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Thursday, December 18, 2014

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Syrian civil war turns spotlight on Golan

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Israel is preparing for the possibility that major changes are likely to occur in Syria, its bitterly hostile northern neighbour, in the not-too-distant future.

With a civil war consuming Syria, a country “falling apart in front of our eyes,” as Israel’s former defence minister, Ehud Barak, put it, Israel can hardly be certain of what lies ahead.

Not too long ago, the Golan Heights – captured by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967 and formally annexed in 1981 – were remarkably tranquil. But in the past two years, as peaceful protests in Syria have degenerated into fierce fighting pitting the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad against a diverse collection of Syrian rebels backed by western powers and Middle Eastern nations such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, tensions have flared on the Golan, which has been patrolled by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

In May 2011, shortly after the eruption of the uprising in Syria, the Syrian regime, in a crude attempt to divert attention away from its mounting internal problems, encouraged Palestinians living in Syria to test Israel’s resolve. About 100 Palestinians breached an Israeli security fence along the border and reached the Druze town of Majdal Shams before being arrested or shot.

More recently, as Syrian villages and a military intelligence facility in the demilitarized zones have been seized by the rebels, the war has spilled perilously close to or into Israeli territory on the Golan, which is populated by 20,000 Jewish settlers and an equal number of Druze, some of whom have taken Israeli citizenship. Since the waning months of 2012, stray Syrian bullets, mortars and tank shells have landed harmlessly near Israeli settlements and military outposts. In one case, an Israeli soldier was injured by an errant bullet, prompting Israel to launch a retaliatory missile strike on a Syrian army encampment.

After the latest incident on March 5, in which three mortars crashed into an empty field adjacent to the moshav of Ramat Magshimim, in the deepest penetration of Syrian fire into Israeli territory in years, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, warned the UN Security Council that its patience was wearing thin and that further violations of the truce, signed by Israel and Syria in 1974, would not be tolerated.

Shortly after Prosor delivered this warning, a group of UNDOF peacekeepers, all Filipino nationals, were kidnapped by Syria rebels, in the first incident of its kind in nearly 40 years. The 21 Filipinos were eventually released, but the abduction prompted commentators to wonder whether it would undermine the UN mission on the Golan, which has played a role in stabilizing the peace.

On a much broader and deeper level, two major concerns preoccupy Israel as Syria descends further into chaos.

Much like in Libya, one of the Arab countries whose autocratic leadership was toppled by the rebellions of the Arab Spring, Islamic fundamentalists from all corners of the Muslim world have poured into Syria to combat the Syrian regime.

Israel, the United States and the European Union fear that Islamists, having hijacked revolts in Egypt and Tunisia,  may emerge triumphant in Syria as well.

It goes without saying that an Islamist regime in Syria would be as hostile to Israel as Assad’s secular nationalist regime. In recent weeks, Syria, which has fought four wars and numerous skirmishes with Israel since 1948, has accused Israel of arming the rebels in collusion with neighbouring nations – Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – and reportedly shot down an Israeli drone close to Syria’s border with Lebanon.

The rebels, be they Islamists or secularists, are belligerent toward Israel, notwithstanding the fact that the Israeli government recently admitted seven of their wounded fighters for medical treatment in a hospital in Safed.

The Free Syrian Army, which has borne much of the burden of the rebel offensive against Assad’s regime, has accused Israel of tacitly backing Assad. The accusation is implausible, particularly in light of Israel’s recent air strike on a Syrian military research institute and its bombing of a North Korean designed nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007. 

Still more serious, the newly installed leader of the rebel coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, has described Zionism as a “cancerous movement.” It is true that his comment appeared in an essay six years ago, long before the revolt broke out in Syria. Nonetheless, Khatib’s malicious view of Zionism doubtless remains unchanged and reveals an anti-Israel mindset shared equally by the rebels and the Syrian regime.

Apart from the concern that post-Assad Syria could be an incredibly destabilizing force in the region, Israel has expressed fears that Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons may fall into the hands of Assad’s loyal ally, Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006 and has vigorously thrown its support behind the Syrian regime in both political and military terms.

Israel does not appear to believe that Syria’s chemical weapons pose a clear and present danger, as Moshe Ya’alon, the minister of defence, and Gen. Benny Gantz, the chief of staff, have said in assessing Syrian intentions.

But Israel is taking no chances, having upgraded its forces on the Golan and announced that a five-metre-high border fence is currently being built along the 100-kilometre length of the ceasefire line with Syria, and that a third Iron Dome anti-missile battery has been deployed as a precautionary measure in the Galilee.

Under the current circumstances, Israel will hew to the status quo on the Golan, a strategic region rich in water resources. Last October, the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot published a report claiming that Israel had agreed in principle to withdraw from the Golan after having conducted secret indirect talks with Syria in 2010. The report, based on documents written by U.S. diplomat Frederick Hoff, suggested that Israel would pull back to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the pre-1967 border, in exchange for a peace treaty with Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office immediately denied the report, and the then foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, declared that the Golan would remain in Israeli hands. “The Golan Heights,” he said, “are like Tel Aviv.”

So much for the notion that the Golan is up for grabs. Israel will not negotiate with a regime whose days are numbered.

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