A Third Intifadeh? Deadly Nakba Protests Spark Fears of Israel-Lebanon Border Escalation

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Suhaib Salem / Reuters

Palestinians shout slogans during aprotest to mark "Nakba" near the Erez Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, May 15, 2011.

South Lebanon Sunday witnessed its deadliest day since the month-long Israel-Hizballah 2006 war when 10 Palestinian demonstrators were reported shot dead and another 112 wounded as Israeli troops opened fire on protests along the border fence. The casualties came as a massive crowd of Palestinians gathered at Maroun er Ras, a small hilltop village overlooking the border with Israel, to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba, or Catastrophe, when the state of Israel was established.

By Sunday night, the militant Lebanese Shi'ite group Hizballah was on alert and United Nations peacekeepers, known as UNIFIL, and Lebanese troops were planning heightened security measures along the border to prevent the retaliatory firing of rockets into Israel and a continuing escalation of cross border violence.

The protests were not an isolated event. Other Nakba demonstrations were held in Jordan, Egypt and Syria, where up to four Palestinians were killed in a rare infiltration of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from Syria. (Israel said that one infiltrator was killed.) Some organizers of the Nakba commemoration had hoped that it would herald the onset of a "third intifadeh" of peaceful mass protests to compel Israel to honor the rights of Palestinians living under occupation or whom were expelled from their homes during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

The biggest of the border protests by far was in Lebanon, where an estimated 50,000 Palestinians were bussed from refugee camps scattered around Lebanon to Maroun er Ras. The huge turnout surprised even organizers. "I was expecting 21,000 at the most. We ran out of buses to carry everyone," said Mahmoud Zeidan, a protest organizer from the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon. "Ain al Hilweh looks deserted. I haven't seen it so empty since the 1982 Israeli invasion when everyone evacuated," he said.

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. Across the verdant flower-speckled hillside, thin rivers of humanity defied gravity to steadily flow uphill, red, green and black Palestinian flags fluttering in the balmy spring breeze. Stout grandmothers wearing thick cotton dresses and white headscarves panted and wheezed, red faced, as youngsters scrambled past them. The vast majority of those participating in the event were born after 1948 and have never seen their original homeland, let alone visited their ancestral homes in what is now Israel. On cresting the hill at Maroun er Ras, a vast expanse of western Galilee — forested hills and belts of apple orchards — could be seen stretching away to the south. "I am lost for words," said Tarek, the 28-year-old owner of a laundry business in Beirut.

The atmosphere on the climb up the hill to Maroun er Ras 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 and began hurling stones at Israeli soldiers. Lebanese troops moved quickly, recognizing perhaps that a disaster could unfold if the thousands of Palestinians gathering on the hilltop could reach the fence. Troops fanned out along a dirt track about 400 yards from the border fence and forcefully prevented anyone from going further. Short sporadic bursts of machine gun fire echoed across the hillside as Israeli soldiers opened fire on the crowd at the fence. A steady trickle of casualties was ferried by stretcher from the fence to an awaiting fleet of ambulances.

One man writhed in pain on the ground as medics treated him. Another young man was shot in the thigh, blood seeping through the bandages. Another man appeared to have been shot in the stomach as he was helped into an ambulance by several men whose clothes were smeared with the victim's blood.

"Allah u-Akbar" (God is great), intoned a solemn-looking man as he and other wide-eyed onlookers gazed at the casualties being treated on the ground. A forest of raised arms clutching camera-fitted cell phones recorded the scene.

As more were wounded, 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 protest. Inside the outpost, a tank revved its engines and emitted a thick cloud of smoke, partly obscuring the position. Other soldiers hurried along the border patrol road as showers of stones cascaded around them. Some Palestinians hunting for stones began straying perilously close to the minefields that Israel planted along most of the border inside Lebanon more than 30 years ago.

Checked by the thin line of Lebanese soldiers, Palestinian tempers frayed as the young men attempted to push through to reach the border. A group of Islamic Jihad partisans chanted "God is great" 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 army said that the protests in south Lebanon and the Golan Heights bore the fingerprints of Iran and served Syria's interests. However, the Iran-backed Hizballah took a back seat at the Maroun er Ras demonstration, even though the village, scene of a key battle in the 2006 Hizballah-Israel war, staunchly supports the Shi'ite group. Hizballah men helped marshal the busloads of Palestinians, but Palestinian officials from Lebanon were clearly in charge of the event.

Still, agent provocateurs were not required to enflame Palestinian passions at Maroun er Ras. The presence of tens of thousands of dispossessed Palestinians standing on the edge of their former homeland on the emotional anniversary of the Nakba was more than enough to ignite tensions.

Before the 2006 war, Sunday's high casualty count almost certainly would have led to some form of military response by Hizballah. But Hizballah has remained quiet in the past five years, unwilling to goad Israel into another unwanted conflict. Less certain is the response of extremist Palestinian groups suspected of past rocket firings into Israel. UNIFIL and the Lebanese army were expected to expand their "rocket watch" patrols in the coming days to prevent the possibility of the deadly Nakba commemoration sparking a tit-for-tat escalation along the Lebanon-Israel border.