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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

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Reports of 22 shot dead by Israeli soldiers on Syrian border

(6 June 2011)

On 5 June 2011, pro-Palestinian protesters attempted to breach the fence along the cease fire line that currently separates Syria and Israel. It is reported that up to 22 protesters were shot dead by Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights area, near the Israeli town of Majdal Shams and the Syrian town of Quneitra. It was also reported by Syrian authorities that up to 350 were wounded. The Israeli government has suggested that these figures have been inflated significantly. The protests took place to mark the 44th anniversary of the 1967 Middle East war, in which Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria. Sunday’s protest and the response from Israel has been viewed as the worst violence in the Golan Heights since the two countries went to war in 1973.

This was the second protest in the past month in this area that attempted to breach the fence, though it was reported as being smaller than the first. Since the initial protest on 15 May, the Israeli military has dug additional trenches and placed barbed wire to thwart further attempts to cross into Israel. The 15 May protest resulted in several hundred people breaching the fence near the village of Maroun al-Ras in Lebanon, with 10 being shot dead. Estimates of over 1000 Syrian and Palestinian protesters were recorded on 5 June, reaching within 20 metres of the fence. The Israeli government has stated that its military took every effort on 5 June to avoid using live ammunition on protesters, but was left with no option when they began to approach the fence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted as saying, “I have instructed the security forces to act with determination, with maximum restraint, but with determination to maintain our sovereignty, our borders, our communities and our citizens.”

Israel has accused the Syrian government of allowing the protests, possibly to draw attention away from the repression of political protest currently taking place within Syria. At present, any large demonstration requires government approval in Syria, and access to the border is typically restricted by the military. It has also been suggested that protesters are applying a new strategy of attempting to breach the borders unarmed, in efforts to provoke the Israeli military to attack them while unarmed and thereby drawing international condemnation of Israel. Other simultaneous protests also took place on 5 June in Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank, while protests in Egypt and Jordan were prevented from occurring.

The U.S. has recently suggested that Israel resume peace talks with Palestine, based on the borders set after the 1967 war. While this has long been seen as the basis of peace negotiations, Israel has rejected this strategy outright. Meanwhile Palestine is currently seeking to unilaterally approach the United Nations in efforts to gain international recognition for statehood.

Sources: ‘Israel soldiers shoot at protesters on Syrian border’, Isabel Kershner, New York Times, 5 June 2011; ‘Golan: Israel troops fire on pro-Palestinian protesters’, BBC News, 5 June 2011; ‘Israeli troops clash on Syrian border with protesters marking six-day war’, Conal Urquhart, Nidaa Hassan and Martin Chulov, Guardian, 5 June 2011.