MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights – Israeli troops on Sunday battled hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters who tried to burst across Syria’s frontier with the Golan Heights, killing a reported 20 people and wounding scores more in the second outbreak of deadly violence in the border area in less than a month.
The clashes, marking the anniversary of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Mideast war, drew Israeli accusations that Syria was orchestrating the violence to shift attention away from a bloody crackdown on opposition protests at home. The marchers, who had organized on Facebook, passed by Syrian and U.N. outposts on their way to the front lines.
There was no Syrian comment on why the protesters were allowed to storm the border, apparently undisturbed by authorities. But Syria’s state-run media portrayed the event as a spontaneous uprising of Palestinian youths from a nearby refugee camp.
After nightfall Sunday, Syria’s state TV said there would be an open-ended sit-in at the border, and thousands more protesters were on their way.
The protests began around 11 a.m. with what appeared to be several dozen youths, brought in on buses. It gained strength through the day.
By evening, the crowd had swelled to more than 1,000 people, who milled about, prayed and chanted slogans in an uneasy standoff with Israeli troops in the distance. The army bolstered its positions, posting a dozen armored vehicles and jeeps along the border road.
A small group of youths managed to cut through a recently fortified coil of barbed-wire and took up positions in a trench inside a buffer zone about 20 yards from a final border fence. Israeli troops periodically opened fire at young activists jumping into the ditch, sending puffs of soil flying.
As the standoff stretched into the evening, Israeli forces fired heavy barrages of tear gas to break up the crowds. Hundreds of people fled the area in panic, while some 20 people laying on the ground received treatment.
At nightfall, crowds of people fell to the ground in Muslim prayer, and several small groups lit bonfires, indicating the standoff would continue.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered forces to show “maximum restraint,” but also said Israel would protect its sovereignty.
The Israeli military said it used live fire only after firing warning shots into the air and issuing verbal warnings to protesters to stay away.
Protesters waved Palestinian flags and threw rocks and trash over the fence, and the sporadic pops of Israeli gunfire were heard throughout the day.