Tel Aviv — As is customary on Passover in Israel, vacationers streamed northward to the Golan Heights, renting bed-and-breakfast cabins and taking in the strategic plateau’s rugged wide-open beauty.
But the holiday tourism crowd belied rising chaos just across Israel’s border with Syria, as rebel groups continued to battle the Syrian army for control of villages and towns along the frontier — and fears mount on the Israeli side of growing spillover and a power vacuum.
After nearly four decades of being one of the quietest Arab-Israeli borders, the Syrian areas surrounding the Golan Heights have become a potential flashpoint for random militant violence. That has the army worried and preparing to retaliate, even as it tries to remain on the sidelines of the conflict.
In a fresh incident of spillover, a mortar shell from Syria landed on the Israeli side of the border and an Israel Defense Forces patrol jeep came under fire on Tuesday evening. The errant mortar came just hours after Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon toured the border area and vowed to respond to any fire emanating from Syria — as the IDF did last week. Israel did just that later on Tuesday.
“We have no intention of continuing with business as usual when there is fire from Syria at Israeli territory — whether intentionally or not,” the defense minister said on Wednesday. “As far as we’re concerned, the Syrian regime is responsible for everything that occurs in its territory.”
For decades, Israel’s government (and Golan Heights residents) relied on their sworn enemy to maintain a quiet border even though the Damascus regime has been a close ally of Iran and Hezbollah. But now that the Assad regime has lost control of wide swaths of the country, it is increasingly unrealistic and awkward for Israel to pin responsibility solely on the government in Damascus, say analysts.
As the border has destabilized, Israel has quietly bolstered its troop deployments with regular forces instead of reservists, upgraded its border fence to prevent infiltration, and even started mulling establishing a security zone inside Syria to defend the Golan. Meanwhile, IDF generals have warned of potentially harsh retaliation against militant groups who launch cross-border terror attacks like shootings that occurred on Israel’s border with Egypt.
The army has also started a modest effort to give humanitarian relief. Though Israel’s policy is not to take in refugees, the IDF says that it has deployed more medical teams to the border area to handle Syrian rebels seeking Israeli medical treatment. The move suggests that Israel may be trying to signal to the rebels about a desire to cooperate after the fall of Assad, while showing the international community that it is not indifferent to Syrian suffering.
“A senior official in the political-security establishment said to me yesterday with a smile that he had toured the Golan Heights with his family on Passover,” wrote Shimon Shiffer in Yediot Ahronot. “Who knows, maybe this is the last time that one could visit there quietly, without worrying about endangering one’s family.”
Much of the border region on the Syrian side is now controlled by militant groups, said Bernadetta Berti, an expert at Tel Aviv University’s Institute of National Security Studies. The volatility has even clouded the four-decades-old mission of the United Nations peacekeeping force — which patrols a demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria but has had several members kidnapped in the last month.
“[The Golan border] is not a stronghold of the regime, that’s for sure. Increasingly more and more areas of Syria are contested,” she said.
Berti said that she doesn’t expect the occasional mortar fire across the border to blow up into a full-fledged war with Israel, because the sides in Syria are more focused on their internal conflict rather than targeting the Jewish state.
That said, there is a higher chance for isolated terror attacks by fringe militant groups, like several deadly strikes carried out in 2011 and 2012 by armed men in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula against Israel.
“It’s just a particularly rocky period,” Berti said. “There’s integrated regional instability, and Israel is kind of bracing for it.”
Nevertheless, those in the Golan tourism industry insisted the new instability did not affect tourism in a noticeable way over Passover. Even though the fighting is sometimes within earshot of border communities in the Golan, the violence still seems remote enough that Israelis continue to flock there. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, Time Out Israel even published a section dedicated to Golan tourism.
“It was packed all of Passover,” said Marla Von Meter, a resident of Kibbutz Afik who works in tourism. Though Von Meter said there was no vacancy at Afik’s luxury cabins and spa, she does get questions about how close the Syrian fighting is to the facility.
“They said, ‘Do you feel anything. Are you scared?’ This is probably more scary than any internal threat we had of the government making a peace deal with Syria. These rebels are worse than the regime for us. Assad and his son, as awful as they might be, they knew not to mess with us.”
The Golan Heights has always offered Israeli tourists vistas into Syria. Now those lookouts provide a long-distance perch for curiosity seekers to peer at the civil war. Occasionally smoke can be seen billowing from Syrian villages along the border.
Von Meter says she takes groups to the border at the southern tip of the Golan to peer at the intersection of the Israel-controlled Golan Heights, Syria and Jordan. Others stop at the Quneitra border crossing that is run by the UN.
At Kibbutz Alonei Habashan — whose fields run right up to the border and has been hit by a mortar shell — the kibbutz secretary in recent months ordered the gate closed at night. But tourism managers say rooms have been near full capacity. The flow of tourists is not driven by solidarity, but by Israeli’s love for the rugged region, said Atara Rabi, a tourism director on the kibbutz.
“On quiet days, we take people up to the lookout points,” she said, referring to spots with views of the hotly contested village of Bir Ajam. “There are some days that we know that fighting is going on, and there’s nothing we can do.”