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Reporter's notebook

Where soldiers wear jeans and rebels wear uniforms

It could be a rush of refugees, a terror attack, or an escalation of cross-border fire. On the Israeli side of the Golan Heights border, the IDF is braced for the worst

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

The Syrian side of the Golan Heights, baked yellow by the sun and striped with a thin line of sooty snow along the high ridge of Mount Hermon, appeared placid during a recent visit to the border region, where, on the Israeli side, war and the monotony of everyday life continue to interrupt one another.

“I’d call the situation we have here a stressful quiet,” said an officer serving in the division charged with protecting the Golan Heights.

The officer, who was not cleared to speak for attribution, led a tour of the northern Golan, beginning at the Quneitra crossing, where earlier in June a battle raged between Syrian rebels and government troops, and traveled south along the partially completed border fence. He detailed the fundamental changes in the army’s strategic planning along the border and the corresponding shift in the nature of its deployment.

The officer downplayed the likelihood of war being a mere several hours away, as the commander of the IAF stated in May, and said that the division’s primary concern is protecting against cross-border attacks, from both rebels and Syrian army regulars.

On clear days, soldiers stationed in the lookout on Mount Hermon can see the drab high-rise buildings on the outskirts of Damascus

The border with Syria, as opposed to the Hezbollah-held border with Lebanon, is geographically advantageous to Israel. The IDF controls the high ground along the length of the Golan Heights. On clear days, soldiers stationed in the lookout on Mount Hermon can see the drab high-rise buildings on the outskirts of Damascus. The hill-line, along the length of the Golan, held by an archipelago of IDF positions, dominates the Syrian territory to the east. But ever since the Syrian civil war began in earnest in March 2011, the nature of the threat has changed.

Today, after three reportedly Israeli strikes in Syria and the regime’s vows to retaliate against any further Israeli actions – perhaps by farming out its response to Hezbollah or some other terror organization eager to engage Israel in guerrilla warfare – the primary threat is no longer columns of tanks advancing toward the Sea of Galilee; instead, the officer said, the division is mostly concerned with a bull rush of civilian refugees charging across the border, as happened in May 2011; a complex terror attack that leads to an escalation; or a curved trajectory attack of mortars, artillery or missiles.

The tour took place not long after Syrian regime forces, fighting alongside Hezbollah fighters, pried the strategically significant town of Qusayir from rebel hands and just a few days before Tuesday’s US-Russia-UN meeting regarding a still-unscheduled peace summit for Syria.

A section of Israel's new border fence, as seen from the Syrian side of the barrier (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
A section of Israel’s new border fence, as seen from the Syrian side of the barrier (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Our first stop was at the Quneitra crossing. An IDF officer stationed at the only pathway between Israel and Syria opened the sliding metal gate and escorted several officers, soldiers and journalists a few feet beyond the barrier. The 15-foot-high fence, covered from top to bottom with concertina wire, looked formidable, and the large swaths of blackened earth around the Syrian town of Quneitra were clearly the result of recent battles, but the officer stationed at the crossing chose to begin with the mundane: apples.

This year, despite the war, he said, Druze residents of the Golan Heights sold a record of 14,600 tons of apples to Syria. Having read stories of hours-long bread lines in Syria and schools ransacked for firewood in winter – not to mention the Druze growers themselves, who have spoken of trying to sell apples to Jordan and the Gulf states — I asked how there could possibly be a demand for a luxury fruit east of the border, where the civil war, which is well into its third year, has claimed upwards of 90,000 lives. “It’s a signal to a population that has remained loyal to the regime,” the officer said, contending that Bashar Assad’s regime had bought the greatest quantity of Israeli Golan apples, at the highest price since the program began nine years ago, in order to concretely display its loyalty to the Druze on both sides of the border.

Not addressing the recent reports of Golan Heights Druze who settled in Syria and are now seeking repatriation, the officer said that there are currently 42 Druze students from the Israeli Golan Heights living temporarily in Syria, all studying in Damascus, where, he said, life still adheres to a rather domesticated routine. “The dangers are on the roads in and out of the capital,” he said, noting that the students are set to return for the summer, and perhaps for good, on July 10.

The officer has also witnessed several heartbreaking divorces. In one case, he said, a Syrian woman, a new mother, unhappily married to a man from the Israeli Druze town of Majdal Shams, was persuaded to cross back to Syria to visit her family without her child. Only when she crossed over into Syrian territory and tried to run back to Israel did she realize that after leaving she would need to re-apply for an entry visa, which, the officer said, would likely never come. Calling the scene “something out of a Turkish movie,” the officer said that had the baby been present at the border crossing, “I would have taken the baby out of their hands and given him to the mother.”

Instead, he had to watch the woman make the short trek home, past the UN office and toward the Syrian position perhaps two hundred yards away, a casualty of war and family politics.

The road from Israel to the UN position and Syria beyond (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
The road from Israel to the UN position and Syria beyond (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Only after detailing that story did the officer turn to the war. On June 6, when rebel fighters launched an attack on Quneitra, an insignificant position in terms of arms traffic but powerful in terms of prestige and symbolism – the position marks the beginning of the main road to Damascus – he said the soldiers at the crossing could not tell what was happening through the billowing smoke.

“The only way we knew the rebels had taken the post was when they raised the Free Syrian flag,” he said, noting that the rebel flag resembled the current Syrian flag but with the addition of a green stripe along the top.

The rebels, who only managed to hold the position for several hours, he said, were not Islamists like those in the southern Golan and did not fly the black-and-white Jabhat-al-Nusra banner or those of its kind.

The UNDOF peacekeepers, fearing abduction or death, abandoned their post and requested permission to enter Israel. The IDF, after admitting them, set fire to the thorns along the fence, in order to deprive the flames of fuel, and focused its attention on surveillance from afar – so as to avoid unnecessary conflagration if a stray round struck a soldier.

The Quneitra border crossing during a recent visit (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
The Quneitra border crossing during a recent visit (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

He noted that often it is hard to tell the government and rebel forces apart. “It’s all mixed up here. Sometimes the [Syrian] army wears jeans and the rebels wear uniforms,” he said.

In Quneitra though, the Syrian army eventually deployed five tanks and five armed personnel carriers, which advanced into the buffer zone and triggered a rapid Israeli response. “We passed on a message to the UN liaison, saying that if the weapons turned toward us we would know how to respond,” the officer said.

The two pillars of Israel’s border defense are a new barrier and an enhanced surveillance capacity

Several hours later the Assad government troops reclaimed the position and, on the recent bright blue-skied day of our visit, the Syrian flagged flapped merrily in the wind.

South of Quneitra, at the Tel Hazeka lookout post above the Syrian villages of Bir Ajam and Breika, both of which are held by rebel forces, the officer who led the tour discussed the IDF’s deployment.

He described a border guarded by elite conscripted IDF troops from the Nahal Brigade’s recon unit and from the artillery corps’ Meitar unit, who operate guided anti-tank missiles, along with a company of tanks – a stark departure from the previous four decades, during which reservists patrolled the border. And he indicated that the two pillars of border defense are a new barrier and a significantly enhanced surveillance capacity.

“In the past, our primary threat was the Syrian army,” he said. “We knew it very well: when they wake up, what their days look like, the formation of their troop deployment.”

Today, he said, the primary danger, as far as his division is concerned, is of infiltration.

Therefore, the surveillance teams along the Syrian border, he said, were the first to receive what the army calls a “multiple-sensor system” – a newly operational mechanism that synchronizes an array of radar and optical findings into one concrete warning. “It’s a huge advance,” he said. “It’s the only one in the country.”

The border fence itself, which is still under construction and is similar to that along Israel’s southern border with Egypt, is dug deep into the ground. “The old one,” the officer said, “could be knocked over with one kick and easily crossed with a ladder.” The new one is protected by an anti-personnel ditch, is impassable to throngs of people, and is strong enough to detonate an incoming anti-tank missile before it reaches its target.

He acknowledged, however, that the army regularly exposes itself to danger when treating wounded Syrians. “If we see someone injured near the fence, we’re not going to ignore it,” he said, noting that medics can treat the wounded in the field. Those in need of further attention can be treated at an army position beyond the fence but shy of the border – “it’s a post, not a field hospital,” he said — where doctors can administer basic care. Patients in need of more intensive treatment in a hospital can be transferred to Israel, but only with the personal authorization of the IDF Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.

Looking out at the rebel-controlled villages, where local women loyal to the regime now wash the rebels’ clothes, he pointed to a third story window under a flat red-tiled roof and explained how a Syrian tank had recently fired at the window and unintentionally sent a tank round roaring into Israel. If it’s unintentional fire, Israel will not respond, he said. “All we do is watch and learn.”

For now, he maintained, with the Israeli Golan tourist industry still thriving, the war has “remained a sort of tourist attraction” for most Israelis. But the quiet is brittle and misleading and, as Gantz recently warned a graduating class of the IDF’s field officers, “the situation these days is characterized by only one very very stable element – its instability.”

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