Israeli Troops Clash With Pro-Palestinian Protesters

More than a dozen people were killed Sunday as Israeli troops clashed with Arab protesters along three hostile borders, including the frontier with Syria. The violence came amid a wave of demonstrations marking a Palestinian day of mourning for their defeat at Israel's hands in 1948.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

During months of protests throughout the Arab world the Palestinians have been relatively quiet. But that all changed yesterday. On the anniversary of the day Israel became a nation - a day Palestinians commemorate as Nakba, or the catastrophe - thousands of pro-Palestinian protestors converged on Israel's frontiers with Syria and Lebanon. They also marched through Gaza and the West Bank. In all of these places the protestors clashed with Israeli troops. NPR's Philip Reeves joined us from Jerusalem.

Good morning, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Tell us exactly what happened.

REEVES: Well, most of the deaths occurred along Israel's northern border with Lebanon. A crowd of Palestinian refugees and their supporters came up to the fence there. They were throwing rocks. The Israeli military says they began vandalizing the fence. Israeli troops opened fire. Lebanese forces also fired, though they say only in the air. Then a little to the east of that, a group of Palestinians, or pro-Palestinians, came in from Syria into the Golan Heights; dozens actually got in. Israeli troops opened fire there too. There were several fatalities, according to the Syrians.

And there were big clashes between crowds of Palestinians and Israeli forces in the northern Gaza Strip. Dozens were injured there, one killed after a crowd of demonstrators moved towards the Israeli border crossing at Erez. And a big demonstration and prolonged clashes on the Israeli-occupied West Bank close to the city of Ramallah. So it was a very violent day in the end.

MONTAGNE: And put this in perspective for us, Phil. What is the larger significance of these demonstrations and clashes?

REEVES: Well, I think that's going to depend what happens next. The situation is quite volatile. If there are more demonstrations on the West Bank, for instance, off the back of yesterday's events, that could call into question the security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The rationale behind that security cooperation was, of course, to protect the peace process.

There is now no peace process. And therefore the Authority could find - the Palestinian Authority could find itself under pressure over that issue. And that, of course, could cut to a larger issue related to the Palestinians, and that is preserving the unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah that was recently signed in Cairo. It could put that under pressure too.

MONTAGNE: As I've mentioned, the Arabs Spring, what is the connection here with larger events in the Middle East?

REEVES: Well, the Palestinians, or some Palestinians, are talking about being inspired by the Arab Spring. Although of course their cause goes back well before that and there've been two Intifadas before this time in which, you know, they were already rising up against the Israelis. So there is a limit to how far you can take the comparison. And of course in the Arab Spring these are popular movements against their own governments. And in the Palestinian case it's against Israel.

But having said that, they say they are inspired. There is a lot of email traffic and social media connection between the people of - particularly of Egypt and the Palestinians. And I think the Palestinians hope that the Arab Spring will deliver for them something that they've been unable to get before, which is political support - a lasting, enduring and reliable political support for their cause, particularly from Egypt, after the new government is formed there.

MONTAGNE: Given that some of these protests were from on the other side of the border from Israel - that is, Syria and Lebanon - how does that figure into this? I mean both those countries have problems of their own right now arising from this Arab Spring.

REEVES: Well, I think the Palestinians feel that this is a sign of solidarity for their cause. And it is widening it into the larger landscape. And it is therefore making it part of the Arab Spring. They're aware also though that from the Syrian viewpoint this could be a tactic, by allowing protesters to go to the - to take on the Israelis - by the Syrian regime, to distract attention from the domestic upheaval there, and to curry popular support by showing a willingness to take on Israel and take up the Palestinian cause.

And it may also, from Syria's viewpoint, be an attempt to signal to Israel and to the U.S. that if Mr. Assad loses power there, Israel might face an even more militant Syria.

MONTAGNE: Phil, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking to NPR's Philip Reeves, who's in Jerusalem.

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