Lebanese troops both fired warning shots to disperse the crowd and five people were reported killed.

Eyewitness Matthew Cassel reported on Twitter: "Lebanese army started shooting in air non-stop. There was a stampede, refugees running away."

There were more deaths in Gaza, where thousands of Palestinians marched through a Hamas checkpoint towards the Erez border crossing with Israel. Border guards opened fire with tank shells and machine-guns. Medics in Gaza said one person was killed and more than 40 injured.

There were also violent clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli security forces in Hebron, East Jerusalem, Kalandia and Wallajeh.

Palestinians demonstrated throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The main rally was held in the West Bank city of Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority government. Mohammed Elayan, of the Higher National Committee for Commemorating the Nakba, told thousands of people: "The Palestinian people are today more solid in confronting occupation and the policy of ethnic cleansing. The Zionist conspiracy against our people will be destroyed in the face of our steadfastness."

Earlier, Ismail Haniyeh, the outgoing Hamas prime minister, told thousands of worshippers at a Gaza mosque that Palestinians would mark Nakba Day this year "with great hope of bringing to an end the Zionist project in Palestine".

Mr Netanyahu retorted that were was "no place... for denying the existence of the State of Israel". "I regret that there are extremists among Israeli Arabs and in neighbouring countries who have turned the day on which the State of Israel was established, the day on which the Israeli democracy was established, into a day of incitement, violence and rage," he told cabinet ministers in Jerusalem.

The mass breaching of the border with Syria left Israeli security chiefs floundering, after weeks of announcements that they were expecting trouble on Sunday. "The Israel Defence Forces were ready," protested Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai. But eyewitnesses in Majdal Shams said only a handful of Israeli soldiers were on duty on Sunday and were taken by surprise when more than 1,000 buses appeared on the Syrian side of the border.

"I don't think they were really prepared for anything to happen on this side. It took more than an hour for the back-up to come," said Majdal Shams resident Shefaa Abu Jabal. "They crossed into the village and not even one landmine exploded, even though we've learned all of our lives that this place is full of landmines."

The local residents greeted the infiltrators like heroes, joining them as they marched towards the main square singing and waving Palestinian flags.

Ahmed, a Palestinian refugee from the Yarmouk camp, denied the Israeli army's claims that the event was planned by Iran. "We didn't really plan," he said. "We got a bit excited and we decided come on, let's do it. We didn't plan to cross. The army said we could stand near the border. The army didn't know. I don't think the Syrian army would have let us in if they knew."

What is the 'catastrophe'?

* Every 15 May, Palestinians commemorate the "Nakba" ("catastrophe") of the declaration of independence of the state of Israel in 1948.

The Palestinians and their Arab allies had hoped to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state by force of arms. But their defeat led to the double "catastrophe" of losing territory and transforming those Palestinians who had fled during the fighting into stateless refugees.

In recent years, protests have been marked by clashes between Israeli security forces and stone-throwing Palestinian youths, but yesterday was the first time the commemorations had descended into such widespread violence. Across the West Bank and Gaza, thousands took to the streets, holding old keys to symbolise their dreams of reclaiming the property they lost when Israel was created.

For the most part, the demonstrations passed off peacefully within Palestinian-controlled areas. But they encountered opposition when they approached checkpoints guarded by Israeli forces.

Thousands of Palestinians staged marches from Gaza City to the Erez border crossing with Israel. At least 15 unarmed marchers were reported wounded after Israeli forces opened fire to halt the crowd's progress. The Israeli warning shots included at least two tank shells and machine-gun fire at open fields close to the protestors.

At the Kalandia refugee camp north of Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinian youths threw stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli forces, who fired tear-gas and rubber bullets. There were clashes too in Hebron, Wallajeh and East Jerusalem.

Matthew Kalman

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