JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli troops clashed with Arab protesters Sunday along three hostile borders, including the frontier with Syria, leaving at least 12 people dead and dozens wounded in an unprecedented wave of demonstrations marking a Palestinian day of mourning for their defeat at Israel’s hands in 1948.
In the most serious incident, the Israeli military said thousands of protesters approached Syria’s border with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and hundreds burst through the fence. Soldiers opened fire to stop them, the military said. Dozens were wounded and four were reported killed.
It was a rare incursion from the usually tightly controlled Syrian side, and Israeli officials accused Damascus of fomenting the violence in an attempt to divert attention from the deadly crackdown on protests within its borders against the rule of President Bashar Assad.
“The Syrian regime is intentionally attempting to divert international attention away from the brutal crackdown of their own citizens to incite against Israel,” said Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman.
Israeli media reported that the incident was over by early evening, but the military did not immediately confirm that.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered the military to act with “maximum restraint.”
“But nobody should be mistaken: We are determined to defend our borders and sovereignty,” Mr. Netanyahu added in a brief address broadcast live on Israeli TV stations.
Sunday’s unrest — which came after activists used Facebook and other websites to mobilize Palestinians and their supporters in neighboring countries to march on the border with Israel— marked the first time the protest tactics that have swept the Arab world in recent months have been directed at Israel.
Deadly clashes also took place along Israel’s nearby northern border with Lebanon, as well as in the Gaza Strip, near Israel’s southern border. The Israeli military said 13 soldiers were lightly wounded in the Lebanon and Syria clashes.
In addition, hundreds of Palestinian threw stones at Israeli police and burned tires at a checkpoint outside Jerusalem before they were dispersed.
The unrest came as the Palestinians marked the “nakba,” or “catastrophe,” the term they use to describe the uprooting they suffered at the time of Israel‘s founding on May 15, 1948.
In Egypt, the army set up at least 15 checkpoints — guarded by tanks and armored vehicles — on the road between the Egyptian town of El-Arish and the Gaza border city of Rafah, turning back all who were not residents of the area.
In the fighting over Israel‘s creation, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted, and the dispute over the fate of the refugees and their descendants, now numbering several million, remains a key issue in the Mideast conflict.
Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war, and Syria demands the area back as part of any peace deal. Despite hostility between the two countries, the border has been quiet since the 1973 Mideast war.
Israeli TV channels broadcast scenes, taken from Arab stations, of what appeared to be thousands of people gathering along the Syrian border with the Golan, with large crowds throwing objects at the fence. Dozens of people could be seen cutting through the fence and storming across to the Israeli side.