Israeli soldiers fired at Syrian and Palestinian protesters who approached the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights border Sunday, killing 25 people and injuring more than 350, CNN reports. The number of victims remains unconfirmed, and so too does an actual account of the events that led to the violence.
First, not unexpectedly, Israeli and Palestinian accounts of the escalation vary dramatically. Mustafa Barghouthi, an independent Palestinian politician, described the Palestinian perspective to Al Jazeera:
"What we saw in the Golan Heights, in front of the checkpoint to Jerusalem, were peaceful Palestinian demonstrators demanding their freedom and the end of occupation... And they were encountered by terrible violence from Israel. They have used gunshots, tear gas, sound bombs, and canisters emanating dangerous chemicals against demonstrators. They also beat us. I was one of those who was beaten today by the Israel soldiers today while we were peacefully trying to reach the checkpoint to Jerusalem."
But the Israeli army's spokesman, Avital Leibovich, had a different account:
"We [the military] saw near 12 noon an angry mob of a few hundreds of Syrians trying to reach the border fence between Israel and Syria. We did three steps. We first warned them verbally, we told them not to get close to the fence in order for them not to endanger their lives. When this failed, we fired warning shots into the air. When this failed, we had to open fire selectively at their feet in order to prevent an escalation."
A second confusion is the source of the protests. Palestinian protesters had purportedly gathered to mark "Naksa Day," the 44th anniversary of the 1967 war. But the Israeli military accused the Syrian government of instigating the protest to deflect attention from its own crackdown in Syria, according to the Wall Street Journal. More than 1,100 civilians have been killed in Syria since protests erupted in mid-March, Syrian rights groups report to the AFP. In the past 24 hours alone, 38 people were reported dead. "This is an attempt to divert international attention from the bloodbath going on in Syria,'' Leibovich said. "There is no question about it. The policemen, the armed Syrian forces are looking back and not doing anything."
The U.S. state department appears to side with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said regarding the protests that, “We will not allow them” to break through the borders, the New York Times reports. He added, “I have instructed the security forces to act with determination, with maximum restraint, but with determination to maintain our sovereignty, our borders, our communities, and our citizens.” According to Al-Jazeera, while the U.S. State Department expressed concern over the violence, it emphasized that "Israel, like any sovereign nation, has a right to defend itself."