x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

16 dead as Israelis open fire on rallies in Nakba day of bloodshed

Clashes in Gaza, on Lebanese border and in Golan as tens of thousands of Palestinians gather to mark the 'catastrophe'.

Hamas security officials confront Palestinians during a demonstration near the border line between Egypt and southern Gaza Strip yesterday. Israeli fire wounded 15 Palestinians during a demonstration in the Gaza Strip. Ali Ali / EPA
Hamas security officials confront Palestinians during a demonstration near the border line between Egypt and southern Gaza Strip yesterday. Israeli fire wounded 15 Palestinians during a demonstration in the Gaza Strip. Ali Ali / EPA

JERUSALEM // At least 16 people died yesterday when Israeli soldiers opened fire on Palestinians rallying to mark what they call their national catastrophe, the Nakba.

Israeli troops shot and killed at least 10 of an estimated 30,000 demonstrators in the southern Lebanese border town of Maroun al Ras. Chanting "We are returning", many were brought in by bus from Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps.

Israel's military said it responded when demonstrators tampered with the border fence after Lebanese soldiers fired into the air in an attempt to hold back the crowds. It was the most serious escalation of violence since Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon.

Troops also opened fired on scores of Palestinian refugees crossing from Syria into Majdal al Shams, a primarily Druze village in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. As many as six were killed there.

Israel's military said "thousands of Syrian civilians" had breached the border and that, according to initial reports, "there are dozens of injured that are receiving medical care in a nearby hospital".

It said it opened fire "to prevent the violent rioters from illegally infiltrating Israeli territory; a number of rioters have infiltrated and are violently rioting in the village".

Syria's foreign ministry denounced Israel and called its actions in the Golan Heights and elsewhere "criminal". Israel seized control of the Golan from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

"Israel will have to bear full responsibility for its actions," the ministry said.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, defended his military's actions on Israeli television and said he was determined to defend Israel's borders. He ordered his troops to use maximum restraint but said: "Nobody should be mistaken. We are determined to defend our borders and sovereignty."

The annual Nakba, or "catastrophe" demonstrations, commemorate the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who either fled or were forced from their homes during the fighting that erupted with Israeli militias in 1948. The resulting refugee crisis is one of the major obstacles to an Israel-Palestinian peace accord.

Yesterday's demonstrations were larger than usual, coming in the aftermath of a reconciliation accord meant to unify the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers with their former rivals in the West Bank, Fatah. Palestinian officials, including Fatah's chairman, the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, hope the accord will bolster their chances of recognition for a Palestinian state by the United Nations in September.

In Gaza about 60 Palestinians, many of them young people, were injured by Israeli tank and machinegun fire after attempting to approach the heavily fortified border with Israel.

Up to 1,000 Palestinians marched toward the ominous concrete border fence that Israel has used to ring the territory as part of its blockade, pumping fists and chanting: "Revolution, revolution to liberate Palestine!" and "No to the occupation!"

Several thousand Palestinians in the West Bank faced off with Israeli troops near the Qalandiya checkpoint, an entry to predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem.

Dozens of soldiers and Israeli border police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of demonstrators, again many of them young people. Covering their mouths to protect themselves from tear gas with black-and-white checkered headscarves - a Palestinian trademark - young men hurled stones at Israeli forces.

Palestinians created Facebook pages calling on their compatriots in Israel and surrounding nations to come out in force for Nakba day. In March, tens of thousands of Palestinians used such social-networking sites to organise demonstrations in the West Bank and Ramallah demanding that their political leadership unite.

But even after the Hamas-Fatah accord, Palestinian frustrations appear to be intensifying as a result of revolutions in neighbouring countries and the failure of their leaders to win a peace agreement with Israel.

"We're here to demand our rights," said Maysa Ziad, 30, an employee at the Palestinian Authority's ministry of finance who was observing the clashes near the Qalandiya checkpoint. As many as 17 demonstrators were taken to hospital as a result of Israeli-fired rubber bullets at the checkpoint which, for many, has come to symbolise Israel's occupation.

In Hebron, 12 demonstrators were struck by rubber bullets fired by Israeli forces. About 2,000 people turned up in the city to protest, with similar clashes in neighbouring villages.

Israel's military announced that it would close its West Bank crossings for 24 hours after the violence. Israeli and Palestinian Authority security personnel were deployed in large numbers across Israel and the West Bank.

Earlier in the day, an Arab Israeli drove his vehicle into groups of pedestrians and vehicles near Tel Aviv. At least one person died and 17 others were injured. Israeli authorities have yet to determine whether to call the incident an attack, though Israelis at the scene called it one.

Israeli officials yesterday accused Syria and its primary regional ally, Iran, of deliberately fomenting much of the day's violence.

"We are seeing here an Iranian provocation, on both the Syrian and the Lebanese frontiers, to try to exploit the Nakba day commemorations," said the Israeli army's chief spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Yoav Mordechai.

Officials also said the Syrian government incited the border unrest as a means to dampen the impact of mass demonstrations that have shaken the rule of the country's president, Bashar al Assad. Israel's border with Syria has become known for, among other things, its relative stability.

"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 spokesperson.

But Jamal Salem, a 64-year-old Palestinian American, said the protests arose from genuine Palestinian grievances. "We are showing everyone that we are willing to push Israel for our rights, for a just solution for refugees," he said while standing beyond a mass of demonstrators near the Qalandiya checkpoint.

"If you look at what's going on around you, this is the same sort of the thing that happened in '87 and 2000," Mr Salem said in reference to the first and second Palestinian uprisings that were driven primarily by Palestinian grievances against Israel.

"What we're saying is that we have to pressure Israel for our rights."