A SPILL OVER INTO ISRAEL
JERUSALEM — Rebels fighting the Syrian government on Thursday seized control of the only border crossing operated by United Nations peacekeeping forces along the Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line in the Golan Heights, according to the Israeli military and rebel forces. Israeli forces were placed on alert in the sensitive and disputed area as the violence of the civil war threatened to spill over into Israeli-held territory.
It was not clear if the rebels would be able to hold the Quneitra crossing for long. The Israeli military declared the Israeli side of the crossing a closed military zone and ordered farmers to stay out of fields near the cease-fire line, apparently anticipating more conflict between Syrian government forces and the rebels.
A rebel force declared on its Facebook page, “The heroes of the Liberation of Quneitra Front, in collaboration with the heroes of al-Mutasem bi-Allah brigade, have liberated the border crossing with Israel,” and claimed to have “inflicted overwhelming losses” on the Syrian government forces and to have destroyed four of their tanks. It added that the operation was led jointly by the Liberation of Quneitra Front and the Mutasem bi-Allah Brigade.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group based in Britain, reported on Thursday morning that “a campaign of simultaneous attacks” was under way against government checkpoints in the province of Quneitra. It added, “Several areas along the border with the occupied Golan are getting shelled by regime forces as fierce clashes rage in the village of Qahtaniya which is adjacent to the old town of Quneitra.”
An Israeli military official said that two mortar shells had already landed in open areas on the Israeli side of the frontier in the course of the fighting that morning.
“We’re watching the border carefully and are ready for any eventuality,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under military orders. He described the situation as “fluid.”
The Israeli military also confirmed that two injured Syrians had reached Israeli forces at the frontier and had been taken for treatment at a hospital in northern Israel. Israel Radio reported that the trauma unit at the hospital in Safed had to be temporarily evacuated after staff found a live fragmentation grenade in the pocket of one of the Syrians. A bomb disposal unit was brought in to deal with the grenade and afterward the staff continued to treat the fighter, the radio said.
Israel has repeatedly declared that it has no intention of getting involved in the Syrian civil war but that it will act to protect its own interests. Israel’s minister of defense, Moshe Yaalon, said this week that Israel would not tolerate the transfer of advanced weapons from the Syrian government to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia; a loss of Syrian government control over chemical weapons; or a heating up of the Golan frontier and a spillover of fire into Israeli-held territory.
Tensions have risen between Israel and Syria after three airstrikes on Syrian soil this year that targeted advanced weapons and were attributed to Israel.
There have been numerous instances of fire spilling over into the Israeli-held Golan Heights. The Israeli military said that much of it was assumed to be stray fire. But last month, Syria acknowledged it had intentionally attacked an Israeli target, a military vehicle that was shot at as it patrolled the cease-fire line. Syria said the jeep had crossed into its territory on the Golan Heights, which Israel denied.
In that instance and others, Israeli tanks have fired back several times at Syrian positions.
President Bashar al-Assad warned recently that Syria would retaliate against Israel for any further airstrikes and said that he was under popular pressure to open a new front against Israel in the Golan Heights.
Israel has beefed up its forces there in recent months and has been constructing a sturdy fence along the frontier.
The Quneitra crossing is run by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force that was set up in 1974 to monitor the cease-fire line and buffer zone established between Israel and Syria after the 1973 war.
As well as United Nations personnel, the crossing is used by members of the 20,000-strong Druse community of the Israeli-held Golan Heights who are Syrian citizens and travel to Syria to study or marry. Druse apple farmers also ship their crops to Syria via the crossing. Officials of the observer force had no immediate comment on Thursday morning.
Israel seized a portion of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war and later effectively annexed the strategic plateau, which commands northern Israel and its main water sources.
Israel and Syria are still technically at war but the quiet that has prevailed for decades along the frontier has allowed Israel to develop the area as a military arena and a tourist destination. The wild and rocky terrain is also home to up to 20,000 Israeli Jews in more than 30 settlements although Israel’s annexation of the area has not been internationally recognized.
Jodi Rudoren contributed reporting from northern Israel, and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon.