Israel has used lethal force against civilians in the occupied Golan Heights on two occasions in recent months. At least twenty persons were reported to have been killed in June after groups of demonstrators approached Israeli fences in the Golan. The protesters were marking the anniversary of the Naksa or “setback” — Israel’s occupation of Palestinian, Syrian and Egyptian territories in 1967.
Three weeks earlier, on 15 May, three or four protesters (news reports give conflicting numbers) lost their lives when Israel attacked another demonstration in the Golan, that one commemorating the Nakba — the Arabic word used to describe the wave of ethnic cleansing carried out by Zionist forces in Palestine during the 1940s.
The bloodbath could have been even worse on that day, if it wasn’t for a medical team from the organization Golan for Development. Led by Taiseer Maray, the group’s general director, that team treated approximately 15 demonstrators who had been shot.
In this interview with The Electronic Intifada contributor Adri Nieuwhof, Maray describes what he saw at the the historic Nakba Day demonstration, which took nearly all parties by surprise, not least of which the Israeli military. “The army was surprised, they simply could not stop the demonstrators,” Maray explains.
On the day that Palestinians commemorate the dispossession of their homeland, some actually managed to return, if only temporarily. “Some demonstrators managed to continue after they crossed the ceasefire line, to Jerusalem and to Jaffa. They were peaceful, they had no weapons. They just wanted to go back to their homes,” Maray tells The Electronic Intifada.
Adri Nieuwhof: The march to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria after the 1967 war was publicized well in advance on social media websites. Did this influence the presence of the Israeli forces in the occupied Golan Heights?
Taiseer Maray: People did not take the march seriously. We did not think it would happen near our village [Majdal Shams]. We were busy with our daily work. There are minefields and fences that separate the occupied Golan Heights from Syria. We did not expect Syrians and Palestinians to cross the ceasefire line. When it happened, everyone was in shock. The Israeli military were not prepared, they were surprised as well. There was no extraordinary presence [of the military] at that time.
AN: How did you learn about what was actually happening on 15 May?
TM: I was on a trip [outside of the village] with two friends from the Netherlands when the medical team of my organization called me around 12 o’clock. They warned me that the Israelis were shooting. [The medical team] were going to the ceasefire line to see if we can help. As general director and the person who is responsible for all the medical services to our communtiy, I wanted to be there.
It took me ten minutes to get to the village, Majdal Shams. I wanted to drive into the center of the village. I was shocked to see about 200 Palestinians and Syrians from the other side in the middle of the village. There are minefields. We were surprised they made it. We brought them food and water because it was hot. There was a big demonstration. People shouted they were going back to Palestine, to their villages, to their homes. Some of the people were forced out of the Golan Heights in 1967, they came back too. The demonstrators said: “we are unarmed and we want to go back peacefully to our homes in Palestine and the Golan.”Then I went to the ceasefire line.
AN: What was the composition of the demonstrators?
TM: It was mixed. Men and women, young people and elderly, engineers, businessmen. Some spoke English. The majority was young, say from 14 up to in their twenties. Boys and girls.
AN: Were there clashes with the Israeli forces?
TM: The Israeli forces were not prepared when the demonstrators crossed the ceasefire line. The army was surprised, they simply could not stop the demonstrators. The soldiers on duty decided to open fire on the demonstrators. They could have had no instructions to shoot. … [Benjamin] Netanyahu said he gave orders to the army not to shoot. I don’t think so. The crossing by the demonstrators took only a few minutes. The ceasefire line is a space of 200 meters of fences and minefields. The army could not come fast enough to stop them. And after they crossed the line into our village, the Israelis could not differentiate between the villagers and the Palestinian and Syrian demonstrators.
AN: Demonstrators were killed and wounded that day. What did you see? How many people were killed or wounded?
TM: Two people were shot dead and 15 were wounded on our side of the line.
I saw that the two demonstrators were killed by [bullet] wounds. We treated 15 demonstrators [who were shot in] different parts of the body, in their legs, arms. Some were heavily injured with bullets in their stomach. We treated them on the spot, at the ceasefire line. Their friends took them back to the other side, inside Syria.
AN: How could the demonstrators cross the minefield without being injured by exploding mines?
TM: It is a miracle that no one was hurt. The mines were planted in 1974 and ‘75 by Israel. Every year Israel burns the vegetation to make sure that people cannot hide. … We understood the demonstrators had planned to form four rows on the other side. The people in the first row would try to cross the line first. If there would be an explosion, the second row would take over and so on. That was the strategy.
AN: What happened next?
TM: There were about a hundred Israeli army and police vehicles and ambulances surrounding the village. Thousands of our people and Palestinians were in the center of our village. The army was planning to enter the village. We talked to the army. We told them we don’t want them to come to the center and we don’t want anybody to get hurt.
We reached an agreement that the army would not enter and that we would talk to the Palestinians and Syrians to ask them to go back. After three to four hours of talking, most of the demonstrators were convinced that their political message was achieved. So they agreed to go back.
AN: How was it possible for the demonstrators to safely return?
TM: Our people stood on two sides to form a path. Our Dutch friends joined us. A few meters away there were hundreds of Israeli soldiers. That is how we protected the Palestinians and Syrians with our own bodies on their return across the ceasefire line. Majdal Shams has 10,000 inhabitants. We welcomed the demonstrators and we also protected them from an Israeli attack.
AN: Can you comment on the claims that the Syrian government orchestrated the march on Nakba Day?
TM: I believe the main thing behind it was the Arab Spring. Arab people discovered the power of the masses. If you organize in big numbers, you can be successful. Surely, Syria did not stop them, that is clear. Some demonstrators managed to continue after they crossed the ceasefire line, to Jerusalem and to Jaffa. They were peaceful, they had no weapons. They just wanted to go back to their homes. They wanted to see the homes of their families. These lines will not stop people. That was shown on Nakba Day. I think this was a message. Without having a solution for Palestinians, there will be no peace and security in the Middle East.
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Swizerland.