News / Middle East

    Israel on Guard as Golan Goes From Bloom to Bloodshed

    FILE - An Israeli tank in Golan along Israel-Syrian border FILE - 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

    Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

    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.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.