Tel Aviv Diary: Israel Protects Syrian Refugees Camped Near Its Northern Border—But For How Long? | Opinion

It is a little more than a two-hour drive from downtown Tel Aviv to the Golan Heights and the border with Syria. While events in the South remain a distraction, such as Hamas’ fire balloons, most of the country continues to look anxiously Northward. Israel is very publicly moving additional tank forces and artillery to the Golan. Mounting Israeli forces are being sent to the border, with the hope they will deter Bashar al-Assad’s forces from attacking the masses of refugees continually heading toward the Israeli border.

After the first Trump-Putin meeting at the G20 in Hamburg last July, in one of the Donald J. Trump Administration’s first forays into peacemaking, an agreement was reached, calling for a deescalation in southern Syria, along with a long-term ceasefire in the area bounding Israel and Jordan. However, thanks to Vladamir Putin and Russian air support, the Syrians have now defeated the opposition in other parts of the country. With continued Russian support, the Syrians have decided to attack those areas under rebel control in the South. There are about 250,000 people currently in that area, and with the exception of some Druse, they are all Sunni, and all are considered opponents of the regime.

Over the past five years, Israel’s only involvement in Syria’s Civil War has been to grant humanitarian aid to those Syrians living near the border, to provide food and medicine, and to treat thousands wounded from the fighting. Israel has also attacked weapons convoys bringing advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Now, after Assad broke the aforementioned agreement, and the Trump Administration made it clear to the rebels the U.S. had supported earlier that they are on their own, civilians are fleeing Syria en masse.

GettyImages-956759106 An Israeli flag is seen placed on Mount Bental in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on May 10, 2018. JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of Syrian refugees are camping out close to the Israeli border, under the assumption Assad would not attack so close to Israel’s domain. Some refugees hope to be permitted to flee to safety into Israel, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has definitively stated: “We will not allow entry into our territory”—a policy which seems to have wide support in Israel. To date, only Tamar Zandberg, head of the opposition Meretz Party has called for the admittance of the refugees into Israel and her plea has not triggered any serious public debate.

Despite its unwillingness to allow what could be tens of thousands of Syrian refugees into the country, Israel is also not able or willing to stand aside and watch the people it has been helping get slaughtered by the combined Assad-Russian killing machine. Those who have streamed to the border instinctively understand that fact. On Wednesday, Israel took a major step to indicate to Assad that it will defend the refugees.

According to the ceasefire agreement that ended the 1973 Yom Kippur war, a demilitarized zone was established on the Syrian side of the border, where United Nations forces were to be stationed and where no Syrian army forces are allowed to enter. The newly arrived Syrian refugees are currently in that area. During the last few days, Netanyahu has stated that Israel will demand full implementation of the 1973 ceasefire agreement, as the Syrian government tries to reassert control over the area near the border. On Wednesday evening, Israeli media reported that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has made it clear that any Syrian, Iranian or Hezbollah forces in the demilitarized zone would be considered valid targets for attack by the Israeli forces arrayed there.

Creating a buffer zone for the refugees only provides some short-term relief. Israel has been increasing its supplies to the refugees, providing tents and other equipment—though nobody thinks that is a long-term, or even a medium-term, solution. With the world awash in refugees and the doors to the both the U.S. and EU closed, the fate of these unfortunate souls is very much in doubt.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​