JERUSALEM — A day after Israel used lethal gunfire to repel protesters from Syria who tried to breach the frontier with the occupied Golan Heights, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defended the army’s conduct and suggested that the Syrian government had used the protest to deflect attention from its own deadly crackdown on a popular uprising.
Syria said that 23 people were killed by Israeli fire during Sunday’s border confrontation, including a woman and a child, and it accused Israel of “flagrant aggression” against unarmed civilians.
The episode marked the second time in a month that Syrian security forces allowed hundreds of Palestinian protesters and their supporters to march toward Israeli lines, raising concerns in Israel that the long-quiet Golan border could be the scene of steady unrest as long as Syria is in turmoil.
Netanyahu asserted that the Israeli army, which used sharpshooters to stop scores of marchers who tried to cross the frontier, had followed international law, warning protesters not to approach and opening fire “as a last resort” after non-lethal means had failed to stop the demonstrators.
“I can’t say that the Syrian government used its full weight to stop this provocation,” Netanyahu said in remarks broadcast by Israel Radio. “It ultimately enabled these people to reach the border. It could be that this is an attempt to divert international attention from the wholesale killing of civilians that is happening in Syrian cities.”
The U.S. State Department agreed with that assessment, with spokesman Mark Toner in Washington saying, “It’s clear that such behavior will not distract international attention from the Syrian governments’ condemnable behavior on its own citizens.”
Netanyahu said that the march on the Golan, annexed by Israel after it was seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, was part of an attempt by descendants of Palestinian refugees to “flood the state of Israel,” and that “we are committed first of all to defend our borders.”
Some Israeli commentators called the army’s use of live ammunition against the protesters a two-edged sword, sending a firm message that Israel would not tolerate a breach of its frontiers, but risking mass casualties.
“The Israeli formula for action was ultimately self-defeating,” wrote Amos Harel, the military affairs correspondent for Haaretz, in a joint article with Avi Issacharoff, the newspaper’s reporter on Palestinian affairs. “The army is trapped between two contradictory aims: to prevent a breach of the fence and violation of Israeli sovereignty, but also to avoid inflicting too many casualties on the adversary.”
Asked in a radio interview if the army would be under orders from now on to shoot marchers crossing Israel’s borders, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that was a possibility, but he added that efforts were being made to deploy less lethal means to disperse protesters.
Barak said there was no comparison between the shooting of unarmed demonstrators by the Syrian government and by Israel.
In their response to anti-government protests, the Syrian security forces were “deliberately shooting on civilians, into demonstrations,” Barak said. “We have no choice. . . . Our border must be defended.”
The methods used by Israeli forces on Sunday “were correct, necessary and we back them,” Barak added. “The responsibility falls on those who instigated this whole thing, or encouraged it.”
The frontier zone was quiet Monday. Syrian police, who set up a checkpoint nearby, kept away a group of protesters who tried to march again toward Israeli lines, the Associated Press reported.
But some Israeli analysts cautioned that the continuing unrest inside Syria could prompt the government there to keep the Golan frontier, which had been quiet for decades, simmering.
“The assessment in Israel is that as long as President [Bashar al-]Assad is fighting for his regime, and perhaps for his life, the Golan Heights will stay in the headlines,” wrote Alex Fishman, defense analyst for Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s most widely read newspaper.
“The Syrians will push the Palestinians to points of friction with the army along the border in order to create constant flare-ups that will divert domestic and international attention from the deep crisis in Syria.”