In his remarks Sunday, Netanyahu said that on the Syrian side of the Golan frontier, “the Syrian army has moved away, and in its place, global jihad forces have moved in.”
“Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to defend this border against both infiltration and terrorist elements, just as we are successfully doing on the Sinai border,” Netanyahu said.
Yaalon said Islamist militants, identifiable by their green Islamic banners, had taken over several Syrian villages in a buffer zone near Israeli lines, attacked Syrian army bases and assaulted a Syrian armored battalion. “Now they are directing their efforts against Assad, but it could be that after they get rid of him, they’ll turn their guns on us,” he said.
Touring the frontier during an earlier round of fighting near Israeli lines in July, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that “chaos” could develop after a possible overthrow of Assad and that “we could find the Golan Heights becoming a lawless area in which terrorist elements could also operate.”
On the ground, the Israeli army is preparing for what a military official called a worst-case scenario in which the long-quiet boundary with Syria would become “a hostile border.”
Trenches lined with coils of razor wire have been dug along the Israeli side of the Golan frontier, and a 15-foot-high steel fence is under construction, with plans to extend it to the length of the boundary with Syria. Surveillance of the Syrian side, aided by cameras, also is being stepped up.
Israel began beefing up barriers on the frontier after hundreds of protesters from Syria breached a boundary fence in May 2011, during rallies marking the anniversary of the establishment of Israel in 1948, marches that were repeated a month later on the anniversary of the 1967 war. Replacing a lower electronic warning fence, the imposing new barrier, encased in rolls of barbed wire, is intended to serve as a bulwark against infiltrators.
The fence is identical to one nearing completion along Israel’s border with Egypt, which runs from the southern edge of the Gaza Strip to the Red Sea resort of Eilat. That barrier was meant to stop illegal African migrants but is also seen as part of Israel’s defenses against cross-border attacks.
Risk of broader conflict
As the fighting in Syria spread to villages near the Israeli-held Golan in recent months, the Israeli military readied tents and medical supplies for the possible arrival of Syrian refugees. Barak warned that they would be stopped at the frontier.
But Syrian civilians fleeing the fighting did not head in that direction, taking shelter instead in areas outside their villages. Refugees in other border regions of Syria have crossed into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Despite occasional small-arms fire and shells from Syria hitting the Israeli-held Golan, there is no evidence to suggest that either Syrian forces or the rebels have an interest in opening another front, according to Israeli military assessments.
After the Israeli retaliatory fire in November, Syrian forces took measures to avoid overshooting into Israeli-held territory, the military official said, and the incidents were contained without escalating into broader conflict.
Still, the risk of wider hostilities remains. Limits imposed on the Syrian army’s forces and armaments in the buffer zone near the Golan make the area attractive for the rebels, who have been able to operate there without fear of Syrian airstrikes. When the Syrian army moved some tanks into the zone during the recent fighting, Israel objected, and U.N. observers in the area warned the Syrian side that it was violating the provisions of the disengagement accord.
In the one lethal exchange across the frontier in November, bullets struck an Israeli army patrol vehicle, causing no casualties. Israel fired back at a Syrian position with antitank missiles, and Syria said two of its soldiers were killed. The U.N. observers later reported that the Syrian army had blamed the initial shooting on the rebels, accusing them of trying to provoke the Israeli response.
The prospect of more spillover from the fighting in Syria could sharpen Israel’s dilemma: It wants to deter any more fire across the frontier that could cause Israeli casualties, but it does not want its response to set off broader clashes with Syrian forces.
“We don’t want to be dragged into the conflict, and we’re following a policy of restraint and containment,” the military official said. “If we would have a soldier or civilian killed, that would be a different story.”