As Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces advance on southern Syria, the stream of refugees fleeing toward Israel has increased. Thousands of them, crowded into trucks jolting along the roads toward the border fence on the Golan, perceived as being the safest area, which Russia and the Assad regime would hesitate to bombard. According to United Nations figures published early last week, some 11,000 civilians have fled to this area. But aid groups and local residents say the number has ballooned following bombardments of population centers in the southern part of Daraa province.
Dozens of refugees and residents of the Syrian Golan Heights told Haaretz repeatedly that they expect Israel to protect those fleeing for their lives and increase its aid to the displaced persons camps, which are collapsing under the load. Many of the refugees sleep under the stars and have received no assistance from humanitarian aid organizations.
The family of Abu Khaled (he asked that his and his wife’s full names not be published) fled after their western Daraa town, Jasim, was bombed by Russian and Syrian planes, air force. His family, like many others, could not afford the $50 a day it costs to rent a car — nearly an entire month’s salary in Syria, where most people are unemployed due to the collapse of the economy and the ongoing civil war.
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A family friend agreed to drive them for free. Thirteen relatives and 12 neighbors crowded into a battered vehicle with their meager possessions and made their way to the border.
“Everyone in Jasim is fleeing now for fear of Russian oppression, Iranian gangs and [Assad’s] regime,” Abu Khaled, a former satellite-dish repairman, said as his family packed for their journey. His wife, Umm Khaled, a mother of 11 in her 50s, added: “Our feelings are indescribable. Fear and terror. The children haven’t stopped crying since the bombings. They aren’t quiet for a second.”
Abu Khaled said they decided to head for the Israeli border “because it’s safest there. It’s a demilitarized zone, according to international agreements, and the regime and its allies can’t attack there with their planes.”
The relative protection of the border area is a key consideration for the people of southern Syria at the moment. Manar (not her real name), a 42-year-old single woman, was uprooted from her home in Daraa in 2015, when foreign Shi’ite militias and Assad’s forces captured the town. Now she is in a neighboring town that is held by rebel forces, but the residents are negotiating for its surrender to the regime.
Manar told Haaretz she had been trying to decide between flee with her wounded brother toward the Jordanian or the Israeli border. “I want to flee to the border area, because there are international peacekeeping forces there, so that we can ask their protection,” Manar explained as her reason for deciding to head toward Israel. She added that if regime forces had damaged the roads to Israel, she and her brother would head toward Jordan.
In 2014 Manar was imprisoned for six months and tortured for opposing the regime. Regime forces killed one of her brothers and another was wounded fighting with the Free Syrian Army. “What terrible pain. How did we lose so quickly, in a week, what we had sacrificed so much to achieve for eight years,” she said.
One of the main destinations of the refugees is Rafid, in the southern central Syrian Golan Heights. In recent years the town has taken in refugees from all over southern Syria fleeing the regime’s bombardments. The refugees live in camps and with local families. Now, thousands more refugees are converging on the little town. Abu Omar, a resident of Rafid, says: “The residents opened their homes to the refugees. The houses are completely full. There are at least five families in every home. The refugees are along the border fence with the Golan. No humanitarian organization can cope with the families here. The numbers are enormous. The situation is terrible. This is Judgment Day.”
The widespread bombardments and mass flight of uprooted people has created chaos, and many people have lost contact with their relatives due to the collapse of phone systems in the area. Residents of Quneitra, just over the border with the Israeli Golan Heights, have used Israeli cellphone networks for years. Now they are overloaded, presumably because of the great uptick in traffic. Those who fled Daraa with a SIM card can’t make calls from areas near the Israeli Golan Heights.
The head of a humanitarian organization receiving aid from Israel said that among the chaotic masses of people in the camps he saw children wandering around alone, crying. His attempts to find their parents failed. He said Israel was the first to pay attention to the wave of uprooted people, sending in diesel fuel, which people use to pump water from wells in the area. On Thursday night, Israel sent 300 tents as well as baby formula, clothing, shoes and food to camps on the border. But the assistance is not enough for the thousands of Syrians gathered in the area. “The refugees are suffering from a lack of all basic needs,” the head of the organization told Haaretz. “A few nongovernmental organizations have given what they can, but everything that was given is not enough. People have no shelter. There are not even toilets for the women,” he added.
In September 2014, during the bombardment of villages in the demilitarized zone, local residents trying to enter Israel were turned away. Conversations with residents of southern Syria in recent years have revealed that many of them believe that Israel will not let them in, while others expect Israel to do so if the regime continues to advance toward the border.
“The civilians are asking Israel to protect them, or to annex the area remaining [under rebel control] to Israel,” the head of the humanitarian organization said. He described how in the past some local people treated him negatively as a collaborator with Israel, while now Israel is perceived as the only entity giving any protection and assistance to the Syrians.
The refugees themselves said they wanted the Israelis to know that they sought peace. On Thursday dozens of them demonstrated opposite the border fence with the Israeli Golan Heights. They called on Israel to protect them and held up signs signaling that they presented no danger. Some signs said: “We are not terrorists. We are a people that wants to live in peace,” and “after 40 years we realize that our real enemies are the terrorists Bashar Assad, Iran and Hezbollah.”
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a research fellow at Israel’s Forum for Regional Thinking, focusing on Syria.