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Updated: June 5, 2011 17:35 IST

Syrian TV says 4 dead in Israeli border gunfire

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Hamas riot policemen scuffle with Palestinian protesters near Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel on Sunday. Hamas riot police prevented the protesters from marching to the border with Israel on the anniversary of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Mideast war. Photo: AP
Hamas riot policemen scuffle with Palestinian protesters near Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel on Sunday. Hamas riot police prevented the protesters from marching to the border with Israel on the anniversary of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Mideast war. Photo: AP

Israeli troops opened fire across the Syrian frontier on Sunday to disperse hundreds of pro—Palestinian protesters who stormed the border of the Israeli—controlled Golan Heights. Syrian television reported four people, including a 12—year—old boy, were killed by Israeli gunfire.

The unrest marked the anniversary of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Mideast war.

The Israeli military accused Syria of instigating the disturbances to deflect attention from its bloody crackdown on a popular uprising at home.

Israel had promised to prevent a repeat of a deadly protest last month, in which hundreds of people burst across the frontier, entered the Golan and clashed with Israeli forces. Thousands of troops were mobilised in anticipation of possible unrest.

“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,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet. He said security forces had been ordered to show “maximum restraint.”

Despite Israel’s warnings, hundreds of demonstrators -- a mix of Palestinians and their Syrian supporters -- passed by a Syrian police outpost early Sunday and marched to the barbed—wire lined trench the Israeli military dug along the border after last month’s unrest. Protesters waved Palestinian flags and threw rocks and trash over the fence, though none appeared to have crossed the line.

As the crowd reached the border, soldiers shouted warnings through megaphones against crossing the border. “Anybody who gets close to the fence is endangering his life,” they said.

Israeli troops opened fire, sending crowds of demonstrators running in panic. Several wounded people were taken away by demonstrators, but dozens more continued heading toward the trench. Those evacuating casualties shouted “shahid,” or “martyr.”

State—run Syrian TV reported four dead, including a 12—year—old boy, and 15 wounded. There was no immediate confirmation of the report.

The Israeli military put the blame on the Syrian regime, which has killed more than 1,200 citizens during three months of demonstrations against the Alawite—dominated government of President Bashar Assad.

“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,” she said. “I wish they had obeyed our verbal warnings, but they chose instead to clash with the soldiers.”

The Israeli military said troops fired warning shots into the air after people started approaching the border fence, then issued verbal warnings to protesters to stay away. After some of the protesters reached the fence, soldiers opened fire at their legs, the military said.

Residents of Majdal Shams, ethnic Druse who remain Syrian citizens while living on the Israeli side of the frontier, watched the protest from rooftops, booing each time the military tried to speak, nearly drowning out the warnings.

When three dozen villagers shouted, “Zionists, get out. Arab land will be free,” Druse leaders in white skullcaps and black robes angrily told them to be quiet to keep the situation from escalating.

At one point, several dozen protesters stopped along a hillside to pray, bowing to the ground in unison. Later, protesters split into several groups, trying to throw off the army as they unsuccessfully searched for ways to get across the barbed—wire trench. A burning tire was thrown into the trench, sending a plume of smoke into the air.

The demonstrators moved toward the frontier even after a dozen people were killed in last month’s unrest, which marked the annual day that Arabs mourn the establishment of Israel. They acted even after organisers in Syria and Lebanon cancelled plans to march to their frontiers with Israel.

Forty—four years ago to the day, the 1967 Mideast war erupted. Within six days, Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt; Syria lost the Golan Heights and Jordan lost the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israel has since returned the Sinai and evacuated Gaza -- but the agony of defeat and the continued Israeli occupation of the Golan, West Bank and east Jerusalem still torments the Arab world.

Things were relatively calm on Israel’s other borders on Sunday.

About 400 Gazans hoisting Palestinian flags and posters calling for an end to the occupation gathered about 3 kilometers from the main passenger crossing into Israel. But dozens of Hamas riot police prevented them from marching toward the crossing.

Hamas officials said the government in Gaza decided to keep demonstrators from the border area to avoid a possible bloody Israeli retaliation. In last month’s unrest, one Gazan was killed in clashes with Israel.

At the West Bank’s main crossing into Jerusalem, several hundred Palestinian young people tried to approach the checkpoint. They threw stones at Israeli forces, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. No injuries were reported.

In a separate incident, activists in a truck tried to break through Israel’s separation barrier by pulling a section of the wall with the vehicle. The wall did not move, and the activists gave up after four tries.

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