Israelis worry with Syrian al-Qaida on doorstep

Rebels pushing into the disputed Golan Heights could engage neighbor to the south

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MEROM GOLAN, Golan Heights — For the first time in the Syr­ian civil war, al-Qaida 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-Qaida’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 — a long-dis­puted ter­ri­tory that marks the fron­tier be­tween the two coun­tries — 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, fight­ers of the Western-backed Free Syr­ian Army and oth­ers — has cre­ated an un­prece­dented sit­u­a­tion that has brought the ex­trem­ists to within just a few yards 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 stra­te­gic Golan Heights. But “we pre­fer that the Syr­ian army con­trols this re­gion, and not a group of rad­i­cal al-Qaida Muslim peo­ple,” he said 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 fron­tier 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 area. But now, the Nusra Front and the other reb­els move around in cam­ou­flaged trucks and on foot with guns slung over their shoul­ders, in some cases just 50 yards away from Is­raeli mil­i­tary out­posts and Is­raeli farm­ers’ fields. Some Is­rae­lis are convinced that it’s just a mat­ter of time be­fore the Islamic rad­i­cals set their sights on them.

Is­rael cap­tured the Golan, a pla­teau over­look­ing north­ern Is­rael, from Syria in the 1967 Mid­dle East war. It later an­nexed the area, a move that has never been rec­og­nized in­ter­na­tion­ally. Since the af­ter­math of the sub­se­quent 1973 war, U.N. mon­i­tors have helped to en­force a sta­ble truce, and the area has been tense but gen­er­ally quiet. That started to change when the Syr­ian up­ris­ing erupted in March 2011, and the fron­tier has grown more vol­a­tile as the con­flict has es­ca­lated into a com­plex and bloody civil war.

Is­rael has largely stayed on the Syr­ian war’s side­lines, qui­etly con­tent to see Mr. As­sad’s forces tied down by bat­tles with var­i­ous rebel groups try­ing to oust him. But 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.

Fight­ing re­sumed near the bor­der Thurs­day, with one Syr­ian army pro­jec­tile hit­ting the north­ern Golan Heights, ap­par­ently by mis­take, the Is­raeli mil­i­tary said. The mil­i­tary said it re­turned fire at a Syr­ian army po­si­tion, hit­ting it. There were no im­me­di­ate re­ports of ca­su­al­ties.

syria - israel - Asia - Middle East - Southeast Asia - Al-Qaida - Bashar Assad - Syria government - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Syrian armed forces - Philippines - Jabhat al-Nusra


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