Up to 20 shot dead at protest
Israeli forces accused of killing demonstrators at Golan Heights march
Israel was accused of shooting dead as many as 20 protesters yesterday after Palestinian refugees and their Syrian sympathisers massed in the occupied Golan Heights.
Hundreds of protesters came under fire as they advanced towards the fenced ceasefire line separating undisputed Syrian territory from the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967.
The march, led by refugees intent on reclaiming their homes lost to Israel in an earlier war in 1948, was the second of its kind in just over three weeks. Four protesters were killed last month after they breached the border fence.
The protesters, who waved Palestinian flags and occasionally threw stones, did not get as close yesterday, although some did cut their way into a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the fence.
As they approached, to cheers from Syrian citizens watching from rooftops in the Golan Heights, Israeli troops broadcast warning messages through loudhailers, saying: "Anyone who comes close to the fence will be responsible for their own blood. Anyone who tries to cross the border will be killed."
Israeli officials said at least 12 protesters were wounded when soldiers shot at their legs, but would not confirm reports from Syrian doctors and on state television in Damascus that 14 had been killed.
Protesters said they were hoping to emulate Hassan Hijazi, who managed to reach his former home in the Israeli coastal city of Jaffa after the last protest before turning himself into the police.
"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 refugee wounded in both feet.
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.
"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," said Israel's chief military spokesman, Brig Gen Yoav Mordechai.
There was no Syrian comment on why the protesters were allowed to storm the border, apparently undisturbed.
But Syria's state-run media portrayed the event as a spontaneous uprising of Palestinian youths from a refugee camp.
The protests began around 11am with what appeared to be several dozen youths, brought in on buses.
By evening, the crowd had swelled to more than 1,000.
As the standoff stretched into the evening, Israeli forces fired tear gas to break up the crowds. Hundreds of people fled in panic, while some 20 people lying 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 stand-off would continue. (© Daily Telegraph, London)