Tensions build on Israel-Syria border

April 17, 2013

The road to the border near Buq’ata, a Druze town in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, is littered with fly-tipped rubbish and leads past vineyards and signs warning of land mines.

At the end is a shelf-like ridge that falls steeply down to a verdant plain in neighboring Syria, from which residents sometimes come to watch the civil war.

“When there’s action, people phone each other up and come here,” said Ezat Mdali, a civil engineer who lives in Majdal Shams on the Israeli side of the border but, like many Druze here, holds Syrian nationality.

Residents of the area say they hear shooting or shelling from over the border nearly every day. A flare-up of fighting in March was intense enough to cause windows to shake in towns on the Israeli side.

For four decades after Israel and Syria agreed on a cease-fire, the border — policed by about 1,000 U.N. troops in a demilitarized zone — was quiet. Rusting hulks of tanks in the area are tangible reminders of the fighting there in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

But now, Israeli military officials and analysts say, the northern border is more tense than at any time since the cease-fire was signed.

President Bashar al-Assad’s weakening regime has pulled out forces from the border region to defend the nearby Syrian capital, Damascus, they say, leaving the Syrian Golan largely under the control of opposition forces, some of which are thought to be jihadist groups.

“Right now the target is to fight the Assad regime, but it’s just a question of time that they can change their target and escalate on the border with Israel,” said Kobi Marom, an independent Israeli analyst who lives in the Golan Heights and has spent much of his career in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). “They could launch rockets or could penetrate the fence and take one of the Israeli communities sitting on the border.”

Gunfire and mortar rounds launched from Syria have hit the Israeli side of the border, although it is unclear whether they came from rebel or government forces. The IDF has returned fire five times since November.

“We see a deterioration of the general chain of command,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman. “That’s why we’ve had a number of incidents from people who took the initiative and shot a couple of rounds.”

Troops loyal to Assad are still present across the border, Israeli officials say, but there are fewer than before because the regime is shifting its forces elsewhere.

“You have rebels fighting for democracy on the one side, and on the other you have jihadists who are fighting a holy war between Shia and Sunni,” Lerner said. “This is what we are watching.”

The proximity of the border with Lebanon, which sits on the other side of Mount Hermon, is also a concern. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have repeatedly warned about the threat of chemical or other weapons reaching the militant Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

The Damascus government has used the Lebanon border and Hezbollah to put pressure on Israel in the past, and in February, Western officials say, its air force struck an arms convoy in an attack Israel has never officially acknowledged or denied.

Disarray in the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force is causing further anxiety in Israel, although officials are not voicing it openly. Japan and Croatia this year said they were withdrawing their troops from the mission. Austria, which supplies the biggest number of troops to the force, said last week that it might have to withdraw them if the European Union lifts its arms embargo against Syria, a move it said could jeopardize their safety.

In March, 21 peacekeepers from the Philippines were kidnapped by a Syrian group calling itself the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. The abductees were later released.

Israel has been reinforcing its border fence and will be finished by July. Because of the worsening situation in Syria, it is replacing the reserve troops it traditionally uses in the Golan with regular forces.

The Israeli army also says it has offered medical treatment to about a dozen rebels who made it across the border.

However, it denies reports in the media and by local residents that it has established a field clinic for wounded Syrians on the border. Israeli army officials have also privately discounted reports that they are making contingency plans to establish a buffer zone inside Syria if the security vacuum there worsens.

For now, U.N. vehicles still patrol the cease-fire line, which cuts through communities, leaving families and friends separated in towns on either side. After the region was divided, the area was called the “shouting hill” because families communicated by megaphone. With the advent of the Internet, people are now in touch with their relatives via e-mail or Facebook.

In Druze villages inside Israel, though, the Syrian war has further divided families, with some supporting Assad.

“There’s no space for discussion any more,” Mdali said. “There are brothers who won’t talk to each other.”

— Financial Times

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