Syria blocks protesters from getting to Israeli border

Syrian police block dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters from approaching the Israeli frontier, preventing deadly clashes that killed as many as 23 people who tried to rush the border Sunday.

Prevents repeat of deadly clashes with Israeli forces that killed 23

Syrian police blocked dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters from approaching the Israeli frontier on Monday, preventing a repeat of deadly clashes with Israeli forces that killed as many as 23 people who tried to rush the border.

Israeli troops patrol along the border between Israel and Syria near the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights early Monday. Israeli troops are bracing for more border violence. ((Ariel Schalit/Associated Press))

Israeli officials said the instability in Syria ruled out any prospects for peace and accused the government of orchestrating the deadly unrest to deflect attention from its own crackdown on homegrown protests. Israel also questioned Syria's reported death toll.

Syrian police set up a pair of checkpoints on Monday, including one a kilometre from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Nearly 20 protesters, some waving Syrian flags, were walking down a hill leading to the border when two police officers blocked their advance by extending their arms.

Protesters passed Syrian and UN outposts without impediment on Sunday and during a similar border rush three weeks ago, and it was not clear why Syrian security forces intervened Monday.

Brutal crackdown elsewhere in Syria

Events on the Israeli border come as Syria deals brutally with upheaval elsewhere in the country by people determined to unseat the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Organizers estimate more than 1,200 people have died in the military action against anti-government protesters since March.

Government forces killed more than 35 people over the weekend during protests in a pair of northern towns, according to human rights groups. Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the deaths in the towns included six policemen.

However, state-run Syrian TV claimed Monday that 120 police and security forces hade been killed.

The confrontations occurred in the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, where Syria's military has been conducting military operations for days as part of a crackdown on anti-Assad uprising.

Communications were cut to the area around Jisr al-Shughour on Monday and the details of the attack were impossible to verify, but there have been unconfirmed reports in the past by residents and activists of Syrians fighting back against security forces.

A Syrian government spokesman said the country's military "intermittently" lost control of areas around the town of Jisr al-Shughour.

Syrian Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said the attack began at dawn and that the men fighting security forces were armed with grenades and automatic weapons.

'We will not be silent about any armed attack that targets the security of the state and its citizens.'—Interior Minister Ibrahim Shaar

The government promised a "decisive" response, setting the stage for an even stronger government crackdown against a popular uprising that began in mid-March and poses the most potent threat in years to the 40-year regime of the Assad family.

"We will deal strongly and decisively, and according to the law, and we will not be silent about any armed attack that targets the security of the state and its citizens," said Interior Minister Ibrahim Shaar.

Jisr al-Shughour, near the Turkish border, has been the latest focus of Syria's military, whose nationwide crackdown on the revolt has left more than 1,200 Syrians dead, activists say.

The town was a stronghold of the country's banned Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. Human rights groups said at least 42 civilians have been killed there since Saturday.

Protesters have been demanding an end to the Assad regime. Bashar Assad took over in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez. The family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.

Meanwhile, the city of Hama appears to be calm after a military operation on Friday that killed at least 65 people. Tanks ring the southern outskirts of the central Syrian town.

Challenges support Israeli fears 

Hama is the site of a bloody uprising in 1982 when the city rose up against Assad's father only to be crushed by a three-week bombing campaign that killed thousands.

The repeated border challenges play into widespread Israeli fears that the Palestinians will not make do with a state on lands captured in 1967, but want to take over all of historic Palestine, including present-day Israel.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak suggested that the Syrian regime, which harbours militant Palestinian groups such as Hezbollah and a half-million Palestinian refugees in camps along the border, might have instigated Sunday's unrest — and similar unrest three weeks ago.

He said it was an attempt to deflect the focus from a crackdown on its own protesters. At least 35 Syrians died in a government assault in the country's north over the weekend and Syrian television reported 40 police were killed in an ambush on Monday.

"Could be they think it diverts attention. We have no choice. We have to defend our border," he said.

Barak also challenged the Syrian death toll, saying soldiers had fired only "selectively" at rioters and noting Syria's silence about casualties in its own domestic unrest. He acknowledged there was no way to be sure.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel would file a complaint to the UN.

'Assad will fall'

Barak also predicted that Bashar Assad is irreparably weakened by the uprising. "I think Assad will fall," Barak told Israel Radio on Monday.

Assad has coupled military operations with symbolic overtures the opposition has rejected, including an amnesty for many prisoners and a call for national dialogue.

The instability in Syria, Barak said, rules out current peacemaking prospects. Israel and the Syrians last held talks in 2008, but they broke down upon the outbreak of Israel's war in the Gaza Strip.

As its price for peace, Syria demands a return of the Golan, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel that Israel captured in 1967 and annexed 14 years later. The annexation is not internationally recognized.

With the frontier calm on Monday, Israeli troops repaired a coil of barbed wire that protesters had cut through on Sunday to enter a trench in a buffer zone that Israel had dug after the violence three weeks ago.

Syrian officials did not explain why they blocked Monday's attempt to cross, but portrayed it as a spontaneous march.

"This was the people's will," said Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a Syrian political analyst with close ties to the regime.

Burying the dead

Syrian Health Minister Wael al-Halqi said Monday that 23 people, including a child, were killed and 350 were wounded when soldiers opened fire and blocked them from entering the Golan. A Syrian Foreign Ministry statement issued Monday said the Palestinian and Syrian demonstrators were reaffirming their natural and legal right to liberate and return to their land.

Seven of the dead, their coffins draped with Palestinian flags, were buried Monday at a Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus. Women on balconies showered the coffins with rice and flowers in a traditional sign of grief.

The other 16 were to be buried later in the day at another camp in the Syrian capital.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague voiced concern about the casualties.

"We recognize Israel's right to defend herself," he said in a statement, but added, "It is vital that any response is proportionate, avoiding lethal use of force unless absolutely necessary, and that the right to protest is respected." He also urged Syria to avoid "provocative acts."

Both Palestinian governments — the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the anti-Israel Hamas government in Gaza — praised the protesters.

Azzam Ahmed, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, accused Israel of "brutally" attacking peaceful Palestinians who "have the right to return to their homes and land."

Groing unrest predicted

In Gaza, Hamas ordered three days of mourning, calling the dead "martyrs of Palestine."

Israeli opposition lawmaker Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former general and defence minister, predicted that unrest would only grow at Israel's various borders.

"There is only one solution," said Ben-Eliezer, whose Labor Party splintered, then quit the government in frustration over its failure to break a stubborn impasse in peacemaking with the Palestinians. "To recognize a Palestinian state and sit down tomorrow at the bargaining table," he told Israel Radio.

Sunday's unrest marked the anniversary of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai peninsula from Egypt in six days of fighting.

The recent protests have drawn attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from homes in Israel during the war over Israel's 1948 creation. The original refugees, and their descendants, now number several million, and they demand "the right to return" to the families' former properties.

Israel opposes their repatriation because Palestinians would eventually outnumber Jews in the Jewish state. The fate of the refugees and their descendants is one of the toughest issues in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.