Clashes Near Golan Heights Divert Attention from Syria’s Violent Crackdown

By Patrick Goodenough | May 16, 2011 | 4:47 AM EDT

Protesters from Syria carrying Palestinian flags and shouting slogans demonstrate near the Golan Heights on Sunday, May 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

(Update: Echoing Israel’s allegations, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday the incident along the Golan Heights border was “clearly an effort by them [the Syrian regime] to take focus off the situation that’s happening right now in Syria, and it’s a cynical use of the Palestinian cause to encourage violence along its border as it continues to repress its own people within Syria.”)

( – Israel accused Syria of allowing pro-Palestinian protesters to breach the disputed Israel-Syrian border on Sunday to divert attention from the regime’s domestic troubles.

If true, the ploy appeared to have worked: The ensuing clashes along the Syria-Golan Heights border drew massive media coverage worldwide.

By contrast, news of an unrelated incident Sunday – near the Syrian-Lebanese border some 100 miles to the northeast – received relatively little notice. In that incident, at least seven people reportedly were killed by Syrian forces in the Tel Kalakh area as the regime’s crackdown of anti-government protests continued.

Hundreds of Syrians fled across the nearby border into Lebanon to escape the shelling and shooting by their own army. Human rights groups say as many as 850 people have been killed since the protests against President Bashar Assad’s rule began in mid-March.

But headlines from the region on Sunday and Monday focused largely on the violence that erupted along Israel’s boundaries with Syria and Lebanon, as Arab protesters storming the borders were repelled by Israeli soldiers.

In the incident along the Golan Heights, at least one Syrian protester was killed; along the Lebanon-Israel border about 25 miles away, ten protesters were reported dead, with the Lebanese and Israeli armies accusing each other of responsibility for the fatalities.

The protests were part of orchestrated demonstrations planned on the day Palestinians mark the “naqba” (catastrophe) – the anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Clashes also occurred along the Gaza-Israel border and in the West Bank.

The Syrian government and its allies in Lebanon, led by Hezbollah, condemned Israel for the violence, and the foreign ministry in Damascus urged the international community to hold Israel responsible.

“Syria, which has always stood by the Palestinian people and supported their steadfastness and resistance to restore their legitimate rights and liberate their usurped territories, pays rich tribute to all the martyrs of the Arab nation who sacrificed their souls over decades for the sake of the Palestinian cause,” Syria’s official SANA news agency quoted a ministry official as saying.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War and the two fought again in 1973 – when Syria joined Egypt in attacking Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Since 1974, the frontier along the Golan Heights has been quiet, and Israeli officials say the Syrians must have taken a decision to allow the protestors to approach the heavily-militarized zone.

“Syria is a police state,” the Jerusalem Post quoted a senior Israeli official as saying. “People don’t randomly approach the border without the approval of the regime.”

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz also accused Assad of trying to deflect attention from domestic unrest, charging that sending people into harm’s way was “typical of dictators of his ilk.”

An Israeli soldier takes position along the border fence after Syrian demonstrators approache the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights on Sunday. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel was sorry about the deaths, “but those who tested Israel’s sovereignty and those who sent them and encouraged them are responsible.”

Speaking on Israeli television, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he had told the army to act with restraint and hoped to see calm restored quickly.

“But make no mistake,” he added, “We are determined to defend our borders and sovereignty.”

Some observers of the Syrian revolt have been waiting for Assad to play the “Israel card” in his attempts to fend off the most serious challenge to the regime since his father seized power in 1971.

Last week Rami Makhlouf, a Syrian business tycoon who is a cousin of the president and brother of the regime’s intelligence chief, told the New York Times, “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.”

‘Popular resistance’

The protests along the borders, and those in Gaza and near Ramallah in the West Bank, were part of a campaign promoted on the Internet and by text messaging, to mark the 63rd anniversary of Israel’s founding.

On Thursday the Fatah Revolutionary Council, one of the key decision-making bodies of Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction, issued a statement urging Palestinians to step up “popular resistance” against Israel and take part in events to mark so-called “naqba day.”

A body calling itself the “Organizing committee for the Return to Palestine march” called in a statement for “a massive Palestinian, Arab and global revolution” focusing in particular on the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees.

In Jordan, police used teargas to disperse pro-Palestinian demonstrators who gathered in a village near the Jordan-Israel border.

Egyptian security forces blocked activists from reaching that country’s border with Israel, by prohibiting bus companies from transporting them through the Sinai. In Cairo, soldiers used teargas to prevent protestors from reaching the building housing the Israeli Embassy.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow