Protesters, Israeli Troops Clash At Border

Thousands of Palestinians and their supporters demonstrated Sunday at Israel's borders with Syria and Lebanon, and in the West Bank and Gaza, in commemoration of what has been dubbed the "nakba," or catastrophe. The day recalls Israel's creation in 1948 and the subsequent displacement of Palestinians. The annual protest turned violent this year, with at least 16 people killed in clashes with Israeli forces.

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(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

GUY RAZ, host:

Those are the sounds from clashes today along Israel's border with Gaza. At least 16 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were killed in separate incidents along the country's borders with Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.

Some of the demonstrators managed to break through the border fences into Israel. Palestinians were marking their annual commemoration of what they call the nakba or catastrophe, the day 63 years ago, when the state of Israel was established.

NPR's Phil Reeves is covering the story from Jerusalem.

Phil, first of all, what happened?

PHILIP REEVES: The worst of the violence was along Israel's borders, particularly in the north. Remember, Israel is in a state of war with its northern neighbors, Lebanon and Syria. And today, a crowd of Palestinian or pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered on the Lebanese side of the border.

TV footage shows them throwing rocks and moving towards the border fence. The Israeli military says the crowd was trying to break through that fence. And it says that its forces opened fire. Lebanese officials say that at least 10 people were killed as a result.

Another crowd gathered not far away from there, a little to the east, in a border town in Syria that abuts the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Reports say that that crowd comprised Palestinian refugees. And the Israeli military says that the crowd were trying to infiltrate Israeli-controlled territory. Israeli forces opened fire there too. And again, there were several more fatalities.

RAZ: These demonstrations, Phil, are held annually. What explains the level of violence this year?

REEVES: There's a big debate here about this. We're hearing Palestinian and other Arab voices that are connecting these events today to the Arab Spring, the revolutions, of course, that have swept through parts of the Middle East in recent months.

Some Palestinian protesters are trying to compare today's events here with popular uprisings against dictatorships around the Arab world, suggesting that at the very least, they're inspired by them to rise up against Israel.

It has to be said that's a bit of a stretch in some ways because, I mean, TV footage of today's protests don't really show large crowds.

However, it is true that the Palestinians are in a buoyant mood right now. They feel that their cause has gained new traction because of the reconciliation after a long and messy feud between their two main factions, Hamas and Fatah.

RAZ: Now, Israel is accusing both Syria and Iran of organizing these demonstrations; the Israelis say to divert attention away from recent protests in Syria. Is there any evidence of that?

REEVES: I haven't seen any evidence of that. Accusations do always fly thick and fast after incidents like this. And we can expect to hear more of the same.

Particularly right now, it's a very politically sort of sensitive time. In fact, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made a surprise appearance today on TV after the violence erupted. He said he hoped for calm, of course. But he also said, let no one be misled. Israel is determined to defend its borders and sovereignty, as if the clashes today were a threat to that.

Now, we can expect a lot of rhetoric like this from both sides in the next few days. Bear in mind that Mr. Netanyahu is heading for the U.S. very soon to meet President Obama and to address Congress.

He's very keen to sell the idea that Israel can't make peace with a new Palestinian government that includes Hamas, as Hamas' constitution says that it is committed to the destruction of Israel.

At the same time, the Palestinians are pushing the theme that they're now united and that Hamas is not as extreme as some think and that they are now launching a big drive to get the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the fall.

Plus, remember, that President Obama is about to make a big speech on the Middle East. So there is a lot at stake right now.

RAZ: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Jerusalem.

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