JERUSALEM— Fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces near Syria's cease-fire line with Israel and along Syria's border with Lebanon has underscored Israeli fears the Syrian conflict increasingly is drawing closer. Israel says it is neutral but will respond if its security is threatened.
Israeli troops in the Golan Heights watched Thursday as Syrian government forces and rebels battled for control of a crossing on the Syrian side of the cease-fire line that separates Syria and the Jewish state.
It was another reminder for Israelis of how close the Syrian conflict is getting.
The expanding Syria fighting has Israel worried about security along its border, as noted this week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Heightened security concerns
He said the Middle East is going through a highly sensitive time: turmoil, revolutions and many changes. Netanyahu also said Israel has no interest in becoming a part of these conflicts, but is prepared to prevent any threat to Israel's security.
Rockets and gunfire from battles between Syrian rebels and government forces have hit the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on several occasions, bringing Israeli retaliation.
In addition, Israeli planes have struck in Syria at weaponry that Israel says was being transferred to Lebanon's Hezbollah group. Israel considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview this week on Hezbollah's al-Manar television that his forces would retaliate against Israel. He said Syria has responded directly to several Israeli violations in the past, and this depends on the feeling of the people. He said there is clear popular pressure on Syria to open the Golan front for resistance.
An analyst with Tel Aviv's Institute for National Security Studies, Bernedetta Berti, said that although the Syrian conflict has not affected Israelis a great deal, security in the Golan is a concern.
"There is a fear that the area bordering the Golan might increasingly become unstable, ungoverned and a magnet for foreign fighters, jihadis, or just in general militants who may have an antagonistic agenda with respect to Israel," said Berti.
Hebrew University Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Moshe Ma'oz noted that Islamic militants have joined both sides in the Syrian conflict. He said the situation bears watching but urges caution on any Israeli response.
"They are dangerous. They are motivated. They are ideological. But they are not very numerous. And many of them are not Syrians at all. And they endanger also the main body of the Syrian rebels," said Ma'oz.
Israeli authorities are especially concerned that advanced weapons or chemical weapons might come under the control of Hezbollah or other Islamist groups.
Israel says it will not allow this to happen, and its planes reportedly have struck such weapons in Syria on several occasions this year.
Analyst Berti said the Israeli air strikes have been few and deliberately restrained.
"This was an intervention that was, in the Israeli perception, selective and not meant to trigger broader involvement. In other words it was more a signaling to both Assad and Hezbollah that Israel was not going to tolerate such transfers of weapons," said Berti.
Fears of regional conflict
Israel has said it also would respond if Russia tries to deliver advanced S-300 air defense missiles to Syria as it has promised.
Analyst Ma'oz said he does not believe Syria or Lebanon want to reignite a conventional war with Israel. But he said Syria's escalating civil war could have unintended side effects.
"It's a dangerous situation and it can deteriorate into a regional war. And Israel has to be very careful to avoid further provocation," he said.
The U.S. government, Russia and United Nations are trying to convene an international conference aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, though most analysts are not optimistic. The proposed peace gathering will not take place until at least July.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials remain vigilant as fighting rages in nearby Syria.