BY YAAKOV LAPPIN AND HERB KEINON—
Hundreds of Palestinian rioters repeatedly tried to infiltrate Israel throughout Sunday in two locations on the Syrian border, but were rebuffed by an IDF determined to prevent a repeat of the “Nakba Day” scenes in which activists spilled into Israeli territory.
Syrian television claimed 20 activists were killed, and 225 were wounded, in the clashes to commemorate the Palestinian “Naksa,” or “setback” in Six Day War, although the numbers could not be verified.
Sunday was the anniversary of the first day of the 1967 war, in which Israel expanded its territory to include east Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and Sinai.
“The responsibility for the incidents and the casualties falls on those carrying out these provocations, and on all those who encouraged them to act in this way,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.
Israeli officials would not confirm the casualties numbers being reported from Syria. “Damascus has a track record of not being precise with its data,” one government official said.
The official added that it was clear the Syrian government gave the green light for the protesters to move toward the border, and contrasted this with the situation on Sunday in Lebanon, where the border was quiet.
“One can only suppose that there was a decision taken in Syria to exploit the situation to change the subject from what is going on inside Syria,” the official said. The official also asked whether the Palestinians feel comfortable “being used as a propaganda tool by an authoritative government butchering its own people.”
As night fell, an unknown number of rioters encamped near Kuneitra, raising the possibility of a drawn-out confrontation that could last days.
Early on Sunday morning, Palestinians from the suburbs of Damascus had been bused to the area across from Majdal Shams, and to the abandoned Syrian-border town of Kuneitra.
They massed at the border without interference from Syrian troops, in what the IDF described as a provocation by President Basher Assad that was designed to distract world attention away from the ongoing slaughter of protesters in Syria by Assad’s troops.
Soon after arriving in the Majdal Shams area, some 150 activists broke away from their fellows and descended a steep hill on the Syrian side, advancing toward the Israeli border.
IDF soldiers shouted warnings in Arabic via loudspeakers asking the Palestinians to refrain from trying to cross the frontier, adding that those who did so would endanger their lives.
The activists ignored the calls, crossed the Syrian border fence and made their way toward an Israeli forward-border fence erected by IDF engineers in recent weeks, entering a mined zone.
“When the demonstrators continued toward the Israeli fence, shots were fired at their lower bodies. We know of 12 injuries,” an IDF spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post at noon.
Meanwhile, at Kuneitra to the south, a second infiltration attempt was under way.
Between 200 and 300 demonstrators gathered in Kuneitra, and climbed on the roof of an abandoned cinema, from where they began throwing rocks at Israeli security personnel.
Four land mines exploded on the Syrian side of the border, after the rioters threw gasoline bombs, which exploded in a field, starting a fire that then set off the mines.
The IDF did not know how many infiltrators were hurt by the explosions.
Throughout the pitched battles, paramedics on the Syrian side of the border asked that the IDF grant them cease-fires to clear the wounded. The army agreed to the request, but then saw activists exploiting the quiet to try and cut the border fence, bringing the truce to an end.
“The IDF has learned its lessons quickly,” said IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai. “This is an army that investigates itself and learns. We can see this .”
The Reform Syria opposition website said on Sunday that the “Naksa” protesters were poor farmers who were paid $1,000 by the Syrian regime to come to the border. The source also claimed that Syria has promised $10,000 to the families of anyone killed.
Throughout the disturbances, two armed men were seen near the border fence in Kuneitra, though their identity was not established.
Several times, waves of activists rolled over front-line ditches and approached the border, drawing fire from IDF soldiers looking down on the area.
An unprecedented escalation in the disturbances took place toward the evening, when dozens of Druse youths from Majdal Shams on the Israeli side of the border began throwing large rocks and bricks at police on the border.
Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that the situation was generally quiet throughout the day in Majdal Shams, until the evening, when around 100 local protesters made their way down to the area where police were stationed near the Syria-border fence, and began throwing rocks at officers.
Police immediately responded with tear gas, and dispersed the crowds after around 20-25 minutes, arresting several in the process, Rosenfeld said.
After the protesters were dispersed, police met with local leaders in Majdal Shams to calm the situation, Rosenfeld said. He added that no police officers were injured in the clashes with the villagers.
As the sun set, the IDF made an effort to disperse the Syrian rioters once and for all, firing a barrage of tear gas at them, which succeeded in pushing the activists away from the border.
The US called for calm on both sides on Sunday.
“We are deeply troubled by events that took place earlier today in the Golan Heights resulting in injuries and the loss of life,” the State Department said in a statement. “We call for all sides to exercise restraint. Provocative actions like this should be avoided.”
The US statement emphasized that “Israel, like any sovereign nation, has a right to defend itself.”
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu set the guidelines on how to deal with the protests, telling the cabinet that “there are extremist elements around us who are trying to break through our borders and threaten our community and our citizens. We will not allow them to do so.
“I’ve 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,” he said.
The IDF expressed satisfaction at Lebanon’s decision to ban activists from approaching the border, a decision that led organizers in Lebanon to cancel their plans.
“In Lebanon, we have seen a show of sovereignty by the Lebanese Army,” Mordechai said.
A high-level Iranian delegation toured the border area in southern Lebanon on Thursday, Channel 10 reported.
Meanwhile, in Gaza, Hamas members dispersed a planned mass march toward the Erez border crossing, media reports said.
Ben Hartman contributed to this report.