- Associated Press - Sunday, June 5, 2011

MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights — Israeli troops opened fire Sunday at a crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators who tried to break into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights from neighboring Syria.

The gunfire killed as many as 20 people and wounded scores in a burst of violence marking the Arab defeat in the 1967 Mideast war.

The casualty figures came from Syrian state television. Israel offered no immediate comment on dead or wounded.

Israel angrily accused the Syrian regime of orchestrating the violence - the second border clash in less than a month - to deflect attention from its bloody crackdown on a popular uprising at home.

Israel had promised to prevent a repeat of last month’s deadly protests, in which hundreds of people broke through a border fence, entered the Golan and clashed with Israeli forces. Thousands of troops were mobilized in anticipation of possible unrest.

“Unfortunately, extremist forces around us are trying today to breach our borders and threaten our communities and our citizens. We will not let them do that,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet.

He said security forces had been ordered to show “maximum restraint.”

Despite Israel’s warnings, hundreds of demonstrators - a mix of Palestinians and their Syrian supporters - passed by Syrian and U.N. outposts early Sunday and marched to the barbed-wire-lined trench the Israeli military dug along the border after last month’s unrest. Protesters waved Palestinian flags and threw rocks and trash over the fence.

As the crowd reached the border, soldiers shouted warnings through megaphones. “Anybody who gets close to the fence is endangering his life,” they said.

When the demonstrators pushed forward, troops opened fire, sending crowds running in panic.

Several wounded people were taken away by demonstrators, but dozens more continued heading toward the trench. Those evacuating casualties shouted “shahid,” or “martyr.”

Protesters, most of them young men, eventually managed to cut through coils of barbed wire marking the frontier, entering a buffer zone and crawling toward a second fence guarded by Israeli troops. Every so often, they evacuated a dead or wounded protester, and more men raced in to take their place.

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

Israel says a return of these people would mean the end of the country as a Jewish state, and that the refugees should be resettled in a future Palestinian state alongside Israel.

About half a million Palestinian refugees live in 13 camps across Syria, a country with a population of 23 million. Palestinians are allowed to work and study in government and private schools, but they do not have citizenship and cannot vote.

The Israeli military put the blame on the Syrian regime, which has killed an estimated 1,200 citizens during three months of demonstrations against the Alawite-dominated government of President Bashar Assad. The Syrian military, which tightly controls access to the border, did not keep the protesters from reaching the fence.

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