'They crossed minefields,' Golan residents marvel
Salman Fakhreddine watched in astonishment as Syrian protesters mourning the creation of the state of Israel ran across the heavily-mined border with the Golan Heights.
"When the youths began crossing the minefield, my heart was trembling with fear because at any moment a mine could have exploded," he said on Monday, a day after bloody clashes between Israeli troops and protesters.
Thousands of demonstrators had gathered along Israel's northern border with Lebanon and Syria, waving Palestinian flags, to mark the anniversary of Israel's creation, which they call the "Nakba," or "catastrophe."
On the Syrian side, police were deployed to try to stop the first wave of protesters, but they were quickly overwhelmed when a second group arrived. On the Israeli side, Fakhreddine said, troops were similarly unprepared.
"There was just one Israeli patrol, which called for back-up and then opened fire on the youths," he said.
Syrian medical sources said four people were killed in the incident and hundreds were wounded.
On the Lebanese side of the border, 10 people were killed by Israel for attempting to break the boundary fence, medics said.
In Majdal Shams, the Golan's largest Druze town, many residents still hold Syrian citizenship and came out to welcome the protesters as they crossed.
"People from the village came running and heard the shots. The youths were brave. We welcomed them all and participated in their demonstrations and joined their chants," Fakhreddine said.
"One of them said he came from Safed, another from Tarshiha," added Fakhreddine, referring to places now occupied by Israel.
"When they came in, I imagined how the refugee families crossed the border, heavy with luggage, on a day like that day, but in the opposite direction."
Elsewhere in Majdal Shams, pizza seller Abdullah Rabah said the protesters had broken through fear of the minefield, in which two locals were killed in 1975.
"We've lived for 60 years with the myth of the minefield," he said.
"It was a surprise for us," added Aref Abu Jabal, a local leader. "No one saw them (the protesters) coming. The Israeli army wanted to arrest them, but we allowed them to leave in safety and with dignity."
Arab residents of the Golan, which Israel occupied in 1967 and later annexed, said they welcomed the protesters, offering them food and drink.
"The first guy I met was thirsty and asked for water. They came across the border without water to say that they want to return to their country and that they have no fear of death," said 29-year-old Nadine Safadi.
For Samih Ayub, watching Palestinian refugees pour over the border was a little like a dream, or even watching a film.
"The most important thing is that no one can stop the will of the masses and that what Arab armies have not been able to do, the Palestinians youths did."