BEIRUT — Syrian rebels launched a wide-ranging offensive against government positions near the Israeli side of the Golan Heights on Wednesday, surrounding a Druze village and raising concerns that refugees would flood toward the border with Israel.
The advance came a day after Israel, which has a significant Druze population, said it was preparing for the possibility that refugees fleeing fighting in the area might seek to cross to the Israeli side of the strategic plateau.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory said rebels, including Islamist fighters, surrounded the village of Hader on Wednesday.
“Hader is now totally surrounded by rebels, who just took a strategic hilltop north of the village,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Insurgents have been on the offensive in southern Syria for the past three months, capturing military bases, villages and a border crossing point with Jordan.
“The regime has not sent reinforcements yet, but the Druze villagers are standing with the government,” Abdel Rahman said. Fighting around Hader on Tuesday left at least seven rebels and 10 pro-regime fighters dead, he added.
The rebels of the Southern Front alliance and the so-called Haramoun Army targeted several more areas in the Golan, including the towns and villages of Quneitra, Khan Arnabeh, Baath, Jiba and the base of Brigade 90, the main government force in the region, said opposition activist Jamal al-Jolani, who is based in southern Syria.
“The fighting now is inside the city of Quneitra,” al-Jolani said via Skype. He said the Haramoun Army — which includes al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham — are shelling the area while Southern Front fighters are advancing on the ground.
Explosions from the fighting in Syria Wednesday could be seen from the Israeli side of the Golan Heights several miles (kilometers) away.
A Syrian government helicopter could be heard dropping bombs on rebel targets as tanks, believed to belong to the rebels, fired back. An Israeli warplane flew along the frontier as a precautionary move.
Just before noon, warning sirens sounded in the Israeli-controlled Golan, near the Quneitra border crossing. The shelling and gunfire from Syria’s civil war has occasionally strayed across the frontier, but there were no immediate reports of any spillover on Wednesday.
The Golan is a popular destination for tourists, some of whom stopped to watch the fighting in the distance.
The encirclement of Hader comes amid rising fears in Syria’s Druze community.
Last week, 20 Druze villagers were killed in an altercation with members of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front in Idlib province in the northwest.
Shortly after the deaths, rebel forces in southern Syria briefly overran a government air base in majority-Druze Sweida province, in their first such advance in the government-controlled region.
While the rebels were eventually expelled from the air base, fighting has continued nearby.
The Druze are followers of a secretive offshoot of Shiite Islam, and made up around three percent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million.
The community has been somewhat divided during the war, with some members fighting on the government side and others expressing sympathy for the opposition.
Mostly, the Druze have taken up arms only in defense of their own areas.
In Sweida, Druze have formed a local militia to protect themselves from the rebels, residents say.
On Tuesday, Israel’s chief of staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot said authorities were preparing for a possible influx of Syrian refugees.
A spokesman confirmed he was referring to a potential influx from areas adjacent to the ceasefire line on the Golan.
His comments did not directly mention the Druze, but came after leading members of the minority in Israel called on the government to help their brethren in Syria following the recent violence.
Officials say there are 110,000 Druze in northern Israel, and another 20,000 in the Israeli-occupied Golan.
Israel captured 460 square miles (1,200 square kilometers) of the plateau in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.
Syria’s state-run SANA news agency meanwhile said two shells struck Arnous Park in Damascus late Tuesday, killing nine and wounding 13 as people were out shopping ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Thursday.
Government forces had earlier fired Iranian-made “elephant” rockets on the rebel-held suburb of Douma, killing 24 people, including five children and 14 women.
Insurgents on the outskirts of Damascus occasionally shell the capital, drawing massive retaliation from government forces, which have reduced several rebel-held suburbs to rubble.