20 shot dead as Israeli snipers fire on Palestinians crossing border

Bloodshed as protesters try to enter the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights was a repeat of deadly clashes last month when hundreds of Syria's Palestinian residents poured across the disputed border.

Pro-Palestinians protesters carry a dead man after he was shot by Israeli troops along the border between Israel and Syria yesterday. Ariel Schalit / AP Photo
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JERUSALEM // Israeli soldiers shot and killed up to 20 protesters trying to enter the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights from neighbouring Syria yesterday.

The bloodshed was a repeat of deadly clashes last month when hundreds of Syria's Palestinian residents poured across the disputed border.

Yesterday hundreds more waving Palestinian flags and hurling rocks stormed a fence-lined border trench dug by Israel after last month's unrest.

They were undeterred by Israeli soldiers firing warning shots, and the military's announcements by megaphone that anybody "who gets close to the fence is endangering his life".

Snipers then opened fire on the group. The Syrian state news agency Sana reported 14 dead and more than 200 wounded.

Palestinians in surrounding countries and in territories occupied by Israel planned the day's events to mark the Arab-Israeli war in June 1967. Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the conflict, as well as the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the Syrian-claimed Golan Heights.

Palestinians, who mourn the war as the Naksa, or setback, gathered yesterday in their hundreds to march on the Qalandia checkpoint.

Groups of young people hoped for non-violent protest at the West Bank entry point to Jerusalem, but events quickly deteriorated.

Israeli soldiers and border police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at Palestinian men, some masked by black-and-white headscarves, who were hurling stones and setting tyres on fire.

Some expressed disappointment that their attempt at peaceful responses to Israel's often heavy-handed riot-dispersal measures resulted in rocking-throwing standoffs.

Dozens of the demonstrators, many of whom wanted to march into Jerusalem from the checkpoint, received medical assistance from paramedics for gas inhalation and rubber-bullet wounds.

"Our main message was one of non-violence, which we tried to maintain, since that was the success of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Mandela," said Amra Amra, 24, a Palestinian demonstrator at Qalandia.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose uncompromising positions have stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians, was quick to brand the demonstrators "extremists".

While ordering the military to show "maximum restraint", he told his cabinet yesterday: "Unfortunately, extremist forces around us are trying today to breach our borders and threaten our communities and our citizens. We will not let them do that."

That was also an apparent reference to Syria and its president, Bashar al Assad. His ruthless response to a domestic rebellion has killed more than 1,000 people, and Israeli military officials described yesterday's unrest as a ploy by the Syrian leader.

"This is an attempt to divert international attention from the bloodbath going on in Syria," said Lt Col Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman.

"In the end, we are guarding our border. I wish they had obeyed our verbal warnings, but they chose instead to clash with the soldiers."

Many of the demonstrators are Palestinian refugees attempting to use the protests to highlight what they see as their right to return to the communities from which their families were forced out at the time of Israel's creation in 1948.

Last month, during the annual mourning for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians dispossessed by the creation of the state of Israel, known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe, protesters held up symbolic keys to their homes in what is now Israel. Those clashes killed about a dozen people.

Such symbolism has alarmed Israelis, who consider any such influx of Palestinians a threat to the country's Jewish majority.

In Lebanon, where six Palestinians were shot dead by the Israeli army during the protests on May 15, the Lebanese army declared its border area with Israel a closed military zone to avoid a repeat of the violence.

Abu Rabieh Shihabi, Hamas's representative in northern Lebanon, who described yesterday as an "angry day", said: "We are in mourning and we are very disappointed that the Lebanese army decided not to allow us to go to the border.

"Our anger is because we wanted to be part of the marches to the border, like in Palestine and the Golan. We are sorry we were prevented from joining our people," he said.

Yassir Azzam, one of the organisers of yesterday's thwarted march in Lebanon, blamed "international pressure" - mainly from the US and the United Nations. "They wanted to prevent the march because it is clear and obvious Israel is in a corner now," he said.

Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps yesterday held a day of mourning, with some residents raising black flags in a symbolic protest at being prevented from marching to the border with Israel. Palestinian leaders called for a general strike yesterday, with shops closed and the atmosphere sombre in many of the camps.

In Gaza, police officers from the Hamas government prevented young people from holding rallies in Gaza City.

Mohammed Youseef, a 23-year-old member of a group of young men who staged protests calling for Palestinian unity in March, said police told them to hold their demonstration near Gaza's northern boundary with Israel.

"We are very angry, but we are planning another demonstration in the next few days," he said.

However, not everyone was swept up in protest fervour. Lines of vehicles swerved around clashing protesters and Israeli soldiers at Qalandia, along with groups of women and families who dodged the fighting on foot to make their way to work.

Mohammed Awwad, an employee at Nablus Sweets, near the Qalandia checkpoint, doubted that protests, especially non-violent ones, would yield positive results for the Palestinians. "The government says, 'No violence. Peaceful protests'. But Abu Mazen sits in his chair doing nothing," he said. "Nothing will change."

* Zoi Constantine reported from Beirut