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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Golan death toll: 23 killed by Israel. Injured: 350. More violence?

Syria said 23 people were killed in Sunday’s protest near the Golan Heights, when Israeli troops fired at Palestinian demonstrators who marched to the frontier fence, whereas Israel dismissed the toll as “exaggerated” and put the number of killed at ten.

Israeli troops were bracing for more border violence Monday after a day of deadly clashes with hundreds of Palestinians and their supporters who tried to surge from Syria into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, The Associated Press reported.

Official news agency SANA quoted Health Minister Wael Al Halki as saying the death toll included a woman and a child, adding that another 350 people suffered gunshot wounds.
The Israeli army meanwhile said 10 people had been killed during mass protests along the ceasefire line with Syria, dismissing the toll of 23 dead cited by Damascus as “exaggerated.”

“We are aware that around 10 of the casualties that the Syrians reported yesterday were killed by the fact that they used Molotov cocktails in the Quneitra area that hit some Syrian landmines,” Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovitz told Agence-France Presse.

She did not specify how the Israeli military had confirmed the number of dead, and did not give a toll for the wounded.

“I think there is solid ground to believe that (the Syrian figures) are exaggerated,” she said. “A big number of them died as a result of their own deeds.”

Asked whether any protesters were killed or wounded by Israeli fire, she was non-committal.

“We don’t really know. There were a lot of charades. When someone was shot in the feet, they were carried away on a stretcher in front of the cameras,” she said.

Three weeks ago Israeli soldiers shot dead 13 Palestinian protesters who tried to breach Israel's frontier with Lebanon and Syria during protests marking what Palestinians call the “Nakba” (catastrophe) of Israel’s founding in 1948.

Sunday’s protest was held to mark the 44th anniversary of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured the Golan Heights, as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians want to establish a state.

Palestinians in Syria marched down from a hilltop overlooking the Druze village of Majdal Shams on Sunday to the Israeli frontier, which before last month had been mostly peaceful for decades, according to Reuters.

Israel has accused Syrian President Bashar Al Assad of allowing the Golan protests to try to divert the world’s attention from his bloody suppression of the popular revolt against his authoritarian rule.

Israel is concerned that protests by unarmed demonstrators are a new tactic for Palestinians, adopted from popular revolts in the Arab world, to draw a violent response and gain more sympathy internationally for their cause.

The government in Hamas-ruled Gaza ordered three days of mourning, calling the dead “martyrs of Palestine,” according to AP.

Israeli opposition lawmaker Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former general and defense minister, predicted the unrest would proliferate across Israel’s various borders.

“There is only one solution,” said Ben-Eliezer, whose Labor Party splintered, then quit the government in frustration over its failure to break a stubborn impasse in peacemaking with the Palestinians. “To recognize a Palestinian state and sit down tomorrow at the bargaining table,” he told Israel Radio.

Israel returned Sinai to Egypt under a 1979 peace accord and left Gaza in 2005.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank and east Jerusalem, along with Gaza, for a future state. Syria demands a return of the Golan, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel that Israel has since annexed, in return for peace. Multiple rounds of peacemaking between Israel and both the Syrians and the Palestinians have failed.

The recent protests have drawn attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from homes in Israel during the war over Israel's 1948 creation. The original refugees, and their descendants, now number several million, and they demand “the right to return” to the families’ former properties.

Israel opposes their repatriation because Palestinians would eventually outnumber Jews in the Jewish state. The fate of the refugees and their descendants is one of the toughest issues in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

(Abeer Tayel, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English,

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