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Israel Watches Events in Syria Carefully

A video downloaded from YouTube shows Syrian anti-government protesters tearing down a portrait of President Basahr al-Assad in Hama on April 29, 2011 during the "Day of Rage" demonstrations

A video downloaded from YouTube shows Syrian anti-government protesters tearing down a portrait of President Basahr al-Assad in Hama on April 29, 2011 during the "Day of Rage" demonstrations

Israel is watching events in neighboring Syria carefully. Relations between the two have remained hostile since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in which Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria, but the area has been mostly quiet. Now, there is concern among Israelis that Syria's uprising could further destabilize relations.

The area along the fence marking the demilitarized zone is dotted with signs warning of land mines that were planted decades ago.

In the Druze town of Majdal Shams, human rights activist Salman Fakhr El Deen keeps up with news of the uprising through the Internet. He, like other Druze in Majdal Shams, considers himself a Syrian living under Israeli occupation. "We are concerned, we are anxious about what is going to be and what is taking place now. It's our state, our people," said El Deen.


Some of that concern and anxiety are shared by Israel.

Israeli leaders are watching carefully, and cautiously avoiding stating a position. They do not want to shatter the fragile quiet that has existed for the past four decades.

"We have made no public comment," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The turmoil in the region - and we are talking about a change that is really historic, affecting all the countries of the region - has nothing to do with us. It's about people wanting empowerment - political empowerment, economic empowerment. There's no reason whatsoever why we should insert ourselves into what ultimately is an Arab event."

Privately, officials have said they are concerned that the turmoil in Syria could further destabilize relations, and they wonder what kind of enemy Syria will be in the future.

No one is casting predictions on whether Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will stay or go. Israel's former intelligence chief Ephraim Halevy tells VOA the uncertainty is reason for Israeli leaders to sit back and wait.

"We are concerned that in the event that Assad would ultimately have to leave the presidency in one form or another, we are faced with a host of imponderables," he said. "We have no idea who will take over. We have no idea what the relative influence will be of the Muslim Brothers, which are there, [and] what will happen to Iranian influence in Syria. We have to have to watch this very carefully."

Despite the tense relations with the Assad government, the demilitarized zone separating Israeli and Syrian forces has been quiet for decades. Syria demands the return of the Golan Heights, but has refrained from taking direct military action.

At the same time, Halevy notes that Assad has not been a partner for peace. "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know, but the devil we do know is a devil which tried a few years ago to initiate a nuclear military capability," he said. "When you come to the question of the devil you know and the devil you don't know, the devil we do know was intent on trying to craft for himself a military nuclear capability on our northern border."

Secret nuclear reactor

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency confirmed for the first time this week that a Syrian facility bombed in a 2007 Israeli air strike was a secret nuclear reactor.

The government of Assad is a close ally of Israel's top enemies, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Uri Saguy is a retired major general in the Israel Defense Forces who served as chief of military intelligence and once advocated peace talks with Syria. "The way they are doing business with Hezbollah in Lebanon and with the Iranians on the other [side of Syria], Israel does not like it," he said.

Israeli analysts say that is not enough to make many Israelis want the Assad government to fall. They say there is nothing to indicate that Iran would gain strategically if Assad goes.

Since the Syrian uprisings began, the Golan Heights has been the scene of rallies by Druze. Some have been in favor of President Assad, some against.

Demonstrators say they want Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, but the rallies themselves have avoided mentioning Israel as a target, and they have been peaceful.

For now, Israel does not consider the rallies in the Golan or the uprisings within Syria as direct threats - as long as the area along the fence stays as quiet as it has been for the last few decades.