Should Israel open the occupied Golan Heights to Syrian refugees?

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 4 September 2014 11:12 GMT

Syrian refugees sit outside their tents at Al Rafid village, Quneitra, Syria, close to the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Picture August 29, 2014. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

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Israel is the only country sharing a border with Syria that has not taken in refugees

Israel should open the occupied Golan Heights to Syrian refugees fleeing war at home – that’s the view put forward by a rights group based in the disputed region.

Not only would such a move help those seeking safety, it could help Israel build bridges with its northeastern neighbour, campaigners argue.

Separately, rights activists are also urging Israel to allow injured Syrians being treated in its hospitals to seek asylum instead of returning them to a war zone after patching them up.

Countries bordering Syria are now caring for 3 million Syrians, placing an intolerable burden on host communities and resources. Israel is the only neighbouring country not to have taken in refugees since the conflict erupted in 2011.

A further 6.5 million Syrians are displaced within their country, and more are reported to be fleeing their homes every day.

Al-Marsad, a human rights centre in the Golan Heights, says Israel could help by allowing refugees to cross the border into the occupied Golan – an area of 1,200 square kilometres with a low population and abundant natural resources.

“After a history of involvement in conflicts which resulted in refugees fleeing to its neighbours, Israel now has the opportunity to extend a friendly hand and reciprocate as a host country to those fleeing the brutality of war,” says Crystal Plotner, legal advocacy researcher at Al-Marsad.

Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed the area in 1981, a move that is not internationally recognised.

Plotner says the number of Syrians who were displaced from the Golan Heights - together with their descendants - are estimated to number 300,000-400,000. Most of them live in the urban areas of Syria worst affected by the current conflict where they face renewed upheaval.

Around 20,000 Syrian Arabs still live in the Golan Heights and many have said they want to take in their relatives and other uprooted Syrians, Plotner writes in the latest issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR) published this week.


In early 2012, the Israeli government said it was preparing to accept some Syrian refugees in the Golan Heights if President Bashar al-Assad's government  fell. But Israel’s defence minister later stated that refugees trying to enter the Golan Heights would be stopped.

Israel cites security threats from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and from al Qaeda militants as justification for refusing to admit people fleeing the conflict and has fortified the frontier.

Plotner, who wrote her article before militants in Syria seized a key frontier crossing last week, told me recent events in the region make it less likely that Israel will accept refugees.

But in her article she argues that Israel would have much to gain from such a strategy, which she believes could help leverage a future peace deal with Syria – with which Israel is still technically at war.

“Whichever way the Syrian conflict ends, there will be ramifications for the occupied Syrian Golan,” she writes.

“By accepting Syrian refugees and IDPs (internally displaced people), Israel has a window of opportunity to set the stage for better relations with its beleaguered yet influential neighbour.”

New U.N. figures show Lebanon is hosting 1.14 million Syrians, Turkey 815,000 and Jordan 608,000, and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I)  says Israel has a moral obligation to open its border.

“It seems a bit weird that Israel, which is richer than Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey, has not taken any refugees at all,” PHR-I public outreach director Hadas Ziv told me by phone from Tel Aviv.

“To say everything is about security is not to see the problem as it is. If someone is running for their life and reaches the Israeli border, yes, they should be able to seek asylum. That’s international law - even more, it’s a moral obligation.”

Although Israel has kept its border closed, more than 1,000 Syrians have already crossed into Israel - to receive medical care.

The Israeli military has been quietly treating injured Syrians who arrive at the border at a field hospital in the Golan Heights, and those with serious injuries are moved to Israeli hospitals. All patients are sent back to Syria after treatment.

Ziv says Israel has a moral and legal obligation to allow such people to claim asylum if they want, even if they use their stay in Israel only as a means to move to a safer third country.

But refugee experts say it is unlikely Syrians would want to apply for asylum in Israel, given the state of relations between the two countries.

Ziv also asked why Israel was encouraging its doctors to treat injured Syrians only to return them to a war.

“Why save someone’s life and then send them back to a place where their life is in terrible danger? There’s no sense in it," she said.

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