Geopolitics

From The Golan Heights, Where Syria's War Is Creeping Up On Israel

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.

UN vehicles between Israel and Syria...
UN vehicles between Israel and Syria...
Francesca Paci

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.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

🇸🇩💥  IN OTHER NEWS

Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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