Israel | Middle East | News

On the Golan Heights, Israel braces for consequences from Syria civil war

ALONEI HABASHAN, Israel (JTA) — A fence made of chain links and rusted barbed wire once was enough to separate the Golan Heights from Syria. That’s no longer the case.

A few feet away from what one area resident called a “cattle fence” — one easy to jump if not for the electric current running through it — a newer barrier of crisscrossing shiny steel bars towers high above the heads of nearby soldiers.

As Syria’s civil war escalates next door, Israelis have grown concerned that spillover could undermine the sense of security that Golan residents have enjoyed since the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

“The chaos presents a situation in Syria where there’s no rule, and a lot of entities can enter that can put us in danger because they have no national or diplomatic responsibility,” said Ori Kalner, deputy head of the Golan Regional Council.

Heightened security awareness is a new feeling for residents of the Golan, the mountainous region in Israel’s northeast corner captured from Syria in 1967’s Six-Day War. The Bible mentions it as a place of refuge, and for many Israelis it is exactly that. Two hours from the country’s congested center, filled with national parks and bed-and-breakfasts, the Golan has remained immune from the terrorists and missiles that have bombarded Israel in recent decades.

But the sense of sanctuary is eroding. Mortar shells and gunfire from the Syrian civil war began spilling into the Golan in November. Israel returned fire — the first cross-border conflict on the Golan since 1973. One shell landed in a backyard in this agricultural village 500 yards from the border.

In January, Israel announced construction of the new fence to prevent Syrians from infiltrating the border. Last week, seven Syrians crossed into Israel to seek medical attention; they are hospitalized in the northern Israeli city of Safed.

Residents have tried to ignore their neighbors’ conflict, but they say it’s becoming more difficult. Some worry that if rebels succeed in toppling the regime of President Bashar Assad, Islamist groups will exploit the opportunity to attack Israel, as terrorists did following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

“They’ll turn this into another Gaza,” said Yaron Dekel, a resident of Alonei Habashan. “I don’t think what’s happening here is different from what’s happening in the rest of Israel.”

Like many Golan towns, the 56-family Alonei Habashan is tightly knit. Residents are used to leaving their doors unlocked and the town’s entrance gate open, Dekel said, though they have become more cautious lately as the threat of Syrians crossing the border has risen.

“If you live in Tel Aviv, you lock your door,” Dekel said. “Here no one does, but now they tell us to. People used to leave the door open for a month.”

Communities across the Golan are adopting increased security measures. The Golan Regional Council, which delivers services to area communities, is providing increased security funding to towns, as well as assembling local volunteer security, logistical and medical teams in case of an attack.

Kalner says the Golan is “ready for change in Syria.” He adds, however, that the Golan, as opposed to Syria, is calm, vibrant and secure.

“Were raising people’s awareness,” Kalner said.

The region’s two largest security threats are missiles and refugees crossing the border, he says. On Sunday, Kalner toured the area adjacent to Israel’s Gaza and Egypt borders, both targets of frequent rocket attacks in the past decade, to learn about security protocols there.

While similar attacks in the Golan could temporarily drive away tourists, the council’s tourism chief, Shmuel Hazan, says that Israelis will return out of a sense of solidarity.

“Israelis like to support places that are problematic,” Hazan said. “We know from experience that in Gaza or Jerusalem, when there was a crisis, when things got better they returned to the way they were.”

One silver lining to the Syrian threat, both residents and officials say, is that Israel will likely hold on to the Golan for the coming years. Israel annexed the region in 1981 and its return has been a subject of peace negotiations with Syria in the past. Given the Assad regime’s instability, the prospects of a deal that would lead to the Golan returning to Syrian control is more unlikely than ever.

“It’s clear that what’s happening there makes that discussion superfluous,” said Dalia Amos, the council’s spokesperson. “We’re all very optimistic.”

Dekel called Syrian peace negotiations “a thing of the past.” He said that while the Syrian unrest has awakened residents to their own vulnerability, it has also brought the Golan’s strategic advantages into sharp relief.

“This is the Middle East,” he said. “Whoever lives here should live on the heights, and be able to see everything.”