Israeli army spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai accused Syria of creating “a provocation” at the border to distract attention from the Syrian government’s deadly crackdown on the uprising in that country.
In a sign of official backing for the protests, the border clashes were broadcast live on Syrian television, with comments from participants, and reporters were permitted direct access to the normally closed frontier zones.
Across from the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, hundreds of protesters, many of whom arrived from Damascus, the Syrian capital, streamed down a hillside and marched toward the frontier, carrying Palestinian and Syrian flags and chanting “Palestine is Arab!” and “the Golan is Syrian!”
Unlike a similar effort last month, in which marchers from Syria caught the Israeli army unprepared and breached the frontier, soldiers Sunday had been waiting for the demonstrators and used gunfire to hold them back.
When scores of marchers tried to cross a trench and earth berms topped with razor wire that had been put up by the Israeli military to block their approach, army sharpshooters opened fire from a border fence about 150 yards away.
The army spokesman said troops had fired warning shots before shooting at the legs of the demonstrators. The gunfire was accompanied by loudspeaker warnings in Arabic that anyone who approached the border fence was “endangering himself.”
Despite the intermittent gunfire, scores of protesters continued to stream toward the border, planting flags and holding a mass prayer behind the earth berms. Other groups of protesters carried off casualties, struggling back up the hillside in Syrian territory.
Another confrontation developed near the abandoned Syrian border town of Quneitra, where scores of protesters gathered on rooftops and near the fence with the Golan Heights, some hurling stones at Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas, stun grenades and warnings delivered via loudspeaker that “anyone who tries to cross the border will be killed.” Troops later opened fire when the crowd surged toward the border.
The Syrian Arab News Agency said that a local hospital had received the bodies of 23 people and that more than 350 were injured, some critically. The Israeli army said earlier in the day that it knew of 12 casualties.
“There are extremist forces around us who are trying to breach our borders and threaten our communities and citizens,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in remarks before the weekly meeting of his cabinet. “We will not allow them to do so. I have instructed the security forces to act with the maximum restraint possible but with determination to protect our sovereignty, borders, communities and citizens.”