Amid The Buzz Of Daily Life Near The Syrian Border, Fear Of Becoming The Sderot Of The North
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Letters From Israel

Amid The Buzz Of Daily Life Near The Syrian Border, Fear Of Becoming The Sderot Of The North

In Israeli towns on Israel's northern border, fears of becoming an easy target of Iran.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

Katzrin, Israel — Assad releases chemicals. Trump strikes. Israelis clean.

The bomb shelters here in this northern Israel town are tidy and ready for use.

“We have checked electricity and water in shelters, and cleaned them,” local security chief Avi Lugassi told me the other day in his office.

It’s hard to reconcile what you see, a pretty and quiet town, with the reality that this is now the doorstep of Iranian power. It is less than 10 miles from here to the border with Syria.

The town of Douma, where innocents choked to death from chemical gasses reportedly released by the regime of Bashar Assad, is 57 miles as the crow flies. Or for a more eerie way to sum up the distance, 57 miles for the residual particles of a chemical gas attack to one day waft towards Israel.

Syrian soldiers extinguish a fire in the wreckage of a building described as part of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) compound north of Damascus. It was part of the damage incurred this month during U.S., British and French strikes against the Syrian regime in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack.
Getty Images

Tzila Peled watched the shocking images of the April 4 chemical attack, fearing that such chemicals could be used to target Israelis. “If they can do it there, they can do it anywhere,” she said.

But as Syria continues to heat up, with tensions growing between the Damascus regime and its friends Russia and Iran versus America, Israel and their allies, it’s not only the specter of chemicals that worries Katzrin residents. This could potentially become the Sderot of the north.

Everybody here knows the Sderot story all too well — the town in southern Israel where rocket fire from the nearby Gaza Strip, courtesy of Hamas, has become a way of life. “If they do it from Gaza with missiles targeting Israeli civilians, it’s waiting to happen in the Golan as well,” said salesman Doron Rauch.

“If they can do it there,” Katzrin resident Tzila Peled said of the chemical attack in Syria, “they can do it anywhere.” Nathan Jeffay/JW

Lugassi wouldn’t say exactly what scenarios he is preparing for, but he did hint that locals residents know only part of the story. “We don’t want to put people into panic,” he said.

It has been 20 years since residents here faced rockets, and back then it was from Lebanon, not Syria. The landscape looks very different today, with a different class of weapons facing Israel’s northern borders and both Syria and Lebanon today playgrounds for Iranian megalomaniacs, via their proxies Assad and Hezbollah. (Israel, it is believed, has hit at some of those targets, fearful of an Iranian beachhead.)

This is a community where, despite the buzz of normal life, many walk around with an added weight from living close to tragedy. A woman helping customers in the bookshop told me how she had collected clothing and food for those over the border.

I encountered one man, however, who appeared convinced that the accounts of tragedy in Syria aren’t quite what they seem. Syrian President Bashar Assad isn’t the aggressor that the likes of Trump are claiming, said Rezi Gurzadin. “He’s a doctor, not a man who would do something like that,” Gurzadin insisted, referring to the chemical attack.

Syrian Army soldiers advancing in an area on the eastern outskirts of Douma, April 8, 2018. JTA

Gurzadin runs a lively kiosk where the residents of Jewish Katzrin come to drink coffee and buy lottery tickets; he commutes here daily from his home in the Golan village of Mas’ade, but despite his Druze community’s friendly relationship with Israeli Jews, many express loyalty to Assad.

Last week, close to here, there was even a rally in support of Assad; the news agency AFP estimated that 500 people participated. Syrian flags were waved as people chanted that Assad works against terror and held his picture.

Gurzadin was born in Syria, or more precisely, born here in the Golan Heights before 1967 when it was part of Syria. His family was divided as the result of the 1967 war, with him living under Israel while relations remained in Syria.

This is the story of many of the 20,000 Druze in the Golan, and until now it has made strategic sense for them to show solidarity to Assad. After all, there were discussions over the years about returning the Golan to Syria, and if this were to have panned out there would have been great suffering for a minority that opposed the regime. Also, their expressions of solidarity against Israel are thought to buy a degree of protection for their relations in Syria.

If we see intense conflict here that involves Syria as part of the Iranian axis against Israel, Golan Druze like Gurzadin will find themselves facing some difficult dilemmas in expressing and explaining their loyalties.

Katzrin residents tend to agree about the nature of the Assad regime and the seriousness of the threats to Israel across the border. They do have very different views, however, about the international arena.

Before the chemical attack, President Trump said that he wanted to move U.S. troops out of Syria. Trump’s attack has made a quick exit harder, but it’s unclear how long America will stay. Israel is keen for U.S. troops to remain there as a restraint on Iranian power, and France is pressuring Trump hard to remain involved.

For Shirel Slapak, a 37-year-old secretary, it’s academic. “I don’t think it makes such a difference if the U.S. is there,” she said confidently. But Tzila Peled, who was worried about chemical weapons being unleashed against Israel, wants the U.S. to remain in Syria for as long as possible. She said: “When the Americans are there, I feel safer.”

Mixed in with all the emotions and opinions in Katzrin, I encountered a sense of bemusement.

People here have been looking towards the border daily, for years, and thinking about horrors taking place on the other side. But among politicians and journalists internationally, there’s a massive variation in the extent of attention that Syrian civilians receive.

People are killed daily and news is buried inside newspapers, while chemical weapons are unleashed and suddenly it’s front-page news and dominating the diplomatic agenda.

So while one man, Ares Astamk, told me that a chemical attack “changes everything” because it can “destroy the whole region,” others question the whole idea of chemicals being a red line.

Lugassi, the local security chief, said: “It’s very strange. One conventional bomb does more damage than the chemical attack. Around half a million people have been killed by the war, a small number by chemicals.

“There are killings of children and adults all the time, and we always knew Assad had chemical weapons,” he said. Lugassi characterized the U.S. strike as little more than “lip service” and commented: “To stop this you need to stop conventional weapons, not just chemicals.”

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.

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