Syrian rebel offensive in Golan Heights jolts Israel
The Associated Press
QUNEITRA, Golan Heights — Syrian rebels briefly seized control of a border crossing along the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights on Thursday, prompting the withdrawal of a major Austrian peacekeeping contingent and heightening fears in Israel that it could soon be dragged into the neighboring country’s civil war.
From the Israeli side of the Golan, Syrian tanks and armored vehicles could be seen across the border. Large explosions could be heard throughout the day, and thick smoke and flames rose from the area. Israeli TV stations showed images of Israeli tourists flocking to the Golan to look across the frontier and gawk at the fighting.
Israeli troops along the border were on high alert, although the military said no special actions had been taken in response to the escalation.
By nightfall, the situation appeared to be quieting down. Israel’s deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, said forces remained on high alert, but no special actions had been taken.
“We are following very carefully what’s happening in Syria,” Danon told The Associated Press. “We will do whatever is necessary to protect the interests of Israel.”
Israel fears that Islamic militants who have joined the rebel ranks in trying to oust President Bashar Assad will turn their guns toward Israel if they topple the Syrian leader. Islamic groups are believed to be active in the fighting in the Golan area. Israel has also expressed concerns that Assad’s sophisticated weapons, could slip into the hands of hostile groups, including Assad’s ally, Hezbollah.
The Jewish state has kept a wary eye on the fighting next door since the conflict erupted in March 2011 and in recent months has been bolstering its forces in the area and reinforcing a fence along the frontier.
The rebels overran the border position near the abandoned town of Quneitra early Thursday, holding their positions for several hours before Syrian government troops retook it. The international peacekeepers who maintain a 40-year-old truce receive most of their supplies through that position from Israel.