Israeli police were on high alert after clashes with demonstrators on four of its borders left as many as nine people dead in violence that officials in Israel blamed on Syria and Iran.
The protests in the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip marked yesterday’s annual observance of what Palestinians call the “nakba,” meaning catastrophe -- a reference to their displacement as a result of the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel.
The violence comes as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are at a standstill and protests move through the Arab world, with demonstrators ousting the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and threatening the governments of Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
“Palestinians have been encouraged by the Arab Spring and by the demonstrations, which have declared so much support for the Palestinian cause,” Rime Allaf, associate fellow of the London-based Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program, said today in a phone interview.
Israeli police cordoned off Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, a town captured from Syria in 1967, and were conducting house-to-house searches after dozens of people breached the nearby border. “We believe there are still Syrians in the Golan, and this morning one was arrested as he was being driven out of the town,” the police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said by telephone.
Only ‘the Outset’
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel was preparing for more demonstrations in the West Bank, Gaza and along the country’s borders.
“We’re only at the outset,” Barak said late yesterday in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 television. “The danger is that more mass processions like these will appear, not necessarily near the border, but also other places.”
Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, a spokesman for the Israeli army, said, “I see fingerprints of Iranian provocation and an attempt to use Nakba Day to create conflict.”
Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “closing the door on peace” by refusing to recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is now Israel.
The Israeli army ordered that all crossings between the West Bank and Israel remain closed today, according to an e-mailed statement.
Palestinian television broadcast orders from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today to lower flags to half-staff for three days and to close shops for two hours a day to mourn those killed in demonstrations yesterday. Palestinian youth movements planned a mock funeral in Ramallah’s central square today, according to a text message sent to journalists.
“We head to a crossroad in the historic path of the Palestinian cause,” Abbas said in a broadcast speech yesterday. He pointed to the reconciliation of his Fatah faction with Hamas in Gaza and “the support of the international community.”
Jordanian forces dispersed protesters who attempted to approach the Allenby Bridge border crossing late yesterday, Israel’s Army Radio reported.
The TA-25 index rose 0.5 percent to 1284.41 at 2:54 p.m. after falling 1 percent to 1,277.74 at the end of trading yesterday in Tel Aviv, its lowest since May 5.
Israeli forces used live fire in an attempt to stop thousands of demonstrators from trying to cross from the usually quiet border with Syria into the Golan Heights, the army said in a statement, noting that dozens were injured. Channel 2 said four people were killed. A local doctor, Wassef Khater, confirmed three of the deaths.
“Undoubtedly for the first time, the Syrian regime has allowed people to approach the border knowing that it would create the kind of result that we saw yesterday, and that the Israelis would shoot to kill,” Allaf said. Syrian leaders knew their actions would “divert attention from their own problems, only temporally of course, and remind Israel that the Syrian regime is the guarantor of quiet from the Syrian side of the border.”
The message from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government may also be directed at the wider world, Chris Phillips, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, said in a telephone interview.
“This is an area that has been almost entirely peaceful since 1974,” Phillips said. “It seems this is a way of the Syrians sending a message to Israel that if we lose power and if instability comes to Syria we cannot control this area and it’s a problem for you and the international community.”
War in 1973
Israel and Syria fought a war in 1973 war in which Syrian forces tried to recapture the Golan Heights.
Syrian security forces have killed at least a dozen people during the past two days as protesters nationwide defied mass arrests amid an intensifying crackdown on dissent that began in mid-March. Syrian authorities have vowed to crush what they called an anti-government conspiracy.
The Israeli military also shot at protesters trying to cross from Lebanon, army spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said. Four people were killed there, the Lebanese state news agency said.
One Palestinian was killed in the Gaza Strip, Gaza medical official Adham Abu Selmaya said. Israeli troops fired on a man spotted trying to plant an explosive device along the Gaza border fence, according to military spokesman Barak Raz.
In the West Bank town of Qalandiya, about 600 Palestinians demonstrated and hurled rocks and flares at soldiers, the Israeli army said. The hospital in Ramallah said 10 people were admitted with light wounds.
‘Defend Our Borders’
Netanyahu said yesterday that Israel was “determined to defend our borders” and said he hoped that calm would return to the area.
Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down weeks after they began in September 2010 following Netanyahu’s refusal to extend a 10-month partial construction freeze in the West Bank, and Abbas’s vow not to negotiate until all Israeli building there is halted.
Abbas is pushing for United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state in September.
Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama on May 20 in Washington, a day after the U.S. leader plans to give a speech on the Middle East. The meeting is being held a week after the resignation of the U.S. special envoy to the region, former Senator George Mitchell of Maine.