Israelis nervous as fighting in Syria moves toward border

The Golan Heights is a favorite holiday destination for Israelis; thousands went hiking and picnicking there during the recent Jewish holidays. But the Israeli army asked some visitors to leave after a group of 50 Syrians, some of them armed, approached the Israeli border in the area of Mount Hermon, a winter ski resort area.

The fighting between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian rebels has moved closer to the Israeli border, and several mortar rounds have landed inside Israeli territory. Officials believe these mortars were not aimed at Israel, but nerves are somewhat frayed.

Army intelligence assessments that the Syrian side of the Golan Heights “would become a loosely governed area are proving true,” Israel Defense Forces  intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi said during a tour of the border. “The weakening of the Syrian regime’s grip [on the border region] and the increasing infiltration of global jihad elements pose a new threat, which the army is preparing for.”

Israeli officials say the border between Israel and Syria has been one of the quietest since the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But as the fighting continues, there is fear it could spill into Israel.

Syria has always demanded the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967. Israel has always said it will discuss the future of the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria. Perhaps as a warning to Syria, Israeli troops held a surprise training exercise with thousands of reservists near the border last month.

“We should move more troops to the border and maintain the security fence,” said National Security Adviser Uzi Dayan. “We need to be prepared for all possibilities, including a terror attack from Syria.”

The fence between Israel and Syria was built after the 1973 war. In June 2011, at least 14 pro-Palestinian protesters were killed trying to cross into Israel from Syria during an anti-Israel demonstration.

Israel is closely watching events in Syria, where 19 months of bitter fighting have yet to bring a decisive victory for either Assad or the rebels.

“Assad’s control is failing,” Dayan said. “It doesn’t mean he will fall immediately, but in the long run he won’t be in power.”

Israel is worried about what will happen after Assad. And the Druze community in the Golan Heights is watching the situation especially closely. Although they live under Israeli sovereignty, many Druze consider themselves Syrians. Only about 10 percent of the 22,000 Druze on the Golan Heights have accepted Israeli citizenship.

At the beginning of the fighting in Syria, most of the Golan Druze supported Assad.

“Assad has been very supportive of the Druze in the Golan,” said Gid’on Abbas, a Druze former general in the Israeli army. “But many Druze have gotten killed in the fighting in Syria, and there are a lot of mixed feelings. There have even been brawls in some villages between those who support Assad and those who oppose him.”

The fall of Assad presents both dangers and opportunities for Israel. Chaos is always dangerous, and cross-border terror attacks could spark a harsh Israeli response. Israel is also concerned that Syria could provide Hezbollah terrorists in south Lebanon with chemical weapons that eventually could be used against Israel.

Yet, at the same time, the current conflict could have benefits for Israel.

“From Israel’s point of view, it’s not a bad thing if the fighting in Syria lasts forever,” said Dayan. “Syria is becoming weakened economically, politically and socially, and it will never return to what it was. Hezbollah will also no longer have a godfather and help from Syria, which will weaken them as well.”

Abbas, the Druze leader, believes that if Assad falls, more Druze in the Golan Heights will ask for, and receive, Israeli citizenship. “They will want to be more cemented to Israel than to Syria,” he said.