A wounded protester is carried away from the Golan Heights border after… (Jack Guez, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Jerusalem — Israeli security forces opened fire Sunday on pro-Palestinian protesters who were attempting to breach the border from Syria to the Golan Heights, killing at least three people and wounding several dozen others, according to Syrian state television.
The violence, which came during protests to mark the 44th anniversary of Israel's capture of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Mideast War, were the latest sign that regional unrest in the Arab world was beginning to affect Israel. Similar protests last month killed at least 12 people as they stormed the borders from Syria and Lebanon.
Al-Jazeera television aired pictures from Syria on Sunday showing demonstrators waving Palestinian flags and ducking for cover from Israeli fire. Other images showed demonstrators carrying away what appeared to be wounded protesters.
Israeli officials said Sunday they first fired warning shots at several hundred protesters who rushed over the Syrian border and ran into a mine-laden buffer zone with the Golan Heights. Israel blamed the Syrian government for failing to prevent protesters from massing on the other side the border, accusing Syrian President Bashar Assad of encouraging the violence in an attempt to distract from his own government's deadly crackdown on Syrian protesters calling for him to step down.
"This is yet another attempt by the Syrian regime to divert attention from the bloodshed taking place there,'' said Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitz.
She said Israeli forces aimed at protesters' legs, but she could not confirm Syrian reports of casualties. "We have to protect our borders like any other country,'' Leibovitz said.
The clashes took place near the Golan Heights towns of Majdal Shams and Quneitra.
Israel had been preparing for two weeks to cope with so-called Naksa Day, the Arabic word for "setback," which commemorates the start of the 1967 war in which Israel seized control of the West Bank, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula. (Israel has since withdrawn from Sinai and Gaza.) Amid calls on Facebook pages for mass demonstrations, Israeli military forces dispatched thousands of soldiers along its northern borders and in Jerusalem, where Palestinian protesters also clashed Sunday with Israeli forces.
After the previous May 15 protests, which took soldiers largely by surprise, Israel reinforced its borders — laying coils of razor wire, planting new mines and digging trenches. Officials said soldiers were equipped with special riot gear and crowd-control equipment to reduce the need for live fire.
But officials also warned that Israel would use deadly force to prevent penetration of its borders.
During a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered the military to act with "maximum restraint but with resolve in order to safeguard our sovereignty, our borders, our communities and our citizens."
On Saturday, the Lebanese government, reportedly in response to pressure from the U.S. and U.N., declared that it would close its border region, effectively canceling a simultaneous protest that had been planned there.