x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Syrian police stop Palestinian protesters from returning to Golan border

Israel says Syria's report of 23 dead in Sunday's demonstrations is 'exaggerated' and blames at least 10 of the deaths on the inadvertent triggering of landmines in the area by demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails.

Israeli soldiers operate along Israel's border with Syria a day after pro-Palestinian demonstrators stormed a ceasefire line.
Israeli soldiers operate along Israel's border with Syria a day after pro-Palestinian demonstrators stormed a ceasefire line.

JERUSALEM // Syria appeared to be trying to ease tensions near its boundary with the Israeli-held Golan Heights yesterday after Israeli troops fired on pro-Palestinian demonstrators on Sunday.

Syrian police were observed yesterday rebuffing renewed efforts by protesters to return to the boundary, something they did not do during clashes on Sunday.

Police erected checkpoints and blocked roughly 20 demonstrators who were waving Palestinian flags and preparing to stage more rallies.

Syrian government-controlled media reported that Israeli soldiers killed 23 demonstrators on Sunday; Israeli military said 10 people had been killed when landmines exploded on the Syrian side of the demarcation line.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad yesterday of encouraging Sunday’s unrest to divert attention from Syria’s tenacious anti-government rallies.

"This was an attempt to divert international intention from what is happening with Syria,” the Israeli leader told members of his Likud party, saying that “Syrians allowed these people to instigate provocation, to challenge Israel's sovereignty.”

His defence minister, Ehud Barack, suggested the same, telling Israel public radio: “It may be something that the Syrians are encouraging. It may be that they are pleased with it. They may think it distracts attention.”

But he also predicted the Syrian leader’s eventual overthrow by the uprising that has swept the country, saying that “Assad, in my opinion, will fall in the end."

Sunday's rallies were praised by Palestinian leaders in both Gaza and the West Bank, as well as by Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hizbollah.

The demonstrations, marking Israel's capture of territory during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, came less than a month after similar incursions from Lebanon and Israel left 12 people dead in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

Palestinians say they are preparing for more rallies.

Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician and former Palestinian Authority presidential candidate, told the Israeli press on Sunday that Palestinians would stage another demonstration on July 9.

That is the anniversary of the UN's International Court of Justice ruling, in 2004, that Israel's separation barrier, which cuts through significant parts of Palestinian land, is illegal.

"We did inspire the Arab people for many years. Now they are inspiring our young people," said Mr Barghouti, referring to the regional uprisings.

Israel plans to lodge a formal complaint with the United Nations about Sunday's demonstrations.

The complaint will accuse Syria, according to Israel's foreign ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, of "manipulation of its own citizens to generate violent incidents at the border".

In an indication that the Golan rallies may have received an official Syrian nod, state media were allowed to report live in the otherwise restricted area where demonstrations took place.

Israeli military officials have expressed doubts about the number of casualties that Syrian authorities reported.

Lt Col Avital Leibovitz, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said Syria's report of 23 dead was "exaggerated" and blamed at least 10 of the deaths on the inadvertent triggering of landmines in the area.

"We are aware that around 10 of the casualties that the Syrians reported yesterday were killed by the fact that they used Molotov cocktails in the Quneitra area that hit some Syrian land mines. A big number of them died as a result of their own deeds."