Netanyahu vows to ‘defend border’ amid Assad onslaught in southern Syria

As IDF sends reinforcements to the Golan Heights, PM reiterates Syrian refugees won’t be allowed into the country

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office on July 1, 2018, flanked by Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman (R) and Intelligence and Transportation Minister Israel Katz (L) (AFP PHOTO / POOL / Tsafrir Abayov)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office on July 1, 2018, flanked by Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman (R) and Intelligence and Transportation Minister Israel Katz (L) (AFP PHOTO / POOL / Tsafrir Abayov)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doubled down Sunday on his assertion that Israel will not take in refugees from Syria, as the humanitarian crisis on the border continues to grow.

“Regarding southern Syria, we will continue to defend our borders. We will extend humanitarian assistance to the extent of our abilities,” Netanyahu said at the start of the cabinet meeting. “We will not allow entry into our territory and we will demand that the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement with the Syrian army be strictly upheld.”

The prime minister also said that the situation was being discussed at the highest international levels, with contact between Jerusalem and the White House and Kremlin, as well as communications between the Israeli defense minister and military chief-of-staff and their respective counterparts in Russia and the United States.

The prime minister’s statement comes as the IDF announced Sunday that the northern border with Syria has been reinforced with artillery and tank units. In a statement, the military said that “the IDF attaches great importance to maintaining the disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria which has been in place since 1974.

“In addition, the IDF will continue to insist on the principle of non-involvement in the situation in Syria, alongside a policy of a firm response to any violation of Israeli sovereignty and the creation of a risk to its residents.”

The IDF also noted that it would continue to extend humanitarian assistance to those in need.

Syrians flee rebel-held areas of the city of Daraa during airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on June 30, 2018. (AFP/ Mohamad ABAZEED)

On Friday the Israeli military announced that it had provided several tons of humanitarian aid to southwest Syria, but would not be accepting the tens of thousands of refugees from the area that had begun streaming toward the Israeli border.

The operation lasted “several hours,” the army said, and some 300 tents, 13 tons of food, 15 tons of baby food, three pallets of medical supplies, and 30 tons of clothes and shoes were delivered to the refugees.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said following the aid operation that Israel was “prepared to provide any humanitarian assistance to civilians, women, and children,” but stressed that “we will not accept any Syrian refugees into our territory.”

IDF officers on the Golan Heights managing an operation on June 28, 2018 to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees in tent encampments in southwestern Syria. (Israel Defense Forces)

Later that day the Israeli military brought six wounded Syrian nationals, four of them reportedly newly orphaned children, into the country for treatment in a local hospital.

The six Syrians were among those injured in Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s renewed offensive against the remaining rebel holdouts in southwestern Syria.

Since June 19, backed by its ally Russia, the Damascus regime has carried out a deadly bombing campaign in southern Syria as it pushes to retake the strategic area bordering Jordan and Israel.

The UN has warned that more than 750,000 lives are at risk in the south of the country.

Jordan has closed its border. The kingdom already hosts more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees but estimates the actual number is closer to 1.3 million.

Israeli security officials are said to be concerned that with the Jordanian border closed, Syrian refugees could band together to try to physically break through the border with Israel. Jerusalem is also worried that as the fighting gets closer to the border, there could be more mortar shells and other errant fire spilling over into the country.

Syrian refugee children play at an informal refugee camp, which is seen set between the houses and buildings in Arsal, near the border with Syria, east Lebanon, Wednesday, June 13, 2018 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

As of Saturday, government forces controlled more than half of Daraa, up from just 30 percent at the start of the operation, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.

Eight towns in the province returned to regime control under Russia-brokered deals, the Observatory said.

That came “after talks in each town between Russian generals as well as local notables and remaining rebels,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The so-called “reconciliation” deals are the latest in a string of such agreements across the country that have seen the government retake opposition-held areas, often after devastating air and ground offensives.

These deals imposed by the regime often see opposition fighters hand over their heavy weapons and allow those who want to leave to board buses headed to rebel-held areas in the north of Syria.

Regime forces continued to bombard other parts of Daraa province on Saturday, with air-strikes killing at least 15 civilians, according to the Observatory.

Unidentified airstrikes killed 10 civilians including five children in the rebel-held town of Al-Sahwa, the Britain-based monitor said. Regime air raids also took the lives of five noncombatants in the town of Ghasam.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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