Golan protests: Is Syria's Assad stirring up trouble with Israel?
While the Golan Heights returned to a tense calm today, yesterday's clashes signaled increased turmoil ahead – perhaps spurred by Syria's Assad as he battles revolt at home.
Mount Bental, Golan Heights
The marches commemorated the defeat of Arab armies at the hands of Israeli forces in 1967 and the consequent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. They marked the second showdown in three weeks between pro-Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers.
Despite the easing in turmoil today, Israeli officials and analysts suggest that the quietest Arab-Israeli frontier for the past three decades could see more turmoil going forward.
They posit two potential reasons: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, weakened by nearly three months of domestic revolt, may either intentionally stir up trouble with Israel to distract from his own brutal crackdown. Or he may simply be too focused on quelling internal dissent to prevent pro-Palestinian protesters from directly confronting Israeli soldiers in the Golan.
"In normal times, the Syrian army wouldn’t enable them to do it," says Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry. "Now probably the Army doesn’t care because it serves Assad’s interests."
Worst violence since 1973
From a mountaintop overlooking the Quneitra border crossing, there was no sign today of a repeat of Sunday’s processions. Israeli police maintained roadblocks around the Golan Heights to prevent civilians from reaching the conflict zones. A military spokeswoman said there were no protests today in Syria opposite the Golan Heights Druze village of Majdal Shams, the site of showdowns yesterday and during Nakba protests on May 15.
Yesterday's clashes were the worst violence seen in the Golan Heights, a strategic Syrian territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, in more than 30 years. Despite Israeli warnings not to advance on the border, pro-Palestinian protesters and their Syrian supporters near the Golan Heights village of Majdal Shams moved ahead anyway. When the procession tried to dismantle barbed wire about 100 yards from the Israeli border fence, Israeli snipers fired at their lower bodies.
Syrian state TV claimed that 23 were killed and as many as 350 injured in the Golan, even as a weekend Syrian crackdown in the northern part of the country killed at least as many of its own citizens protesting Mr. Assad's regime.