MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights – Mobilized by calls on Facebook, thousands of Arab protesters marched on Israel’s borders with Syria, Lebanon and Gaza on Sunday in an unprecedented wave of demonstrations, sparking clashes that left at least 15 people dead in an annual Palestinian mourning ritual marking the anniversary of Israel’s birth.
Hundreds of Palestinians and supporters poured across the Syrian frontier and staged riots, drawing Israeli accusations that Damascus, and its ally Iran, orchestrated the unrest to shift attention from an uprising back home. It was a rare incursion from the usually tightly controlled Syrian side.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads to Washington at the end of the week, said he ordered the military to act with “maximum restraint” but vowed a tough response to further provocations.
“Nobody should be mistaken. We are determined to defend our borders and sovereignty,” he declared in a brief address broadcast live on Israeli TV stations.
The Israeli military said 13 soldiers were wounded, none seriously.
Palestinians were marking the “nakba,” or “catastrophe” – the term they use to describe their defeat and displacement in the war that followed Israel’s founding on May 15, 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted. Today, the surviving refugees and their descendants number several million people.
Each year, Palestinians throughout the region mark the “nakba” with demonstrations. But never before have marchers descended upon Israel’s borders from all directions.
Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV was in place to film much of the day’s clashes, and defense officials said the activists were bused in from Palestinian refugee camps throughout Syria. Many of them held European passports and told interrogators they had been flown in from abroad for the march.
“It’s our land,” one of the infiltrators, Sufian Abdel Hamid, told Israel’s Channel 2 TV. “We won’t stop trying to come back.”
About 25 miles to the west, Israeli troops clashed with a large crowd of Lebanese demonstrators who approached that border. The military said it opened fire when protesters tried to damage the border fence. Security officials in Lebanon reported 10 dead.
There was also violence in a predictable location: Gaza.
Palestinian medics said 125 people were wounded when demonstrators in the Gaza Strip tried to approach a heavily fortified border crossing into Israel. One man was killed by an Israeli sniper. The military said he was trying to plant a bomb.
In Jordan, meanwhile, police blocked a group of protesters trying to reach the border with Israel. In addition, hundreds of West Bank Palestinian threw stones at Israeli police and burned tires at a checkpoint outside Jerusalem before they were dispersed.