Israeli army incursion into Syria hits refugee camp

Israeli occupation forces in the Golan Heights in January.

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

The Israeli military on Wednesday stormed a camp for displaced Syrians near the boundary line between the 70 percent of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel and the rest of Syria, according to Syrian activists.

The al-Shahaar refugee camp is located near Jabata al-Khashab, a Syrian town in the Quneitra province. The area is mostly controlled by Syrian opposition forces fighting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“This camp includes a large number of civilians fleeing the fighting between opposition forces and the regime, and who were forced today to go to Jabata al-Khashab in search of refuge after the Israeli army’s raid,” Abu Hamza al-Jowlani, a media activist, told al-Araby al-Jadeed in an Arabic-language report.

Jabata al-Khashab, a nearby town, is located within the boundary lines of the United Nations-monitored “buffer zone” between the Israeli-occupied portion of the Golan and the rest of the area.

After instructing the camp’s residents to leave, the Israeli army also destroyed tents, according to Syria Mubasher, a Syrian opposition-affiliated news site. “Israeli army soldiers entered the al-Shahaar camp accompanied by several armored vehicles,” Syria Mubasher reported in Arabic, citing witnesses. “After ordering [the residents] to evacuate, [the Israelis] took and destroyed the tents with no people in them, and returned to the other side of the boundary line,” the report stated.

Although Israel claims that it is a neutral bystander in the Syrian civil war, which began as a popular uprising against the Assad regime in 2011, it regularly intervenes in Syria.

Israeli bombs

Additionally, the Israeli military has bombed Syria several times since the conflict in that country began. Back in 2013, then lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi – a member of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party – claimed Israeli airstrikes in Syria were not intended to bolster anti-Assad rebel groups.

Nonetheless, Israeli airstrikes in Syria have consistently targeted Syrian government forces or fighters from Hizballah, the Lebanese militia and political party fighting along side the Syrian army. In January, Israeli missiles killed six Hizballah members on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights. Muhammad Ali Allah-Dadi, an Iranian general, was also killed in that strike.

Meanwhile, Israel has effectively aided some hardline Islamist elements of the Syrian opposition – including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda – by providing rebel fighters with medical treatment in Israeli military hospitals, as Rania Khalek recently reported for The Electronic Intifada.

Following Jabhat al-Nusra’s slaughter of dozens of Syrian Druze in the Idlib province of that country’s northwest, locals in the Golan attacked an Israeli military ambulance and killed a Syrian opposition fighter who was on his way to be treated in an Israeli military hospital.

An estimated 20,000 Syrian Arabs – the vast majority of whom come from the Druze religious sect – live under Israeli occupation in a handful of villages in the Golan Heights. They live alongside some 21,000 Israeli settlers who live in dozens of Jewish-only colonies in contravention of international law.

Kamal al-Labwani is a politician and founding member of the Syrian National Council, an anti-regime group based in exile. In addition to visiting present-day Israel several times since the uprising began, al-Labwani has proposed permanently abandoning Syrian claims to their occupied land in exchange for Israeli support against the Assad regime. 

“We will sign peace with the Israelis at the end,” he told the London-based al-Arab news agency, as reported by The Times of Israel. “Why deny it?”

As part of his proposal, the Golan would become an “international peace park” and tourism hub. “The [Israeli settlers] who want to remain can remain, those who want to return to Israel or elsewhere can go. As for the original [Syrian] inhabitants of the Golan, they will have to choose between returning to their land and being compensated,” al-Labwani said.

Selling the Golan

In return, Israel would enforce a no-fly zone on large swaths of southern Syria and a peace accord would be signed between Israel and Syria after Assad’s eventual fall, according to al-Labwani.

Yet, al-Labwani’s comments have not gone over well with many supporters of the Syrian uprising.

Speaking to me at Syria Deeply, Majdal Shams-based activist and poet Yasser Khanger said: “We didn’t revolt against Assad’s oppression in order to legitimize the [Israeli] occupation. Israel and the [Syrian] regime are similar to us when it comes to crimes and murder.”

Writing in the Jordanian daily al-Arab al-Yawm, veteran Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan blasted al-Labwani’s proposal. While drafting his plan to abandon Syrians living under Israeli occupation in the Golan, al-Labwani “didn’t ask or consult the Syrian people,” Atwan wrote.

Al-Labwani “presented Israel with a certificate of innocence and good conduct for all of its crimes against the Arab people,” he wrote. “I was hit by nausea because I never imagined an Arab Muslim … describing Israel as a liberator in Syria or any other Arab country.”

Atwan said that the Syrian regime’s widespread killing of civilians “does not justify selling the Golan to Israel.” He dubbed al-Labwani’s plan as “a gift” and “a generous tool” to the Assad regime.

Dozens of members of Syrian opposition factions also decried al-Labwani’s proposal in a petition, according to al-Arab al-Yawm. “Freedom that comes from the enemy is not freedom,” the petitioners wrote.

Increased colonization

Meanwhile, Israel has doubled its own efforts to colonize the Golan as the world’s attention has been focused on the bloodshed in the rest of Syria.

Most recently, the Israeli government forgave more than $132 million in debt owed to the state by Israeli settler communities in the Golan, the Times of Israel reports.

Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the ultranationalist Habeyit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party, recently called on “the entire world” to “recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” as reported by Ynet.

Bennett is known for his anti-Arab racism. Back in 2013, he boasted: “I’ve killed a lot of Arabs in my life, and there’s no problem with that.”

In February, Afek Oil and Gas, an Israeli company, began exploratory drilling for oil in the Golan. Afek is a subsidiary of Genie Energy Limited, an American company advised by former US Vice President and neocon Dick Cheney.

Last November, Uploading Conscription – a group of Golan-based Syrian activists – issued a statement condemning the “suspicious visits” to the Golan by “racist politicians” like Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who now serves as Israel’s justice minister.

“Calculated effort”

“We believe that the repercussions of these public visits are by all means disastrous,” the statement said, as reported by The Electronic Intifada at the time. “This is not only because they promote the idea of the occupation and the logic of surrendering to it, but also because they lead to numbing an entire society and robbing it of what it has left of the concept of freedom and liberation.

During the summer of 2014, Israel also announced plans to increase the number of students studying in the Ohalo College, located in the Jewish-only settlement of Katzrin in the Golan.

Aiming to double its student population over a seven-year period, the Israeli government would provide students with scholarships and living stipends, as well as “increase the number of academics, academic disciplines and scientific researchers in Katzrin in particular, and in the Golan Heights in general,” according to an Arabic-language report at Arabs48.

In addition to the scholarships, the program will “encourage local tourism through 19 million shekels [around $5.5 million] worth of financial investments in museums and parks,” as well as several Jewish religious centers.

Pointing to these plans and others also designed to expand Israel’s presence in the Golan, the Majdal Shams-based rights group al-Marsad blasted Israel for “a calculated effort to establish ‘facts on the ground’ in order to solidify their illegal annexation of the Golan in the midst of a brutal and protracted conflict in Syria.”


Patrick Strickland

Patrick Strickland's picture

Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and frequent contributor at The Electronic Intifada. He is presently working on his first book for the London-based publishing house Zed Books. See his in-depth coverage for EI.