June 16, 2015 / 6:19 PM / in 3 years

Israel says prepared for possible Syrian refugee throngs on Golan

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel signaled readiness on Tuesday to intervene if Syrian refugees were to throng to its armistice line on the Golan Heights, after Israel’s Druze Arab minority stepped up a public campaign to help brethren caught up in the civil war next door.

Members of the Druze community carry flags at they walk towards the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams, to watch the fighting in Syria's ongoing civil war June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Israel has sought to keep out of the four-year-old crisis in Syria, an old foe from which it captured the strategic Golan in a 1967 conflict and where it fears more belligerent Islamist militants could take over should President Bashar al-Assad fall.

So far, Israeli forces have limited themselves to returning fire into Syria when shooting hit their side of the Golan, and admitting hundreds of refugees for medical treatment.

But with no end in sight to the fighting that has sent some 4 million Syrians fleeing to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, Israel’s top military officer told parliament on Tuesday that preparations were under way to respond to any massing of refugees on the Golan.

“If a large number of refugees comes to the border from the combat zones, we will do what is needed to prevent a massacre,” Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot said, according to a person who was present at the parliamentary briefing.

Eizenkot, who was invoking a scenario of refugees being targeted by Islamist insurgents or Assad loyalists on the Syrian-held side of the Golan, did not elaborate on Israel’s planned actions.

On Sunday, the Israeli news site Walla reported Israel was examining the possibility of enforcing a “humanitarian aid zone” on the other side of the Golan separation fence — specifically for any influx of Syrian Druze fleeing Islamist insurgents.

Walla did not detail how such a zone might be set up or defended. Israeli officials declined comment on the report.

But Israel is mindful of calls for intervention by its own Druze, some of whose members have reached senior posts in the armed forces or government, and by Druze on its side of the Golan who have been demonstrating at the fence.

Military spokesman Brigadier-General Moti Almoz said the top brass held a special Golan assessment on Tuesday “as part of the common cause and blood-alliance between us and our Druze brothers in the State of Israel”.

But Almoz, in a statement posted on Facebook, said the Israeli side of the Golan was “calm, without irregular events” and that Eizenkot had ordered no change to current deployments.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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