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Israelis worry with Syrian al-Qaida on doorstep


By DANIEL ESTRIN
Associated Press

MEROM GOLAN, Golan Heights (AP) -- For the first time in the Syrian civil war, al-Qaida fighters are hunkered down on Israel's doorstep, and Israelis in the lush, hilly Golan Heights who have long considered Syrian President Bashar Assad their bitter foe are now worried about something more ominous - that they could become the militants' next target.

The push into the Golan by the Nusra Front, as al-Qaida's branch in Syria is known, comes just two weeks after Israel ended a 50-day war against Hamas on its southern border with the Gaza Strip, giving the conflict-weary nation another cause for concern.

Israelis in the Golan have grown accustomed to hearing the sound of distant battles between rival forces in Syria's civil war.

But last week's seizure of the strategic Quneitra border crossing by the Nusra Front fighters who expelled Assad's forces from the area - and abducted 45 U.N. peacekeepers in the process - has created an unprecedented situation that has brought the extremists to within just a few meters (yards) of Israeli positions.

The Syrian government is "not our cup of tea," said Gabi Kuniel, an Israeli who tends vineyards recently damaged by mortar shells when the violence spilled over to the Israeli-held side of the border in the Golan.

But "we prefer that the Syrian army controls this region and not a group of radical al-Qaida Muslim people," he said Wednesday, sitting behind a concrete structure near his fields to stay out of the line of fire.

As he spoke, a plume of smoke rose from the Syrian side of the border fence, and heavy machine gunfire could be heard in the distance.

Rebels, Syrian Troops Battle in Golan Heights

For the past three years, Israelis in the Golan have had a relatively safe front seat view of the civil war as Syrian government forces battled rebels attempting to wrest control of the strategic area between Israel and Syria.

But now the Nusra Front fighters are the new bosses there, moving around in camouflaged trucks and on foot with guns slung over their shoulders, in some cases just 50 meters (yards) away from Israeli military outposts and Israeli farmers' fields. Some Israelis are convinced it's a matter of time before the Islamic radicals set their sights on them, believing that attacking the Jewish state is part of their ideology.

"They'll come at us in the end, I have no doubt," said Yehiel Gadis, 56, peering through a small pair of binoculars at an Israeli lookout point across from Syria's Quneitra crossing.

"The entire Arab world is furious with us," said his friend, Yigal Bashan, 57.

The two men, who live in central Israel, were on a sightseeing trip in the region and were among some two dozen curiosity seekers who stopped at the lookout.

Israel captured the Golan, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel, in the 1967 Mideast war from Syria. It later annexed the area, a move that has never been recognized internationally. Since the aftermath of the subsequent 1973 war, U.N. monitors have helped to enforce a stable truce and the area has been tense but generally quiet.

That started to change when the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011.

Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines of the war next door, quietly content to watch Assad's forces battle to a stalemate against the various rebel groups trying to oust him. However, Israel has occasionally responded to mortar fire that spilled over the border, usually unintentionally, and is believed to have carried out several airstrikes on weapons shipments thought to be bound for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

As the Nusra Front took over the border area last Wednesday, the Israeli army ordered Kuniel's 200 farmhands out of the fields for three days, forcing them to leave behind freshly picked fruit in vats to rot.

Then, mortar shells fell near the village of Merom Golan, setting large swaths of Kuniel's vineyards ablaze. The fires reduced some of Kuniel's vines to a crisp, giving a smoky taste to what remained of his plump grapes.

Those grapes were destined for some of the Golan Heights Winery's higher-end Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir bottlings, he said. Now they can be used only for cheaper wines - amounting to about $200,000 worth of damage, he estimated.

Israeli officials believe the Syrian rebels' sights are set - at least for now - on battles within Syria, not on Israel. Nevertheless, the Nusra Front poses an unprecedented threat.

Oviv Oreg, former head of the al-Qaida desk on the Israeli National Security Council, said the Nusra Front sees Israel as a "legitimate target." He said that while the group is preoccupied with the fighting inside Syria, it is just a matter of time before it tries to strike Israel, since its fighters now "have direct access."

The Quneitra crossing was an important victory for the Nusra Front. It was the Syrian army's last stronghold in the Golan Heights and sits at the tip of the main access road to Damascus, the Syrian capital and the regime's headquarters.

The crossing also has symbolic significance, serving as the only portal to Israeli-held territory between enemy countries. While mostly closed, it opens to allow U.N. peacekeepers, Red Cross workers and Druse university students to cross back and forth.

Israeli defense officials estimate that a few thousand Syrian rebels are now positioned along the border in the Golan, with a few hundred in the Quneitra area, including the Nusra fighters.

When the rebels seized the crossing, they captured 45 U.N. peacekeepers from Fiji and trapped about 80 others from the Philippines. The Filipino troops later fled to safety, while the Fijians remain in rebel captivity. The Philippines has since announced it will be withdrawing its troops from the U.N. peacekeeping force, known as UNDOF.

Stephane Cohen, a former Israeli military liaison with UNDOF, said the peacekeeping force is rapidly collapsing and can no longer serve its purpose of enforcing a truce between Israel and Syria. He said that as more countries pull out of the force, it is unlikely other armies will want to contribute troops in such an uncertain security environment.

The loss of UNDOF would be a blow to Israel and leave Israelis alone "in front of al-Qaida," Cohen said. It would also undermine regional stability, he added, since the force has provided an important outlet for Israel and Syria to air their grievances.

"In Syria there are no good guys and bad guys," said Uzi Dayan, a former deputy military chief of staff. "There are bad guys, very bad guys and extremely bad guys."

More in the news:
UK, US leaders in joint Time of London editorial: We will not be 'cowed' by extremists
MH17 preliminary report to be published Tuesday
Biden: We'll follow terrorists to 'gates of hell'
Sotloff family speaks: 'This week we mourn ... but we will emerge from this ordeal'
Al-Qaida says it has expanded into India

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
d.hertz3 September 04 2014 at 7:30 AM

I wonder if the bigots will be ok with Israel defending itself against Al Qaeda?
My guess is there will be post after post about the "innocent Al Qaeda civilians" who are being "murdered by those big mean Israeli bullies".

Flag Reply +80 rate up
12 replies
Sue September 04 2014 at 7:28 AM

At least Israel has a man at the helm, not like the muslim loving wuss that we have. I just hope the U.S. will survive until we can get him out of office. NEVER AGAIN!!!

Flag Reply +60 rate up
23 replies
dbear4u2 September 04 2014 at 7:03 AM

Don't worry, Barry is formulating a strategy. I think it is how to keep the democrats in power until he leaves office. Oh, you are worried about ISIS, he will address that after his next round of golf, maybe.

Flag Reply +44 rate up
5 replies
chrlbrw1122 September 04 2014 at 7:34 AM

Israel will survive without Obozos help. He keeps saying he stands with Israel, but in fact he is with his Muslim brothers. We need to stand with Israel.

Flag Reply +43 rate up
12 replies
kiick23 September 04 2014 at 8:40 AM

Israel be careful fighting Alqada and Isis. If you fight back too hard John Kerry will call you dispicable, Barry Obama will demand you stop defending yourself, Jimmy Carter will stump for Isis and Nancy Pelosi will announce her very good Arab friends have told her Alqada and Isis are really humanitarian groups. Not all Americans care about Israel but for those of us who do this American president and his administration have been a kiss of death for the tiny surrounded Jewish state.

Flag Reply +38 rate up
9 replies
cptsujet September 04 2014 at 6:54 AM

I'm sure the Israeli's can take care of their border. Isis would be stupid to mess with them.

Flag Reply +38 rate up
2 replies
Carole cptsujet September 04 2014 at 10:48 AM

Israel is now fighting several barbaric terrorist groups: Hamas, Al-Quada and ISSIS not far behind. All are united by their hatred of Israel, the total disregard for human life fueled by radical ideology . The survival of the State of Israel is paramount to the survival of all democracies.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
Ray cptsujet September 04 2014 at 2:16 PM

Bring it on ISIS. Israel (God's right hand) will destroy you quicker than a sparrow can fly three feet! America could take a lesson from Israel. Obama is hanging onto the coat tails of Britains Cameron. Man or we in trouble. Obama is worried about the "good muslims." Why don't the good Muslims speak out against their barbaric brothers!!!! The good ones are totally SILIENT!! No more passports!

Flag Reply +1 rate up
mark9mm September 04 2014 at 7:27 AM

Israel has "the bomb" and if ISIS does attack I sure hope they WILL USE IT

Flag Reply +38 rate up
8 replies
jltjt9 September 04 2014 at 7:32 AM

John Lynn Terry

We live in frightening times. Israel has reason to worry. We all do.

But there is a lot to worry about in the world of men.

From Isis locally and of course Fukushima Japan and her three melted nuclear reactors which has been spewing hundreds of tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean each and every days since March of 2011 and no one knows how to stop it. Killing of course the life in the ocean. Where our Oxygen comes from.

Then there is the Russian and Ukraine conflict.

Riots in the streets of America in many black neighborhoods when one young man dies who not long before robbed a convenience store while thousands of children each year are slaughtered in those same neighborhoods and who receive little attention and no one speaks for them because they are killed by other blacks.

Increased volcanic activity heating up the earth and so on and so on.

And leaders who wish to try and lead from behind and fail in doing so, relied upon to watch your back.

Flag Reply +23 rate up
6 replies
jltjt9 September 04 2014 at 7:35 AM

We live in frightening times. Israel has reason to fear and worry.

But there is a lot to worry about in the world of men.

From Isis locally and of course Fukushima Japan and her three melted nuclear reactors which has been spewing hundreds of tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean each and every days since March of 2011 and no one knows how to stop it. Killing of course the life in the ocean. Where our Oxygen comes from.

Then there is the Russian and Ukraine conflict.

Riots in the streets of America from many black neighborhoods when one young man who not long before robbed a convenience store while thousands of children each year are slaughtered in those same neighborhoods and who receive little attention and no one speaks for them because they are killed by other blacks.

Increased volcanic activity heating up the earth and so on and so on.

And leaders who lead from behind and fail in doing so. How long can Israel expect this President to have her back.

Yes, worrysome

Flag Reply +10 rate up
2 replies
shelbuchman jltjt9 September 04 2014 at 2:27 PM

This president doesn't have Israel on her back. Israel does America's dirty work as
they did in Iraq in 1998, they took out
their Nuclear facility and in 2012 when Israel took out Syria's Nuclear facility
where they were stocking Plutonium from
N. Korea and working on a Nuclear Bomb
and now America is waiting on Israel to
take out Iran's Nuclear Facility. Just last
week Iran shot down a drone that was
unmarket near a Facility where do you
think it came from?

Flag Reply +1 rate up
MEL jltjt9 September 05 2014 at 12:54 AM

Can anyone say "Revelation" For those who belive, not to worry!

Flag Reply 0 rate up
donpantanella September 04 2014 at 1:54 PM

Keep in mind that the Israelis are armed with nuclear weapons and if push comes to shove they will use them, they will not lose their country to terrorists or anyone else.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
1 reply
mjmjupiter donpantanella September 04 2014 at 2:01 PM

Isn't that like shooting yourself in the foot?
You do realize they will have the same effects of nuclear fallout. So, I hope they wipe them all out including themselves!

Flag Reply 0 rate up
2 replies
shelbuchman mjmjupiter September 04 2014 at 2:36 PM

Do you really think that Israel is that stupid. Israel is training and has been since 9/11 the U.S.We should also thank them for destroying the Nuclear
facilities in Iraq and Syria. America is waiting on them to destroy Iran's as
well.

Flag 0 rate up
AOL is the Worst mjmjupiter September 04 2014 at 2:55 PM

Hey STUPIDer- Low grad tactical nuclear weapons spread very little fallout.
Also Israel has the Neutron bomb. I assume, even a low level dunce like
you knows that. What this bomb does is to suck all of the oxygen out of the
air- thereby killing all of the people but the those ugly mosques will still
be left standing.
You must be Hodgie- As an Iraq vet, I can smell your stench via your
blog.
Eat camel dung and die.

Flag 0 rate up
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