While Syrian rebels and Assad's soldiers fight each other near the border, Israelis accustomed to rhetoric but relative tranquility are getting ready to defend themselves for real.
KIDMAT ZVI - During the 23 years he spent in Kidmat Zvi, in the middle of the mango and apple orchards of the Golan Heights, Michael Raikan never looked toward the Syrian border with apprehension, no matter how close it might be.
Now, not a day goes by without him wondering whether it would be better to pack up his family, and move someplace else. “The echo of the shots is so strong that we no longer can tell the difference between our military's training exercises, and the clashes between Assad’s army and rebels," Raikan says. "We are expecting the worse."
Like others in this northern Israeli territory, the father of four has opened and cleaned the air-raid shelters, stocked up on water, canned food and flashlights, while at school the children are taught how to cope with emergency.
"We have started thinking we might become a Northern Sderot,” Raikan says, referring to the Israeli town near the border with Gaza that has been targeted by Hamas missiles.
But contrary to the cities near Gaza, the kibbutzim scattered on the Golan Heights occupied by Israel since 1967 and unilaterally annexed in 1980, had always enjoyed tranquility. Indeed, some three million tourists come every year.
Now, however, war is sneaking up from just around the corner. “They fought right here, there were dozens of tanks,” recalls Dalia Amos, pointing at the scorched earth in the shelter of Quneitra, the only passage between Syria and Israel, where on June 6 the forces of Damascus repelled the opposition army.
In the distance is the 12-million-cubic-meter artificial lake ordered by Hafez Assad, deceased father of the current Syrian ruler, to avoid a potential Israeli invasion. In fact, despite regular rhetoric from both sides, the border between Syria and Israel has never been a real problem on the ground for either government or the United Nations mission established in 1974 to maintain the peace.
However, 20 days ago, after they were targeted by grenades, 360 Austrian peacekeepers decided to pack up: 60 of them have already left.
“It’s the first time that Syrian tanks moved so far forward, they technically violated the ceasefire line, but unless we are directly attacked our policy is not to intervene,” an Israeli officer at the Mavar Quneitra outpost explains. Only a few meters and a massive electronic gate through which UN armored vehicles go back and forth with unusual care, separate the camouflage turrets where he has been operating since 2009, from the brick building topped by the red, black and white flag of Damascus. According to sources close to the international contingent, rebels did not aim at taking control of the pass but they wanted to keep loyalists away from the offensive in the North.
Vests and sandbags
An army major who gives his name as Adam is a Druze, as are nearly half of the 44,000 Golan Heights inhabitants, and was not yet born when his father fought the Syrians during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. For the moment the conflict hasn't gone any further, he says: mortar pieces fell on the Israeli side by mistake, including during the last few days, and they just needed to fortify the 90 kilometers of the border with a sensor barrier, which will be completed shortly. "Of course, this time they came so close that we put on our bulletproof vests," he said.
If the fighting crossed the border, would it be total war? The answer stays the same “no comment,” confidential information for the Israeli driver who works with the Austrian and Fiji peacekeepers: when it comes to security, Israel prefers to work alone.
The nearby Quneitra passage is only accessible for the 42 Druze who actually study in Syria or by the people who want to get married to a Syrian. "But it is a strong symbol for Damascus because those Druze are faithful to the regime,” the Israeli officer notes.
The military vehicles passing each other along the streets lined by vineyards and tractors show Israel’s level of alert. Though the Syrian crisis fractured the axis between Damascus, Lebanese Hezbollah militia and the Palestinians of Hamas, it fortified the Shiite connection with Tehran.
General Joshua Anat, a former Israeli reserve commander and army advisor, recently addressed the shifting conflicts during a forum organized by Europe Israel Press Association. ”We are in the second phase of this low-intensity conflict, during which you are confronted with an enemy without a face, which is quite different from Hamas or Hezbollah," Anat said. "The third phase? It’s easy to imagine...”
In 1973 he fought right here, where the soldiers could be sent soon: “Israel is at a dead-end and must find its way next to the Iranian superpower, with Hezbollah strengthened by the war training and the Sunni jihadism, there is a risk we will miss Assad. Because of that we can’t bet as Washington does, supporting a part of the rebellion: we are waiting, we will only react in case of a change in the strategic balance.”
It has been six months since the elections during which Israelis gave surprising support to outsider candidates Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennet who were talking about the rising cost of living, as well as security. “Our consciousness has changed,” Michael Raikan admits, pointing to one of the first barriers that was built as prevention. Damascus is only 60 kilometers away from here and beyond the hills stands the third Syrian division. Meanwhile, in the midst of Syria's opposition, rise elements of al Qaeda, who could easily be tempted by the eternal Zionist enemy, and are close enough to make a strike in lightning speed.
How and from whom to protect yourself? This is a pragmatic question: few people in Israel doubt they will sooner or later have to deal in some way with the Syrian chaos. “Three weeks ago we ‘received’ a rocket from Lebanon, however it was not sent by Hezbollah, but by a group, probably Palestinian, that got involved to try to force Hezbollah to stop its support for Damascus," General Ben Anat notes.
No matter what direction you look, the horizon is black, as the inhabitants of the Golan Heights have begun to put sand bags in front of their windows.