News / Middle East

Israel on Guard as Golan Goes From Bloom to Bloodshed

FILE - An Israeli tank in Golan along Israel-Syrian borderFILE - An Israeli tank in Golan along Israel-Syrian border
x
FILE - An Israeli tank in Golan along Israel-Syrian border
FILE - An Israeli tank in Golan along Israel-Syrian border
Reuters
The slopes of the Golan Heights, with springtime wild flowers now in full bloom, are dotted with discarded rusty tanks that are remnants of a 1973 war. For decades, the Israel-Syria front has been quiet - but not anymore.
       
Small Israeli military lookout posts abandoned for years have been put into action and regular military and special forces have replaced reservists at many points.
       
Israel is worried that the Golan, which it captured from Syria in 1967, will become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by jihadi fighters, who are taking part in the armed struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
       
In recent months, battles between Assad loyalists and rebels have raged in some villages on the Syrian foothills of the Golan, with mortar shells and machinegun fire spilling across into Israeli-occupied territory.
       
Israel, which returned fire in some of those incidents, believes that around one in 10 of the rebels are Sunni Muslim radicals.
       
"Tension in the Golan Heights is the highest it has been since 1974,'' a senior Israeli military officer in the area told Reuters this week. "We simply do not know who will control the territory next to the border.''
       
While the fall of Assad, an ally of Israel's enemy Iran, could be in the Jewish state's interest, a descent into chaos on the Golan Heights would pose a new security challenge.
       
Some 20,000 Israeli settlers live on the Golan and the strategic plateau overlooks Israeli towns and villages along the Sea of Galilee.
       
On its southern borders, Israel has long faced rocket attacks from armed Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip and has watched with concern the rise of Islamist militancy in Egypt's Sinai desert.
       
One Israeli general, the commander of forces in the north, raised the possibility in an Israeli newspaper interview last month of creating a buffer zone in Syria, in cooperation with local forces wary of jihadist fighters, should Assad be toppled.
       
"Some very key decision-makers are opposed,'' an Israeli official said. "[Army chief] Benny Gantz, for example, was the Israeli commander who literally closed the door on south Lebanon when we withdrew from the security zone there in 2000, and he has shown little interest in seeing a repeat on the Golan.''
       
Alon Liel, a former diplomat who led secret peace talks with Damascus, said Israel had limited room for maneuver over Syria.
       
"Israel is paralyzed from a diplomatic perspective,'' he said. "We may be strong militarily but any intervention in a neighboring country would draw deep objection from both sides in Syria because Israel is so weak in the region diplomatically.''
 
Syria Strategy

World powers trying to craft a Syria strategy, and weighing whether to arm the rebels, have been struggling to distinguish between mainstream fighters who might stabilize the country should Assad fall, and jihadi insurgents.
       
"There's no unified position on that yet,'' a senior Israeli official said. "No one really knows what post-Assad Syria would look like. No one really knows who the rebels are as a collective.''
       
Israel has been wary of being seen to take sides in the Syrian conflict and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has avoided echoing calls from Israel's main ally, the United States, for Assad to step down.
       
One senior Western diplomat in Israel told Reuters Syria has been moving up a list of Israeli security concerns topped by Iran's nuclear program.
       
"Syria is starting to edge ahead of Iran as far as the [Israeli] military is concerned, but also among politicians, partly because of U.S. reassurances over Iran but also because the situation in Syria is getting so alarming,'' he said.
       
One Israeli official said the fluid situation in Syria meant that Israel had to assess events there almost daily.
       
"That makes for a far more intensive examination [by Israeli decision-makers],'' the official said. "Add to that the fact there is a new [Israeli] government, with new ministers who have little time to get up to speed on these things.''
       
One of Israel's main worries is the possibility of Syria's chemical weapons falling into the hands of Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, with which it fought a 2006 war, or ending up in the hands of jihadis.
       
Israel has cautioned it will not allow that to happen. In an attack it has not formally confirmed, Israeli planes bombed an arms convoy in Syria in February, according to Western sources, destroying anti-aircraft weapons destined for Hezbollah.

End of UNDOF?

The green expanses and snow-capped mountains of the Golan are a major attraction for Israeli tourists who flock to the plateau. On a sunny spring day, a group of hikers admired the view as an elderly farmer slowly drove through his apple orchard.
       
A few miles away, Israeli troops on patrol stopped their armored vehicles near an old abandoned tank for a break. Asked if it was quiet that day, one soldier made a "so-so" hand gesture. "When it's quiet, that's when it's scariest,'' he said.
       
In another sign Israel was keeping a close eye on the area, two drones, visible from the road, were parked in a fenced-in facility.
       
Among those battling against Assad's forces are fighters from the Nusra Front, an Islamist militant group linked to al-Qaida and blacklisted by the United States as a "terrorist group."
       
Nusra Front forces, which include foreign fighters, have come to prominence in the revolt and last month fought in battles near the Israel-Syria ceasefire line
       
Last month, Assad's forces appeared to push back the rebels in the area. "There is a still a visible [Syrian army] troop presence there, though it is unclear whether they have significant control or even a unified central command,'' an Israeli official said.
       
Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, Israel's chief military spokesman, told Army Radio last week that global jihad groups were fighting under the rebels, and "exploiting the anarchy,'' some of them have moved into the Golan Heights.
       
"In the future we will have to deal with terrorism from the Golan Heights, after 40 years of impressive and exemplary quiet,'' Mordechai said.
       
An Israeli military officer said new Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon had ordered "that no fire from Syria into Israel, be it deliberate or stray, is left without response.''
       
Israel is building a new, five-meter-tall fence on the Golan beside the older, partly rundown barrier that runs along the 70 km (45 mile) front.
       
The ceasefire line has been monitored since 1974 by a 1,000-strong U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). Arming the Syrian rebels could have implications for the peacekeepers, posing another potential headache for Israel.
       
Austria has cautioned that lifting the embargo to arm rebels would make the European Union a party to the conflict and make it difficult to keep the 375 Austrian peacekeepers on site.
       
UNDOF has faced increasing difficulties in the Golan and U.N. diplomats have expressed concern over its future. Last month, rebels held 21 Filipino UNDOF observers for three days, prompting the force to scale back on patrols.
       
Israeli military sources said they fear the peacekeeping force will not hold up under the insurgency in the Golan.
       
In the past three months, Japan and Croatia said they were withdrawing their troops. Should the Austrians leave, it could spell the end for the UNDOF mission because they are the biggest contingent and it is unclear who would want to replace them.
       
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger met Netanyahu on Thursday and is due to visit U.N. peacekeepers on the Golan Heights Friday.
       
"We have some of the world's most dangerous weapons and we cannot allow them to fall into the world's most dangerous hands: Hezbollah, al-Qaida and other terrorist groups,'' Netanyahu told reporters as he and Spindelegger met.
       
"That is one of the great concerns for us and a great concern for you as well and I want to discuss with you how to prevent that from happening,'' the Israeli leader said.
       
Spindelegger said Austria would try to stay as long as it could but that would not be possible without security guarantees from both rebel and government forces in Syria.

You May Like

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: Iraq President Vows to Fight IS 'Until They Are Killed or We Die'

In wide-ranging interview with VOA Persian service reporter, Fuad Masum describes conflict as new type of fight that will take time to win More

Video Russian Anti-Corruption Campaigner Slams Putin’s Crackdown on Dissent

In interview with VOA Alexei Navalny says he believes new law against 'undesirable NGOs' part of move to keep Russian president in power More

Video On The Scene: In Ethiopia, 'Are You a Journalist?' Is a Loaded Question

VOA's Anita Powell describes the difficulties faced by reporters in fully conveying the story in a country where people are reticent to share their true opinions More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Serge Barou from: Wellington, NZ
April 12, 2013 1:29 AM
I've never read anything funnier than this phrase: "World powers.... have been struggling to distinguish between mainstream fighters who might stabilize the country should Assad fall, and jihadi insurgents". After Tunisia, Egypt and, especially, Benghazi they think there is anything to "distinguish"? What's so great in those powers then?

OK, a hint for those lame strategists: whoever is fighting Boy Assad now, the post-bellum Syria will be in the hands of jihadis. They'll not have balls for a head-on assault on Israel, but will create a lot of nuisance along the Golan stretch of the border... and every Israeli response will be met by indignant squeak of the "progressive international opinion".

by: Christian Love from: USA
April 11, 2013 10:44 PM
AMAZING..!!! what a country..!!! Israel - you are so beautiful...
you make me fall to my knees and cry - Hallelujah !!!

If you read the story of Israel and you don't believe in God... you are not human...

by: Dr. Subramanian from: India
April 11, 2013 8:48 PM
US calls for Assad to step down were never accompanied by a "request" to Israel by the US to decapitate Assad regime. That means that the US is extremely ambivalent about post Assad stability in the region. in the absence of US leadership, a new supreme Military block has emerged in NATO-Warsaw comprising of Germany Israel and Russia. in India, we pray for the strength of US/Israel not to allow Germany and Russia to fall in love with their military strength again. may God bless you little Israel - may God bless you

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardshipi
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
May 28, 2015 6:48 PM
Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Floodwaters Recede in Houston, but Rain Continues

Many parts of Texas are recovering from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southwestern state. Heavy rains on Monday and early Tuesday caused rivers to swell in eastern and central Texas, washing away homes and killing at least 13 people. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, floodwaters are receding slowly in the country's fourth-largest city, and there likely is to be more rain in the coming days.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

VOA Blogs