JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel accused Syria on Monday of orchestrating lethal confrontations on the once-quiet ceasefire line between the two countries as a distraction from Damascus’s bloody crackdown on an 11-week-old revolt.
Syria said 23 people, including a woman and a child, were killed and 350 wounded on Sunday when Israeli troops fired on pro-Palestinian protestors who surged against the fortified boundary fence on Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said live Israeli fire had caused casualties and U.N. monitors were “seeking to confirm facts.”
Israel contested the Syrian account and said President Bashar al-Assad was trying to shift world attention from the killing of at least 1,100 Syrians in anti-government revolts.
“You cannot reach the Syrian-Israeli border from the Syrian side without clear instructions and approvals from the government in Damascus,” Israeli Civil Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said.
“For Assad, there is the supreme interest that these protests draw the fire and the attention from him to other directions,” Vilnai told Israel’s Army Radio. “He uses (the Palestinians). He simply uses them.”
Sunday’s protest was held to mark the 44th anniversary of the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured the Golan Heights, as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians want to establish a state.
Though Israel and Syria are technically at war, and Syria is home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war of Israel’s foundation, the Golan had long been quiet.
That changed on May 15, when scores of flag-waving pro-Palestinian activists flattened a fence on the demarcation line and briefly rallied inside Israeli-controlled territory.
Rattled by the breach, Israel beefed up its defenses and warned that lethal force could be used. A Reuters reporter on the scene on Sunday saw Israeli snipers firing at demonstrators at the fence and 10 people taken away on stretchers by comrades.
With U.S.-brokered peace efforts stalled, some Palestinians inspired by non-violent popular revolts sweeping the Arab world are seeking to adopt similar tactics against Israel.
Israeli leaders said they feared such marches would recur ahead of the Palestinians’ campaign to secure recognition of their claim to statehood at the United Nations in September.
The official Syrian news agency SANA put Sunday’s death toll at 23 and quoted Health Minister Wael al-Halki as saying a woman and a child were among the dead. Another 350 people suffered gunshot wounds, it said.
The Israeli military said it believed that a blast from what it said was a Syrian land mine detonated accidentally by petrol bombs thrown by protesters had caused 10 casualties. But it offered no overall figure for the dead and wounded.
Before the Golan violence, Israel had rarely censured the Assad government for its domestic crackdowns. Successive Israeli governments have sought peace with Assad, seeing his government as a possible anchor for wider Israeli-Arab accommodation.
On Sunday, Israel predicted Assad’s political demise.
“I think he will fall. He has lost his legitimacy,” said Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister who in 2000 held indirect peace talks with Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad.
“If today he stops using force, he’ll be seen as weak and will be toppled. If he continues, the killing will go deeper and the cracks will begin to appear within the army as well,” Barak told Israel Radio. “In my opinion, his fate has been decided.”
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut; Editing by Dan Williams and Alistair Lyon)