GOLAN HEIGHTS/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of Syrians approached the Israeli frontier on the Golan Heights on Tuesday in an apparent attempt to seek help or sanctuary from a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive, before turning back after a warning from Israeli forces.
Tens of thousands of Syrians have arrived near the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the past month, fleeing a rapidly advancing offensive which has defeated rebels across a swathe of territory near Jordan and Israel.
“Go back before something bad happens. If you want us to be able to help you, go back,” an Israeli army officer on the Israeli side of a frontier fence told the crowd in Arabic through a megaphone. “Get a move on.”
The offensive has triggered the single biggest displacement of the war, with several hundred thousand people uprooted. Both Israel and Jordan have said they will not allow Syrians to cross into their territory.
Israel, which seized the Golan in the 1967 Middle East War, has given humanitarian aid to refugees in encampments close to a 1974 Israeli-Syrian disengagement line. Many of the displaced are sheltering within the disengagement zone that is monitored by a U.N. force.
The Syrians who approached the frontier fence stopped some 200 meters (yards) away, before an Israeli soldier told them to leave.
“You are on the border of the State of Israel. Go back, we don’t want to hurt you,” the soldier shouted in Arabic through a loudspeaker at the crowd, live Reuters TV footage showed.
The crowd, which included women and children, then walked back slowly towards the refugee encampment. Some stopped mid-way and waved white cloths in the direction of the Israeli frontier.
The Russian-backed offensive has advanced swiftly, unopposed by President Bashar al-Assad’s foreign adversaries. The United States, which once armed the southern rebels, told them not to expect it to intervene as the attack got underway last month.
A witness on the Syrian side of the Golan frontier said the sound of bombardment was drawing ever nearer. The United Nations said last week up to 160,000 Syrians had fled to Quneitra province, some in close proximity to the Golan area.
GOVERNMENT FORCES CELEBRATE
Syrian state TV broadcast from a hilltop captured from rebels on Monday and overlooking the Golan frontier. Government fighters waved rifles and held aloft pictures of Assad as they celebrated on camera from the location, al-Haara hill.
“We will liberate all Syria,” said one of the soldiers.
Israel has threatened a harsh response to any attempt by Syrian forces to deploy in the disengagement zone, complicating the government offensive as it draws closer to the frontier.
Israel does not want its enemies Iran and Hezbollah, both allies of Assad, to move forces near its border. Iran-backed Shi’ite forces including Hezbollah have been critical to Assad’s advances.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking alongside U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday, cited the need to restore the situation along the Golan borders to the state that prevailed before the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressing Putin to rein in Iranian and Iran-backed forces in Syria.
Hezbollah-controlled al-Manar TV said the Syrian army had captured one of the last rebel-held areas in Deraa province, al-Aliyeh.
At least 14 people, including five children and some women, were killed when government forces bombarded the nearby village of Ain al-Tineh 10 km (6 miles) from the Golan frontier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
(This story has been refiled to remove extraneous words in final paragraph)
(Reporting by Rami Amichay and Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Tom Perry in Beirut and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Angus MacSwan)