Assad will take Israel to wire again

An Israeli soldier patrols the Israeli-Syrian border near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights

An Israeli soldier patrols the Israeli-Syrian border near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights

Senior Israeli officers are worried that attempts by Palestinian groups to cross the border with Syria will become a recurring event while the Assad regime fights for its survival.

There is also widespread concern that these events, which are likely to become more frequent in the run up to the expected recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN in September, will tie down forces that are needed elsewhere and provide the Palestinians with a steady supply of media images.

"We have lost the initiative to the Palestinians," said one senior IDF officer. "They can come to the borders, whenever they and the Syrians decide to, and tie down our units which are needed elsewhere or should be training. And of course they want to show the world they are being killed for a Palestinian state."

Despite the state of war between the two countries, the Israel-Syria border had been the calmest of all Israel's borders since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But four weeks ago, 1,000 Palestinian refugees tried to storm the fence, with almost 200 succeeding.

On Sunday, hundreds arrived again, from the Al-Yarmuk camp near Damascus - their assault on the fence was timed to mark the passing of 44 years since the Six-Day War. This time, none of them got through: the IDF had strengthened the fences and trenches, and positioned squads of snipers above the border.

The demonstrators were warned in Arabic through a loudspeaker that any attempt to break the fence would be met with force and that they were endangering their lives. When the warnings went unheeded, the soldiers shot in the air and, when some still tried to break through, shots were fired at their legs.

Syrian Television, who accompanied the demonstrators, claimed that 23 were killed and dozens more wounded. Israeli officers greeted these figures with scepticism. "We used only very selective and careful fire," said one senior officer in the Northern Command, "there were, of course, casualties and some people may have been killed but the numbers being put about by the Syrians are totally unreliable."

At least some of the deaths were caused by the explosion of a landmine in the buffer zone, which was set off by a bush fire ignited when Palestinians threw Molotov cocktails towards the fence.

"There is no question that this was a deliberate provocation by the Syrians," said an Israeli general, "using the Palestinians to divert attention from the dozens who were killed over the weekend in demonstrations in Syria. We were clear in that no-one would be allowed to break through and all responsibility lies with the demonstrators and whoever sent them."

Various Syrian opposition groups also claimed that at least some of the demonstrators were impoverished Syrian citizens who had been promised sums of up to $1,000 to storm the border and $10,000 for their families if they were killed.

Despite the world media's interest in the events on the Golan, Israeli diplomats said during the week that the PR damage had not been as bad as they feared.

With the disturbances coming at the same time as Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh went into exile, one diplomat said: "The Arab revolutions are still the main item on the world's agenda, and since Syrian Television has proved itself worthless by ignoring the protests and the repression within Syria, it doesn't seem as if the international media are going to prefer their version in this case."

    Last updated: 2:21pm, June 10 2011