The observation post in Kuneitra on the Israeli Syrian border has become an attraction for Israelis who want to witness first hand how the Islamists of Jabhat-al-Nusra, a local branch of Al Qaeda, control the border.
When I arrived at Kuneitra this time, the place looked desolate. An Israeli border patrol and a Druze merchandiser were the only ones who watching what was happening on the other side of the border.
As I was about to ask the Druze some questions the sound of fighter planes became audible. A few moments later we saw two Syrian jets dropping bombs on buildings in the area controlled by al-Nusra. Loud explosions followed: slowly the silence returned. The only reminders of the strike were plumes of smoke in the distance.
The Druze didn’t seem too excited. He said that these strikes are an almost daily occurrence and that since al-Nusra took over the border area at the beginning of September the fighting has intensified.
Occasionally the violence spills over into Israel. UN observers of the UNDOF force appointed as peacekeepers in the border area have reported numerous interactions between Israeli troops and the rebel groups in Syria. The UN observers also reported numerous airstrikes on al-Nusra positions by Assad’s air force.
At the same time there are reports that Hezbollah is using the Syrian civil war to build up its terror infrastructure in the Golan Heights. Hezbollah has attacked IDF positions near Har Dov on several occasions this year. According to Ha’aretz analyst Amos Harel, who spoke to IDF commanders in the area, the Israeli army has detected a clear operational improvement in Hezbollah. Harel attributed this improvement to the fact that Hezbollah is openly involved in the Syrian war and its fighters are thus gaining combat experience.
There is however, another factor contributing to Hezbollah’s operational improvement. That was the appointment of Jihad Mugniyeh as commander of Hezbollah’s networks in the Golan area. Jihad Mugniyeh has a strong personal motivation for escalating the struggle against Israel. His father Imad was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus. It is widely believed that the Mossad was behind his assassination.
Another threat that is slowly approaching Israel is the Islamic State (IS). While IS has recently suffered some blows in the Kurdistan area in Syria and Iraq, the organization has now succeeded in establishing a foothold in western and southern Syria.
For example, since the beginning of December Islamic State fighters and Jabhat al-Nusra have clashed in the Qalamoun mountains close to the border with Lebanon.
Lebanese media are speculating that an attack is imminent on the Lebanese town of Arsal which was the scene of a battle between the Islamists and the Lebanese army earlier this year. A new attack on Arsal could be the beginning of a larger campaign against Lebanon.
The IDF meanwhile still sees Hezbollah as the greatest threat to Israel despite the fact that the movement’s resources have been stressed by the four year old conflict in Syria. For this reason the IDF has prevented the supply of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah on several occasions this year, most recently on December 8th when Israeli warplanes destroyed Russian made missiles and Iranian Fateh 110 rockets bound for Hezbollah.
Because of Hezbollah improvements and the increasing Islamist threats from Syria the IDF deployed a new armored division on the Golan Heights in February this year. This division, dubbed the 210th Regional Bashan Division is assisted by a recently created Combat Intelligence Collection battalion, active along the Syrian border, and by a new security fence complete with electro-optical surveillance means and radars.
On my way to Majdal Shams, the Druze city that sits on the slopes of Mount Hermon I noticed Bashan division’s Merkava tanks and artillery engaged in an exercise near the Syrian border.
After the Israeli victory in the Six Day War in 1967 when Majdal Shams became part of Israel the Druze in the village stayed loyal to Syria. But now something has changed. I spoke to several Druze men in the center of the city.
At first some of them supported the uprising against Assad, they said. This was because they hoped that a regime change would improve their chances to return to Syria one day.
But now they have changed their mind. They want to stay in Israel because they are extremely worried about a possible Islamist takeover of Syria. The Druze – who are not Muslims – know what they can expect when that happens because they have a long history of violent repression by Muslims.
The dramatic change in the situation of the Druze on the Golan Heights has also become visible on the ground. On my way back I saw a brand new Israeli mall in the village of Massade that houses a mix of Israeli chains and local Druze retailers.
This new found coexistence might be the only positive result of a war that has caused deterioration in nearly every aspect of life in the Golan Heights.