At least six people were killed and scores wounded Sunday when Israeli troops opened fire on a massive crowd of Palestinian refugees who gathered on Lebanon’s southern border with Israel to demand a return to the homes they were forced to leave 63 years ago.
Another four Palestinians were reportedly killed when they infiltrated the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from Syria during another demonstration to mark the anniversary of the "nakba," or "catastrophe," as many Palestinians call the day Israel was founded in 1948.
Security on both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border was tight as an estimated 50,000 Palestinians were bussed from refugee camps all over Lebanon to the tiny hill village of Maroun er Ras which overlooks the border with Israel.
The huge turnout defied the expectations of the organizers, who had predicted some 20,000, and spurred calls for a peaceful “third intifada.” But it is too soon to tell whether a fresh mass uprising will gain traction.
“This is a peaceful message to Israel and the world, God willing, this will be the beginning of a peaceful third intifada,” says Mahmoud Zeidan, a Palestinian organizer from the Ain al-Hilweh camp in the southern Lebanese town of Sidon.
With the narrow winding road leading to Maroun er Ras blocked by parked buses, entire families – from toddlers to stooped and wrinkled old men – began climbing the steep northern slopes of the hill to reach the village. Colorfully dressed Palestinians steadily walked up the verdant flower-speckled hillside in narrow winding columns, red, green and black Palestinian flags fluttering in the spring breeze.
The atmosphere on the climb up the hill to Maroun er Ras and the view of the border was cheerful and friendly, almost like a picnic outing. But on the southern side of the hill overlooking the border, the situation quickly grew tense.
Hundreds of Palestinians scrambled down the rocky slope to reach the frontier fence. A crowd of some 300 to 400 reached the fence itself and began hurling stones at Israeli soldiers.
Lebanese soldiers belatedly attempted to stop the numbers growing at the fence and formed a line across a dirt track about 400 yards from the border. Short bursts of machine gun fire and individual rifle shots broke out as Israeli soldiers shot at the crowd.
Casualties were stretchered from the border to a handful of ambulances parked nearby. As the casualties increased, dozens more ambulances began to arrive on the scene. The silhouettes of Israeli troops could be spotted on the ramparts of a border outpost watching the scene.
Inside the outpost, a tank revved its engines and emitted a thick cloud of smoke, partly obscuring the position.
Checked by the thin line of Lebanese soldiers, Palestinian tempers raged as the young men attempted to push through to reach the border. A group of supporters of the Islamic Jihad militant group chanted “God is greater” and “We will liberate Palestine with the Kalashnikov.”
Every few minutes, the surging crowd of Palestinians gained sufficient momentum to push past the angry Lebanese soldiers, cheering and whooping as they dashed toward the border fence to join their comrades.
The scattered machine-gun fire and casualties did little to deter the Palestinian demonstrators. If anything, each fusillade appeared to galvanize them further.
“The Israeli shooting against peaceful demonstrators on our southern border is a blatant, intolerable aggression and we call on the international community and UNIFIL to hold Israel accountable for the crime,” said Saad Hariri, the Lebanese caretaker prime minister. UNIFIL is the term for the UN peacekeeping force deployed in south Lebanon.
By early evening, the Shiite militant group, Hezbollah, had placed its cadres on full alert.