BEIRUT

Middle East

Israel alarmed over Islamist threats on its borders

U.N. vehicles drive in Syria near the border fence with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights September 2, 2014. (REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel's frontier with Syria, where militants have kidnapped 45 U.N. peacekeepers, has become a magnet for Islamist activity and Israel itself is now a target, the defense minister and security analysts said Tuesday.

The Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-linked group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, has established a major presence in the region, analysts said, and is poised to carry out attacks across the barren borderlands where Syria, Israel and Jordan converge.

Iran meanwhile is seeking to expand its influence in the region via its support for Assad and the Lebanese Hezbollah, all of which are allied against the Sunni insurgency confronting Assad, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

"Iran's fingerprints can be seen in Syria, including in the Golan Heights, in attempts to use terror squads against us," Yaalon told an economic conference as he set out the combined threat from Islamist groups in Syria.

In their latest assault, the Nusra Front fighters seized 45 Fijians serving as U.N. monitors in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. It is demanding to be removed from global terrorism lists in exchange for their release.

"We now have Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front), which is basically Al-Qaeda, on the border with Israel, and Israel is a legitimate target for Muslim militants all over," said Aviv Oreg, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and a specialist on Al-Qaeda.

Oreg said it was only "a matter of time" before the Islamist groups now engaged in fighting in Syria turn more of their attention towards Israel.

"I cannot tell you exactly when, but it's very risky. It only needs one suicide bomber to cross the fence and attack an Israeli military patrol or a tractor full of farmers going to work in the fields..."

But while Israel may be growing alarmed, it is not clear that the Jewish state is a strategic priority for the Nusra Front or other radical Sunni Muslim groups.

Their focus since 2011 has been the overthrow of Assad, a campaign that has bogged down from infighting in their ranks and Shiite Muslim Hezbollah's intervention on the side of Assad.

If Israel is attacked in any serious way, the retaliation would likely be intense, setting back the insurgency and opening the way for Assad's forces to further reclaim the initiative.

Israel has bolstered its forces in the Golan Heights, a rugged plateau seized from Syria during the 1967 war, with armored patrols keeping a close eye across the frontier, sometimes passing within 300 meters of Nusra Front fighters.

The plateau, scattered with fruit farms, vineyards and rocky peaks, looks down across the plains of southwest Syria, where the Nusra Front and other groups, including the secular, Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, can be seen battling Assad's forces.

After three years of fighting, opposition forces control patches of territory to the west and south of Damascus, including a portion of the 375-km border with Jordan.

That has allowed thousands of foreign fighters from both the Arab world and Europe to cross into Syria, including an estimated 2,000 Jordanians. At least 10 Israeli Arabs have also gone to Syria, five of whom were later detained after returning home, according to Oreg.

The frontier between Israel and Syria has been administered by the United Nations since 1974, a year after the last war between them. It consists of an area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 70 km from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River with Jordan.

About 1,200 soldiers are involved in monitoring the separation zone, in what has been for most of the past 40 years one of the world's quietest peacekeeping missions. That changed with the uprising against Assad, and the area is now precarious.

Stephane Cohen, the former chief liaison between the Israeli army and the U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNDOF, said the U.N.'s mandate was now meaningless.

With the Philippines, Ireland and other contributing nations set to withdraw from the mission, it was questionable whether the United Nations could continue monitoring the area.

"UNDOF is collapsing and the mandate has not been relevant for at least two years," said Cohen, now a defense analyst with the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group.

"Eighty percent of the border area is now in the hands of (Syrian) opposition forces," he said, adding that if more nations withdrew, the militant presence would only rise.

For now, Israel is merely remaining vigilant.

"We have to be very cautious about our retaliation policy," said Oreg, emphasizing that the priority should be to keep careful tabs on the Nusra Front and other groups' capabilities, while sharing any intelligence judiciously.

 

Recommended

Advertisement

Comments

Your feedback is important to us!

We invite all our readers to share with us their views and comments about this article.

Disclaimer: Comments submitted by third parties on this site are the sole responsibility of the individual(s) whose content is submitted. The Daily Star accepts no responsibility for the content of comment(s), including, without limitation, any error, omission or inaccuracy therein. Please note that your email address will NOT appear on the site.

Alert: If you are facing problems with posting comments, please note that you must verify your email with Disqus prior to posting a comment. follow this link to make sure your account meets the requirements. (http://bit.ly/vDisqus)

comments powered by Disqus
Summary

Israel's frontier with Syria, where militants have kidnapped 45 U.N. peacekeepers, has become a magnet for Islamist activity and Israel itself is now a target, the defense minister and security analysts said Tuesday.

"Iran's fingerprints can be seen in Syria, including in the Golan Heights, in attempts to use terror squads against us," Yaalon told an economic conference as he set out the combined threat from Islamist groups in Syria.

In their latest assault, the Nusra Front fighters seized 45 Fijians serving as U.N. monitors in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria.

Israel has bolstered its forces in the Golan Heights, a rugged plateau seized from Syria during the 1967 war, with armored patrols keeping a close eye across the frontier, sometimes passing within 300 meters of Nusra Front fighters.

The frontier between Israel and Syria has been administered by the United Nations since 1974, a year after the last war between them.


Advertisement

FOLLOW THIS ARTICLE

Interested in knowing more about this story?

Click here