The green and white flag fluttering above a border checkpoint not far from the Ein Zivan kibbutz on a recent afternoon symbolized the new reality that has taken hold for Israelis who live on the Golan Heights: Islamist rebels now control areas of Syria on the very doorstep of Israeli-controlled land.
For now, the groups, which include al-Qaida’s Nusra Front, are focused on consolidating their positions and pushing toward the Syrian capital, Damascus. But there are worries in Israel that once the Islamist militants establish control, they will turn their guns toward the Israeli-held sector of the Golan.
“Right now it’s not on their agenda, but it’s inevitable,” said Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University.
Just how big a threat the rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad are to Israel remains an open topic. Israel has tried to remain aloof from the war in Syria, except to blast Syrian government convoys from the air that Israeli officials feared were transferring sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, Israel’s Lebanese nemesis. Israel’s reaction even to the beheading by the Islamic State of American journalist Steven Sotloff, who held Israeli citizenship, was muted; officials explained they didn’t want to become embroiled in the conflict.
But with the capture Aug. 27 of the Syrian side of the Quneitra border crossing, Islamist rebels now occupy land adjacent to the Israeli section of the strategic plateau, changing the calculus of concern. Despite attempts by the Syrian army to reassert control, the rebels have captured more villages near the Israeli-held Golan, raising the prospect that the frontier area will become a stronghold of Islamist groups.
“Israel might be literally the front (line) of the West toward the radical Islamic movements … if they succeed in taking control on the Golan Heights,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser.
Military officials say they are watching carefully for the development of new threats on the other side. Israel has built a new fence, backed by a network of surveillance cameras, to prevent infiltration. Still, some analysts said they believed it is just a matter of time before Nusra and other Islamist groups on the Golan start carrying out attacks across the frontier fence.
Yoram Schweitzer, a research fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, noted that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri has spoken of using Syria as a staging ground for a “holy war” against Israel. “Liberating Jerusalem is part of this vision,” and the Nusra Front “is part of it,” he said.
But the timing of that threat is the subject of debate. Al-Qaida ideology speaks of “delaying the battle until the time is right,” Schweitzer noted, and an Israeli official who monitors events in Syria voiced a similar assessment.
“Is the Nusra Front a threat to Israel? Yes. Is it imminent? Not necessarily,” he said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.
“There is a new reality, but I don’t know whether it poses an immediate danger,” he added. “It’s more long term, and right now it is not a strategic threat. They have a lot to lose from a confrontation with Israel, and they understand that it has deterrent capabilities. But they are less predictable because they are a non-state actor.”
The Nusra Front seized a group of 45 Fijian United Nations peacekeepers stationed between the Israeli and Syrian lines on the Golan last month, holding them for two weeks. After initially making demands for their release, the Islamist faction freed them unconditionally, apparently after intervention by Qatar, which is thought to have influence over the Nusra Front.
The U.N. said Monday that it had withdrawn its peacekeepers from many positions on the Syrian side of the Golan to Israeli-held territory because of escalating hostilities between government and opposition forces.
Israel captured the area from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War and later annexed it, a move that was not recognized internationally. In the decades after, a tense peace enveloped the region. Now when fighting flares up on the Syrian side of the Golan, explosions and plumes of smoke from battles can be seen from Israeli army outposts and farming settlements in the area.
On a recent afternoon, rows of tents housing refugees from the fighting were pitched on the outskirts of a Syrian village, near the fence marking the Israeli-held Golan. It appeared that the area, in proximity to Israeli lines, was deliberately chosen to provide protection from Syrian army attacks.
At the Pelter Winery in Ein Zivan, Tal Pelter, one of the owners, pointed out a building that had been hit by a stray Syrian tank shell a few days earlier. The damaged roof and twisted girders were still visible, but in an adjacent building work continued as usual, with bunches of newly harvested grapes fed by conveyor belt into a wine press machine.
After stray mortar shells from Syria fell in apple orchards and vineyards nearby, the army warned farmers to stay away. On a few occasions, incoming shells set off warning sirens in local settlements, forcing residents to take shelter.
“It’s raised the anxiety level, people keep their kids closer to home and under supervision,” said Tomer Lahav, an Ein Zivan resident who serves in the local security team. “The kids don’t run around like they used to.”
But Natalie Chen, another kibbutz resident, said she was not keeping her three children, ages 6 to 11, closer to home. “They come and go freely, but they’ve been told what to do if a siren goes off,” she said. “The daily routines continue.”
Chen said she was not particularly troubled by the turmoil across the frontier, though she said communal shelters had been readied at Ein Zivan in case the situation worsened.
“It’s uncomfortable knowing that there are extremist groups across the border instead of a government you can talk to,” Chen acknowledged.
But she added: “We’re not the issue now, we don’t interest them, and they’re fighting among themselves. There is spillover here, but they’re not aiming at us and we don’t feel under attack.
“We have no control over what goes on there, so there’s no point in getting all worked up about it,” she added, inviting visitors to help themselves to some freshly harvested apples in a large wooden crate on a lawn.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.