As civil war grinds on in Syria, neighboring Israel has been largely uninvolved - even as the Islamic State (IS) said it considers Israel a prime target.
But a recent attack launched into northern Israel from Syria by militants affiliated with IS have heightened fears in Israel and stirred concerns that IS may try to lure Israel into the broader Middle East conflict, analysts say.
Khalid Ibn al-Walid Army – an Islamist group in southern Syria that pledged allegiance to IS this year – opened machine gun and mortar fire last week on an Israeli military patrol. The Israeli military responded with an airstrike that killed four Islamist fighters.
Israeli residents in the Golan Heights say they are growing wary of a possible increase in IS attacks.
“Since the beginning of war in Syria, my family and I live in constant fear,” said Faiz Zahraddine, a 37-year-old resident of Ein Qiniya, a Druze village not far from the Syrian border. “Nobody was harmed this time, but who knows what’s going to happen next time?”
Israeli authorities say they have long been on high alert for cross-border attacks from IS and possible internal terror attacks from IS-inspired cells.
“We will not permit radical Islam or any other hostile entity to open a front of terror against us on the Golan [Heights],” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters recently.
‘New and worrying development’
The recent attack on the Israeli patrol was “a new and worrying development, as so far [Islamic State] or any of its affiliates didn't try to attack Israel directly,” said Adam Hoffman, a terrorism researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
A group of unidentified militants drive near Syria's Quneitra border crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Nov. 28, 2016. Israeli aircraft struck a machine gun-mounted vehicle inside Syria Nov. 27, killing four IS-affiliated militants inside after they had opened fire on a military patrol on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, the Israeli military said.
IS, “in its small pocket near the Golan, does appear to pose a major threat,” said Seth Frantzman, an Israeli researcher based in Jerusalem. “It could attempt to continue to harass Israel to draw it into the Syria conflict, which Israel is not interested in being involved in.”
David Daoud, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington-based think tank, agrees it is unlikely that the Israel military would mount a major operation into Syria to pursue IS fighters.
“I don’t foresee an invasion by Israel, particularly in a situation as messy as Syria where the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] would get stuck engaging multiple factions,” he said.
Nor is Islamic State well prepared for a fight with Israel at this time, Daoud said. With its forces on the defensive across Syria and Iraq, “the resources [it] can devote to engaging the IDF are rather limited.”
Since the start of Syria’s war in 2011, Israeli military jets have crossed the border only to attack arms shipments from the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hezbollah’s political platform has long been based on the destruction of Israel, and Israeli leaders consider the movement of arms to Hezbollah in Syria as a threat to their nation's existence. Israeli warplanes this week targeted a Hezbollah weapons convoy near Damascus, damaging a Syrian military base.
From its onset in Iraq and Syria in 2014, IS has often threatened to attack Israel, and its leaders have said conquering Jerusalem is the ultimate objective for their Islamic caliphate.
Qatar’s foreign minister said in November that the Gaza Strip could become a "launching pad" for IS recruiters.
Israeli soldiers secure a road leading to where projectiles fired from Syria hit the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights, near Majdal Shams, Sept. 13, 2016. From its onset in Iraq and Syria in 2014, IS has often threatened to attack Israel, and its leaders have said conquering Jerusalem would be their ultimate objective.
Israel authorities say a few dozen Arab Israeli citizens have left to join IS in Syria and Iraq. Last month, Israel authorities arrested an Arab Israeli who planned to join IS in Syria.
Israel officially banned IS and anyone associating with it in a 2014 declaration signed by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon. The decree outlaws any meetings by IS sympathizers and allows authorities to take quick legal action.
"This is being done for the sake of national security, public safety and public order," the declaration said.
An IS terror cell was foiled in 2015 as it collected weapons in Israeli Arab towns. In June, two IS-inspired gunmen opened fire at a shopping center, killing four Israeli civilians.
But analysts caution that IS’s ability to strike inside Israel is limited. Israel has a tight security apparatus and has long experience battling terror attacks by Palestinian militants.
Any IS terror attacks inside Israel will likely be on a small scale “thanks to good intelligence on [IS] in Syria and on the Israeli Arabs who traveled to Syria to join it,” Hebrew University analyst Hoffman said.
And despite the warning by the Qatari minister, IS has had difficulty finding a footing in the Palestinian territories given ideological differences with other Islamist groups like Hamas.
“Hamas and more extreme groups such as Islamic Jihad or salafist groups in Gaza work hard to prevent [IS] from gaining inroads or competing for followers,” researcher Frantzman said.