Israelis worry with Syrian al-Qaeda on doorstep

Merom Golan - For the first time in the Syrian civil war, al-Qaeda fighters are hunkered down on Israel's doorstep, and Israelis in the lush, hilly Golan Heights who have long considered Syrian President Bashar Assad their bitter foe are now worried about something more ominous, that they could become the militants' next target.

The push into the Golan by the Nusra Front, as al-Qaeda's branch in Syria is known, comes just two weeks after Israel ended a 50-day war against Hamas on its southern border with the Gaza Strip, giving the conflict-weary nation another cause for concern.

Israelis in the Golan have grown accustomed to hearing the sound of distant battles between rival forces in Syria's civil war.

But last week's seizure of the strategic Quneitra border crossing by a mix of rebels, including the Nusra Front, Free Syrian Army fighters and others who expelled Assad's forces from the area and abducted 45 UN peacekeepers in the process has created an unprecedented situation that has brought the extremists to within just a few meters of Israeli positions.

The Syrian government is "not our cup of tea", said Gabi Kuniel, an Israeli who tends vineyards recently damaged by mortar shells when the violence spilled over to the Israeli-held side of the border in the Golan.

But "we prefer that the Syrian army controls this region and not a group of radical al-Qaeda Muslim people," he said on Wednesday, sitting behind a concrete structure near his fields to stay out of the line of fire.

As he spoke, heavy machine gunfire could be heard in the distance. Earlier, a plume of smoke rose from the Syrian side of the border fence.


For the past three years, Israelis in the Golan have had a relatively safe front seat view of the civil war as Syrian government forces battled rebels attempting to wrest control of the strategic area between Israel and Syria.

But now the Nusra Front and the other rebels are the new bosses there, moving around in camouflaged trucks and on foot with guns slung over their shoulders, in some cases just 50 meters (yards) away from Israeli military outposts and Israeli farmers' fields. Some Israelis are convinced it's a matter of time before the Islamic radicals set their sights on them, believing that attacking the Jewish state is part of their ideology.

"They'll come at us in the end, I have no doubt", said Yehiel Gadis, aged 56, peering through a small pair of binoculars at an Israeli lookout point across from Syria's Quneitra crossing.

"The entire Arab world is furious with us", said his friend, Yigal Bashan, aged 57.

The two men, who live in central Israel, were on a sightseeing trip in the region and were among some two dozen curiosity seekers who stopped at the lookout.

Israel captured the Golan, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel, in the 1967 Mideast war from Syria. It later annexed the area, a move that has never been recognised internationally.

Since the aftermath of the subsequent 1973 war, UN monitors have helped to enforce a stable truce and the area has been tense but generally quiet.


That started to change when the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011.

Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines of the war next door, quietly content to watch Assad's forces battle to a stalemate against the various rebel groups trying to oust him.

However, Israel has occasionally responded to mortar fire that spilled over the border, usually unintentionally, and is believed to have carried out several airstrikes on weapons shipments thought to be bound for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

As the rebels took over the border area last Wednesday, the Israeli army ordered Kuniel's 200 farmhands out of the fields for three days, forcing them to leave behind freshly picked fruit in vats to rot.

Then, mortar shells fell near the village of Merom Golan, setting large swaths of Kuniel's vineyards ablaze. The fires reduced some of Kuniel's vines to a crisp, giving a smoky taste to what remained of his plump grapes.

Those grapes were destined for some of the Golan Heights Winery's higher-end Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir bottlings, he said. Now they can be used only for cheaper wines, amounting to about $200 000 worth of damage, he estimated.

Israeli officials believe the Syrian rebels' sights are set, at least for now on battles within Syria, not on Israel. Nevertheless, the Nusra Front poses an unprecedented threat.

Aviv Oreg, former head of the al-Qaeda desk on the Israeli National Security Council, said the Nusra Front sees Israel as a "legitimate target".

He said that while the group is preoccupied with the fighting inside Syria, it is just a matter of time before it tries to strike Israel, since its fighters now "have direct access".

The Quneitra crossing was an important victory for the Nusra Front and the other rebels. It was the Syrian army's last stronghold in the Golan Heights and sits at the tip of the main access road to Damascus, the Syrian capital and the regime's headquarters.

The crossing also has symbolic significance, serving as the only portal to Israeli-held territory between enemy countries. While mostly closed, it opens to allow UN peacekeepers, Red Cross workers and Druse university students to cross back and forth.

Israeli defense officials estimate that a few thousand Syrian rebels are now positioned along the border in the Golan, with a few hundred in the Quneitra area, including the Nusra fighters.

When the rebels seized the crossing, they captured 45 UN peacekeepers from Fiji and trapped about 80 others from the Philippines.

The Filipino troops later fled to safety, while the Fijians remain in rebel captivity. The Philippines has since announced it will be withdrawing its troops from the UN peacekeeping force, known as UNDOF.

Stephane Cohen, a former Israeli military liaison with UNDOF, said the peacekeeping force is rapidly collapsing and can no longer serve its purpose of enforcing a truce between Israel and Syria. He said that as more countries pull out of the force, it is unlikely other armies will want to contribute troops in such an uncertain security environment.

The loss of UNDOF would be a blow to Israel and leave Israelis alone "in front of al-Qaeda", Cohen said. It would also undermine regional stability, he added, since the force has provided an important outlet for Israel and Syria to air their grievances.

"In Syria there are no good guys and bad guys", said Uzi Dayan, a former deputy military chief of staff. "There are bad guys, very bad guys and extremely bad guys."

VoxPopuli 2014/09/04 04:23:03 PM
Israel looking for limelight again.... No al Qaeda affiliate has ever attacked Israel, which is odd. Not even an Israeli embassy in a foreign country. If there's one thing that brings Muslims together doesn't matter if they're Sunni or Shiite or wahhabi's or alawite, it's their resentment for Israel, but al qaeda's not interested.
Andre Jacobs 2014/09/04 04:23:04 PM
Israel will have to start taking off the dust covers from those a-bombs--they will need it soon-Those rebel rockets will come flying shortly from hamas and Syria side. Obama is unlikely to hurt his rebel friends unless he is forced to, so they are on their own, unless a very unlikely friend (Germany) helps them. Good luck Israel.
Rakesh Panday 2014/09/04 04:45:12 PM
In other words, Israel is between crap and more crap. Hamas is going to seem like child's play compared to these maniacs. Didn't the US foresee this when they armed this maniac rebels to overthrow Assad?
James Uknow 2014/09/04 04:59:56 PM
even ISIS said they first need to extend their caliphate thruoghout the middle east before taking on Israel ,these alnustra guys arent dumb enougth to do this
Thulani Nkosi 2014/09/04 05:08:11 PM
Why worry about israel and the middle east in general? It's not like they give a damn about us. I'd rather focus on our problems.
Jabulani Nicholas Lushaba 2014/09/04 05:18:19 PM
Al Qaeda and all militants are formed by the US and Israel to do their dirty works, except for Hezbollah..... they control them, so no worries for Israel
Bob Van Wilder 2014/09/04 05:21:59 PM
Bye bye al qaeda good riddance to bad rubbish
Makhulu Zulu 2014/09/04 05:50:13 PM
You are so right Mr VoxPopuli. Makes you think doesn't it.
Makhulu Zulu 2014/09/04 05:54:44 PM
Ahh Semper. I think you very gullible.
Makhulu Zulu 2014/09/04 05:56:34 PM
And the UN school that was bombed even though they informed Israel over 30 times that they had civilian families in the shelter. Or maybe UN and Hamas are working together.