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Israel prepares for more violence in Golan Heights village

MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights — Syria and Israel traded accusations Monday over the death toll in Sunday's shootings along the border here as Israeli troops prepared for what pro-Palestinian demonstrators were promising would be another attempt to storm across the border Tuesday.

Syrian police said they'd blocked dozens of pro-Palestinian demonstrators from reaching the hills around Majdal Shams on Monday. But Israel accused Syria of stoking the border tensions in hopes of diverting attention from its murderous campaign against anti-government protesters, which has claimed hundreds of lives in the past several weeks.

Syrian officials said that 24 people were killed and 350 wounded Sunday when hundreds of protesters tried to cross the border fence and Israeli troops opened fire. Funerals were held Monday for six of those who were killed in a Palestinian refugee camp outside the Syrian capital, Damascus. Officials said another 16 were to be buried later in the day in another camp.

Israeli officials expressed doubt over the figures Syrian officials released, saying they thought the death toll was about 10. But Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged that Israeli officials had no way to know precisely.

The United States charged Monday that Syria was behind the confrontations.

"This is clearly an attempt by Syria to incite these kinds of protests," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "Israel, like any sovereign nation, has a right to defend itself."

It's been nearly 30 years since Israel and Syria last fought a direct war, but tensions were high here Monday as protesters vowed in forums on Facebook and Twitter to regroup and try again Tuesday. Israeli troops here were on standby, warily eying the fence that's marked the border for more than a generation.

Majdal Shams is claimed by both Syria and Israel. It's been under Israeli control since the 1967 Six-Day War and was effectively annexed to Israel in 1981, when Israel installed a civilian administration here.

The conflicting allegiances of the village were on full display this week. Many turned out to support the protesters, only to be hushed by village elders.

"I believe in what they are doing, and I wish I could march towards them," said Salim Abu Arar, a 26-year-old resident of Majdal Shams. "Even if it is all the work of the Syrian government."

Majdal Shams had settled into an odd accommodation after 44 years of Israeli control. Syria considers its residents to be citizens, but they're entitled to Israeli citizenship if they request it; few have. Until this year, the village of just under 9,000 people had been considered relatively peaceful.

Then on May 15, Syrian authorities allowed hundreds of pro-Palestinian demonstrators to reach the border with Israel and break through the fence. Dozens made it into Israel, with one man going as far as the central city of Jaffa. Israeli soldiers who fired into the crowd killed more than 20, in what was called a major failure on the part of Israeli intelligence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swore that he wouldn't allow those events to happen again, urging soldiers that they should prevent a border breach but show "maximum restraint."

On Sunday, hundreds of protesters tried again.

Defense Minister Barak said Israel had no choice but to fire, and an Israeli military official, speaking anonymously to Israel's army radio, said soldiers had used live fire immediately, choosing to forgo rubber bullets or other less lethal weapons.

"Could be that they think it diverts attention. We have no choice. We have to defend our border," Barak said.

Israeli officials have said they'll file a complaint to the United Nations over Syria's actions along the border, though it was unclear in what forum they'd file.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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