Refused refuge in the occupied Golan Heights, civilians displaced in southwest Syria face a new range of threats. Their plight lies in stark contrast with the Israelis flocking to the disputed region for war tourism just a few kilometres away.
Occupied Golan Heights — Selma Mohammed, 31, left her home in Daraa province 20 months ago. Since then, with her two children, she has moved six times between villages in southwest Syria.
“I felt lost. Wherever I wanted to go, I kept thinking about my children, especially because we had ISIS on one side and the regime on the other. I knelt and prayed that God would help us.”
Her situation nosedived when in mid-June forces loyal to the Assad regime began a military assault to retake territory in southwest Syria from the opposition.
The mother of three-and-a-half-year-old Youssef and 15-month Ahmed worked as a media activist, monitoring events in southwest Syria and updating Syrian and foreign journalists on events. She feared for her life as Assad’s forces steadily won back village after village, town after town.
Along with more than 300,000 other people, she was displaced by the military campaign, and took shelter right up against the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. That added another dimension to the crisis, with displaced Syrians caught between multiple warring parties, including the Assad regime and its Iran-backed allies, Israel, and the Daesh (ISIS) affiliate Jaysh Khalid ibn al Walid.
Israel seized two-thirds of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, destroying homes and separating friends and families. Since 1974, UN forces have patrolled a buffer zone to maintain calm between the two enemy states. Israel later officially annexed the occupied Golan, in a move never recognised by the international community.
There are currently some 100,000 internally displaced Syrians in the Golan area next to Israeli-annexed territory, according to the latest UN situation report, which confirmed that aid organisations in Damascus have not been granted permission to visit populations there.
"Consequently, there are significant unmet needs that continue to increase at dramatic scale," the report warned.
A fortnight ago, protesting Syrians near the border fence were turned back by the IDF, shattering any hopes that Israel would take them in as refugees.
Selma said that the protesters were demanding a safe zone, after being exposed to persistent regime bombardment. More than 280 civilians have been killed since the campaign to retake southwest Syria from opposition began in mid-June, according to a new report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
“They demanded that a safe area be provided for the people where the bombing, the regime or any other faction could not harm them,” she told TRT World three days after leaving the Golan border region for northern opposition-held territory.
“For a moment, we expected that they [Israel] would grant us safe passage. But unfortunately, it was impossible.”
For over two years now, Israel has been providing cross-border aid and medical treatment in its hospitals for Syrians, in a programme dubbed “Operation Good Neighbor.” Since the beginning of the Assad regime’s southwest offensive last month, the Israeli Army has provided more than 13 tonnes of food, three pallets of medicine and 30 tonnes of clothing to Syrians sheltering next to the territory it occupies. Jerusalem says this helps the needy while maintaining a policy of “non-intervention” in the conflict.
But analysts believe that the publicity around Israel’s humanitarian aid efforts led some Syrians to believe that they would be offered sanctuary.
“The media attention surrounding Operation Good Neighbor contributed to unrealistic hopes and expectations among Syrians residing in the south concerning their protection from the Assad regime,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow specialising in Syria at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think-tank.
“Reporting by pro-regime outlets about an Israeli ‘safe zone,’ which never actually materialised, also contributed to the belief that their region will be spared from an attack by regime forces. As the regime launched the offensive, the hopes for a ‘safe zone’ collapsed and some hoped that Israel would at least allow them to seek asylum within its borders, although most of the IDPs and locals with whom I spoke realised that this is unlikely.”
Unwilling and unable to enter Israel, fearing reprisals for collaborating with an enemy state, internally displaced Syrians were left with a couple of equally grim options. So-called “reconciliation” deals brokered by Russia have seen some displaced Syrians return to their homes in Daraa and Quneitra provinces, while some 9,000 others, including Selma, have moved to opposition-held Idlib province.
“Russia is pushing for reconciliation – they want people and fighters to stay in their cities,” said Navvar Oliver, a military researcher and expert at Omran Center for Strategic Studies. “They don’t want to create some kind of a gap that will be filled by Iran-backed militias."
"Whenever there is a gap because of evacuation, Iran-backed militias are expert now in filling this gap. That is a major problem for the Russians right now, especially in the south.”
While internally displaced Syrians sheltering up against the Israeli-occupied Golan have been forced to make impossible decisions over their futures, the situation in the annexed territory itself is complex and contested.
There is a separate population of Syrians in the territory, who remained after Israel captured the Golan Heights in 1967. The population of some 25,000 people – separated from relatives in Syria proper – have since been confined to four villages in the Israeli-occupied area. They live under what is sometimes dubbed a ‘forgotten occupation,’ under conditions that increasingly mirror those of the occupied West Bank.
Israeli authorities, the Israeli Army and tens of thousands of settlers now control 95 percent of the occupied Golan Heights, according to Al Marsad, the only human rights organisation in the area.
“Israel plans to increase the number of settlers in the occupied Golan Heights to 100,000 in the coming decade, so we can imagine the future – the kind of minority we will be here,” he said.
Wael Tarabieh, a programmes manager at Al Marsad from Majdal Shams, the largest of the four Syrian communities.
Like populations in the occupied West Bank, Syrians in the Golan live in the shadow of hill-top military bases and illegal settlements, while suffering restrictions on land use and destruction of their property.
“I think that the relatively calm period that we are currently living through will not be forever,” Tarabieh adds.
The occupied Golan is not only strategically important – it is resource-rich too. The land is fertile and the water sources are abundant. The Israeli tourist board sells the – entirely accurate – image of an idyllic landscape studded with waterfalls and hiking trails. Brown tourist signs spring up every couple of hundred metres along the winding mountain roads.
For the past 12 years, tour guide Ilan Hadar, 53, has lived in Merom Golan, an Israeli settlement on the edge of the UN buffer zone. He insists Israel should control the Golan Heights.
“We have the right to live here and clearing the Syrian Army from here [in the 1967 war] was a necessity,” he said, negotiating a bumpy track at the wheel of his 4x4. “Everyone acknowledges that the Golan Heights is one of the most important pieces of land [in the region] and need to stay in Israel’s hands.”
Living just a few kilometres away from Syrians displaced by conflict, the settlers here have concerns of their own.
Tensions have risen over the occupied Golan as Assad regime forces and its Iran-backed allies have approached the other side of the UN buffer zone. This week Israel shot down a Syrian fighter jet that it claimed entered its airspace over the area.
Israeli authorities believe Iran will build up military installations in southwest Syria similar to those held by the Lebanese Hezbollah group.
“We already have a situation in south Lebanon, which became a huge weapons depot with thousands of rockets targeting Israel, with high capabilities of Hezbollah with the commando units it established to enter into Israeli communities,” said Sarit Zehavi, an Israeli Army reserve and founder of Alma, an organisation monitoring security on Israel’s northern borders. “We don’t want to see the same situation being created on the other side of the border in Syria.”
Because of or despite the talk of conflict, tourists flood to the Golan Heights, which offers visitors a strange type of war tourism. At the observation point atop Mount Bental, visitors not only learn about the historical conflict but come to watch the active conflict in Syria. A group of Israeli Army soldiers toting rifles receive an explanation from their guide. Tents housing displaced Syrians on the other side of the UN buffer zone are still just kilometres away.
“We came here today to see the fighting,” said Nati Adias from Tiberias in northern Israel. He appears less worried than Hadar over the threat of Iran-backed forces building up on Israel’s boundaries.
“We are not scared of Hezbollah – the Israeli Army is very strong,” he said.
Meanwhile, residents of the four remaining Syrian villages in the Israeli-occupied Golan sympathise with those on the other side of the ceasefire line. Members of the community have wildly different views on the Syrian conflict: some support Assad’s rule, while others back a peaceful opposition.
Mahmoud Amasha, 63, from the village of Buqata was hospitalised for 20 days in 2011 after pro-regime Syrians hit him with a car.
The mood has since improved, he says, with many among the community still strongly opposing both Israel’s Golan occupation and the regime in Damascus. The latest events in southern Syria have not made things any easier.
“Israel saved the lives of thousands of Syrians, while the regime destroyed their homes and killed them. Could you hate someone who saved your life?” he said in an interview with TRT World.
But then talk moves to Israel turning away the Syrians who protested on the other side of the Golan buffer zone.
“They were in Quneitra raising white flags and asking to pass the borders, but they were not allowed to pass. Who is the criminal in this case? The criminal is those who did not allow them to pass and asked them to return.”
And he gives a look that says there are no words and no choices.