JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel will block any influx of Syrian refugees into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Thursday as Syrian rebels pressed home a campaign to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
“They (refugees) have not chosen to come close to us, but in the event of the regime’s downfall, which could happen..., (Israeli forces) here are alert and ready, and if we have to stop waves of refugees, we will stop them,” Barak said while gazing across the frontier, fighting visible in the distance.
An Israeli defence source noted that Barak, in his comments, spoke only about preventing a flood of refugees, apparently not closing the door completely to Syrians seeking safety.
Barak was speaking to reporters at an Israeli forward position on the occupied Golan Heights, territory captured from Syria in a 1967 war. An Israeli security fence separates the Golan from Syria, to the northeast, along a disengagement line that has been quiet for decades.
Some two km (1.2 mile) away, smoke from mortar shells could be seen billowing over the Syrian village of Jubata and gunfire was heard as Syrian insurgents kept up pressure in a 16-month-old revolt against Assad.
Israel’s army chief, Benny Gantz, said in January that it was preparing to take in Syrian refugees from Assad’s minority Alawite sect who might flee if he fell. The rebels are mainly from Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim community.
A senior Israeli officer told journalists at the Syrian border in March that the military had made preparations with international agencies to accept refugees from Syria temporarily and later transfer them to a third country.
But the officer said at the time that a scenario of Syrians crossing over to Israeli lines was unlikely.
Israel annexed the Golan in 1981, a move not recognized internationally. It gave the Druze there, who today number about 20,000, the option of citizenship. Most rejected it.
The U.N. refugee agency last month doubled its forecast for the number of refugees who will flee Syria this year to 185,000.
Turkey, which stretches along Syria’s northern border, has given shelter to more than 50,000 Syrians since March 2011 but thousands have since returned to their homes.
Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich