JERUSALEM  - Israel is preparing to receive Syrian Alawite refugees on the occupied Golan Heights if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad collapses, Israel's army chief of staff said on Tuesday.

"On the day the Assad regime falls, it is expected to harm the Alawite clan. We are preparing to receive Alawite refugees on the Golan Heights," Lieutenant General Benny Gantz told MPs at the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and defence, in remarks communicated by a spokesman.

It was the first time that a senior Israeli official had raised the possibility that members of the Alawite minority, which includes the Assad family, could seek refugee in Israel in order to escape an expected backlash in the event the regime collapses.

The Assad family are Alawites, members of a Shiite minority group who are strongly represented in the top ranks of the Syrian army and the ruling Baath party.

Since March, the Assad regime has been engaged in a bloody crackdown against pro-democracy activists, which UN estimates say killed more than 5,000 last year.

Gantz also said Assad's fall was likely to affect its alliance with Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah Shiite militia and the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement.

"Assad cannot remain in power and his fall could cause cracks in the radical axis," he said.

Earlier this month, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said he believed Assad's family had only "a few weeks" left in control of the strife-torn country.

"The Assad family has no more than a few weeks to remain in control in Syria," Barak told the same parliamentary committee, and later said such a development could have "implications" for the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

"In the north, there may be possible implications from Syria on the Golan Heights and a broader area as the result of the loss of control," he said.

Barak also said Assad's fall would constitute a "severe blow to the radical axis."

A UN estimate in early December put the death toll in Syria since the start of the crackdown in mid-March, at more than 5,000.

An estimate by the Local Coordination Committees network of activists put the number at 5,862, including 395 children and 146 women.