Thursday, August 28, 2014

In Israel, danger to the north

In the winter of 2006 I found myself at a party in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I somehow managed to get into a conversation about the Golan Heights. This was only a few months after the 2006 Lebanon War, during which I had been living in Jerusalem, and frankly pretty happy that Israel's possession of the Golan was keeping Hezbollah rockets, mortars and missiles that much farther away. The central premise of my interlocutor's argument that winter evening was that Israel has one of the most advanced armies in the world and that this technological edge should satisfy any security concerns when it comes to handing over parts of northern Israel to Lebanon or Syria. My counterargument then, which I believe is perhaps even more valid today, was that having advanced weapons systems and good intelligence is important and certainly an Israeli advantage in any conflict, but that the primary security concern in the north is not that the Lebanese or Syrian army is going to launch a massive ground invasion, but rather that the high ground would (and already does) provide the perfect place for non-state actors such as Hezbollah to fire rockets and mortars.

While it is true that for decades the border with Syria was relatively stable, Hezbollah rockets, infiltrators and snipers posed a constant threat to both civilians and the IDF along the border with Lebanon. Hezbollah remains a threat today to Israeli civilians, but as the civil war in Syria has raged on and expanded in the last two years, fighting between the Assad regime and various opposition forces has reached the border with Israel, occasionally spilling over into Israeli territory. This week we have seen perhaps the most troubling developments yet, with reports that Syrian militants have taken hostage members of the UN peace keeping force stationed along the Syria-Israel border, as well as mortars fired from inside Syria landing inside Israeli territory. 

Israel is a small country that is under constant threat from a range of enemies. While Jordan and Egypt are reliable partners when it comes to security, they both face their own thorny political and security challenges, internally and within the region. These relationships are very important for all parties involved and represent a major step forward in Israel's relationship with its Arab neighbors, but the security landscape has shifted significantly in the last  decade and now it is non-state actors and the spillover from proxy wars that represent the primary threat to Israel. 

This reality makes the security of the Golan and the people who live there, even more of a concern for Israel. But the threat posed by an expansion of Hezbollah or any of the motley crew of anti-Assad forces is not limited to those who reside in northern Israel. The danger of a terrorist foothold in the Golan is that these groups would use both the geography and geology to their advantage, exploiting a position deeper inside Israeli territory and perched high atop the Golan peaks, to try to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible.

As I argued 8 years ago, and believe now more than ever, Israel must remain vigilant in the north. Anyone who has travelled in this part of the country and looked across the border to see the flag of Hezbollah flying in Lebanese villages, or the noted the proximity of Damascus to the Israeli border, is likely to agree. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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