By Majeda El Batsh (AFP) – May 15, 2011
MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights — Israeli gunfire killed two protesters and wounded dozens more as civilians crossed from Syria onto the annexed Golan Heights on Sunday, raising tensions between Damascus and the Jewish state.
Two people were killed and four critically hurt by Israeli gunfire after protesters from a Syrian-held part of the Golan entered the annexed territory, a Druze doctor who treated casualties told AFP.
Staff at the local medical centre in the Druze border town of Majdal Shams said one of the men was shot in the head and the other shot in the chest. They said they treated another 20 people with light to moderate injuries.
Troops fired live rounds and tear gas at the protesters who suddenly burst through to Israeli-held territory rather than demonstrating alongside the border fence as they have in past years on the anniversary of Israel's 1948 creation.
The unrest came as Palestinians in the occupied territories, inside Israel and across the region marked the anniversary of the Jewish state's 1948 creation, known in Arabic as the "nakba" or "catastrophe."
"Syrian civilians breached the Israel-Syria border near the Israeli village of Majdal Shams," the Israeli military said. "Forces opened fire in order to prevent the violent rioters from illegally infiltrating Israeli territory.
"From initial reports, there are dozens of injured," it said in a statement.
Media reported at least one dead and several wounded, but there was no immediate confirmation of the toll, in one of the worst incidents for decades along a ceasefire line that has been quiet since a 1974 truce accord.
Israeli medical officials said "between 10 and 20" of the protesters were wounded, with one feared dead, while three Israelis were said to have been lightly injured.
The army accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime of "organising" the violence as a means to divert international attention from pro-democracy protests sweeping his country.
"Syrian authorities organised this violent incident in order to divert world opinion away from what is happening in their cities," army spokeswoman Avital Leibovitz told AFP.
Syria's foreign ministry, meanwhile, condemned Israel for opening fire on protesters on the Golan, in south Lebanon and Gaza, warning that the Jewish state would bear full responsibility.
"We firmly denounce the criminal Israeli actions against our people in the Golan Heights, Palestine and southern Lebanon that left several people dead and wounded," the foreign ministry said.
"Israel will have to bear full responsibility for its actions."
But another Israeli official also pointed the finger at Assad's regime, which has been rocked by two months of pro-reform protests inspired by Arab revolts which have ousted strongmen in Tunisia and Egypt.
"This appears to be a cynical yet transparent act by the Syrian regime to create a crisis on the border in order to distract attention from the very real problems that regime faces at home," he said, on condition of anonymity.
"Syria is a police state," the official added. "Demonstrators do not randomly approach the border without the prior approval of the central government."
In a brief televised statement later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Golan incident but made no mention of Syria or its rulers, saying only that the organisers of violent protests on Israel's borders with Syria, Lebanon and Gaza question "the very existence of Israel."
"We are determined to defend our borders and our sovereignty," he said.
Channel 1 television said its correspondent in Majdal Shams, a Druze town on the Golan, said he had come across 30-40 infiltrators in its main square, some of whom said they were Palestinians from Yarmuk refugee camp in Damascus.
Local religious leaders escorted a number of the outsiders to the point where they crossed the frontier and sent them back the way they had come, through a minefield, local residents told AFP.
The army sealed off the town and its immediate surroundings and carried out house-to-house searches for infiltrators, defence sources said.
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