Thousands of Palestinians came under fire as they gathered along border fences to demand the right to return to homes, now on Jewish land, which they abandoned during wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967.
Israeli soldiers killed at least two protesters and wounded 15 more after dozens cut their way through the fenced ceasefire line separating Syria from the occupied Golan Heights, seized by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967.
Ten refugees were shot dead on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel and one protester was killed in Gaza.
The mass protests represented an unprecedented civilian challenge to Israel from neighbouring territory and catapulted the Jewish state into the maelstrom of the Arab uprisings for the first time.
Inspired by popular revolts elsewhere in the Middle East, activists are believed to have orchestrated the march on Israel’s borders in secret by using social networking sites like Facebook.
Although Israel has faced invasion from its Arab neighbours several times, it is the first time civilians have tried to penetrate its bristling defences in a concerted manner.
But as Arab condemnation poured in, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister remained defiant, insisting that he would respond to cross-border challenges, whether mounted by soldiers or civilians, in a robust manner.
“Nobody should be mistaken,” he said. “We are determined to defend our borders and sovereignty.”
Israeli officials said the military had no choice but to respond after protesters who reached Majdal Shams, a Syrian Druze village in the northern Golan Heights, threw stones and Molotov cocktails.
But a Druze witnesses said the protesters were peaceful.
“The people came in a peaceful way, they had no weapons,” said Taiseer Maray, who runs a medical charity that treated the wounded. “In a peaceful way they stated that they had waited for 60 years and wanted to go back to their homes. But the Israelis shot directly at the people, even though they posed no threat.”
Thousands of refugees penetrated Lebanese army lines to reach the border fence but their progress was halted by Israeli gunfire.
Fanning those concerns, Hamas, the Islamist overlords of Gaza, said Israel’s violent response to the protests represented “a turning point in the Israeli-Arab conflict”.
If you want to stand outside the fence and protest, I say, go ahead. Try and cross the border, and all bets are off.
After more than 100 Palestinians breached Israel’s border with Syria on Sunday, knocking down a fence and striding into a village in the Golan Heights, overmatched Israeli security forces scrambled to glean what they could from the protesters who had just, without so much as a sidearm, penetrated farther into the country than any army in a generation.
Under close questioning, the infiltrators closed the intelligence gap with a shrug and one word: Facebook. The operation that had caught Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence complex flat-footed was announced, nursed and triggered on the social networking site that has figured in every uprising around the Arab World — and is helping young Palestinians change the terms of their fight against Israel.
Demonstrators also gathered in Gaza and on the West Bank. Even there, on a march toward the Qalandia check-point near Ramallah, Quran insists no stones were thrown until Israeli troops fired tear gas, and then only by adolescents. But the overall make-up of the crowd, featuring older women and men as well as students, was a change from previous years, according to Shawan Jabarin of the human rights advocacy group Al Haq.
“They say the Arab Spring gives people encouragement and makes people feel they can make a difference,” says Jabarin. “The consciousness of the people, you feel it’s something different.”
Aw, look. They’re going to peacefully invade Israel and demand that Israel leave instead of getting all violent. That’s sweet.
Arab Spring’s sinister turn:
When popular rebellions began erupting around the Middle East earlier this year, the outpouring of democratic fervour was quickly dubbed the “Arab Spring”, a phrase that captured the heady optimism of what appeared to be a new era of freedom and hope.
But as spring turns to summer, events across the region are taking an altogether darker and more sinister turn, one in which the prospect of a brighter future no longer seems so readily assured.
The swift toppling of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt in rapid succession has been followed by months of deepening bloodshed and brutality across the Arab world, underscoring the power that autocrats still wield after decades of dictatorship.
“We’re rapidly coming to a fork in the road, where one path leads to change and reform and the other leads to retrenchment and repression,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar. “It’s going to be a long and bloody haul, and it could take us over a number of years.”