Talking to mediators, the IDF, and Jewish and Druze residents, Eric Greenstein shows what the Syrian Civil War looks like from the Israeli side.
41 years after the Yom Kippur War, Assad’s Syrian army is retreating from Quneitra – and not from the IDF • Residents of the Golan heights – Jews and Druze – are being forced to adapt to a new reality of stray fire and black flags waving a few hundred yards from their window • The violence threatens to spill over into Israeli territory, and the vision of a withdrawal from the Heights never seemed more distant
“After the first shell hit here, we were on the ground for twenty minutes,” Alex Kudish (53), farmer and member of the Ein Zivan kibutz, told ‘Mida’. Alex has hundreds of workers in his extensive orchard in the Quneitra valley. That morning, three days before the end of September, he remembers very well: Syrian rebel forces set out to conquer the Quneitra crossing from Assad’s army, and this time Israeli citizens on the border felt the fear of battle first hand.
They still haven’t repaired the damage to the winery in the kibbutz. A direct hit by a tank shell left it without a roof. Shrapnel holes still fill the walls. There were two people ther at the time of the attack, one of the Maxim Ben Shoshan (52). Like other residents of the area, Maxim has been hearing the explosions coming nearer and nearer, but it hasn’t bothered him. Like every day, he makes his way to work from his home in Katzrin, but today he ended up wounded and in the hospital. “I have a scoop for you,” says Ben Shoshan, taking form his pocket a small plastic up containing a piece of metal shrapnel the size of a large cork: “This is what they took out of me. From the neck.” Despite this, Ben Shushanis not afraid to go back to work: “I believe in fate. Everything is written from on high.”
Welcome to the new reality on the Israeli-Syrian border.
The “Golan Perimeter” Under Fire
From the peak of Mount Bental in the Golan, a beautiful pastoral view is laid out before the visitor. Looking east, one can see the Quneitra valley in Syria in all its glory, with green and yellow colors creating a living postcard. But the silence is misleading.
Last Friday provided a demonstration of this, when according to various sources, an explosive device detonated on an IDF patrol near the village of Mas’ade in the Golan. This is just one in a string of such incidents over the past few months, in which the firefights between Assad’s forces and the rebels spread into Israeli territory (“no more than a hundred incidents,” according to the IDF), and the rapid deterioration in the security situation can be clearly seen in the field.
People in the Eastern part of the Israel-held Golan Heights have been hearing the booms of the fighting for two and a half years, but now these have reached Israel. It began on Tuesday, 18 March, when four IDF paratroopers were injured from an explosive device on the border next to Majdal Shams. The sensitivity increased even higher during June, when missiles were fired toward Israeli outposts on the Hermon Mountain, and later on even towards civilian settlements. The climax (so far) came with the death of a 12 year old boy, the son of a contract worker with the Ministry of Defense, who directly hit by an anti-tank missile close to Tel Hazeka. And those are just the “serious” incidents.
The sector heated up again a month ago: during the battles, several bombs landed on both sides of the Israeli-Syrian border, causing a number of fires. Worse, a doctor in a Golani patrol battalion who had just arrived from Gaza to replace others on the line, got off the bus at Avital Mountain, was shot and evacuated to the hospital by helicopter. At the same time, Jabhat al-Nusra, an organization affiliated with al-Qaeda, announced it had trapped and captured 43 Fijian inspectors from UNDOF.
Today, when one drives near the Quneitra crossing and the UN camp, not far from outpost 109 and Odem Mountain, one notices a “smart” system on the fence, which was reactivated in the wake of the battles. The pillbox at the crossing itself is empty, and not far away are abandoned positions once occupied by UN inspectors. B., a Major in a reserve patrol battalion, was there in the heart of the chaos, when the region was captured by the rebels.
“It was our last die on the line,” he told ‘Mida’, “A few days before, observations had picked up events in the villages near Quneitra. We followed the forces, and we knew there was going to be an attack in the next few days, maybe on the day we’re supposed to get off the line.”
“On the night between the 27-28 August, we had a team which observed the nearby village and saw their forces getting organized,” says Major B., “Towards morning, the attack began. As it did, we moved our forward observation position backward, as the shooting was already over their heads and was hitting the positions. And at first light, at 6 AM the attack began. Already in the beginning, there were some people and a lot of UN personnel who came and were under pressure because they had forces trapped inside.”
According to B., the Syrian resistance forces showed a high level of professionalism. “The rebels operated in a very, very organized manner. These are in no way just Falanges who just attack like that. There are flanking forces, suppressing forces and all involving a proper pincer movement, with communication and suppressing equipment, like memebers of a real army.”
These days, at the closest point to Syria atop an IDF outpost 100-200 meters from the apple orchards, one can notice a green flag, apparently belonging to one of the rebel factions. But on the day of conquest, says R., a more familiar flag was hoisted: “As soon as the rebels conquered the place, they hoisted the black flags.”
Although the IDF says that these are members of the Free Syrian Army, B.’s impression is that these are members of Jabhat al-Nusra, or at least the Islamist wing. “We IDed them as members of the Free Syrian Army. There are also many factions within them. Based on our observation from last night, from their organization, it looked like these were more Islamist guys. They had beards, and were wearing black.”
B. Describes how the attack took place: the rebels moved from west to east – from the IDF crossing towards the UN outpost, conquering piece after piece of territory. At the same time, a force attacked from the southeast. That day they only reached old Quneitra. All along the way they came under heavy fire.
“Assad’s forces operated artillery along with the rebels using theirs, and the fire on both sides seeped in our direction. The shells were also falling in our territory during this time. The rebels had a truck with a machine gun. An insane rate of fire. When it fired toward the UN outpost, the fire also hit the pillbox at the Quneitra crossing, with our soldiers inside. They couldn’t move. Eventually they went down because it was extremely hazardous to stay there.” The fire was so strong that it was different for the IDF to replace soldiers presently in position, “We pretty quickly left our rear positions and returned to Avital outpost, and we observed from there. That’s when the Golani officer who came to replace on the line was wounded.”
Know the Enemy
In order to better understand what’s happening on the Syrian side of the border, we spoke with Mandi Safdi (45), formerly head of the office of the Deputy Minister for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee and today and independent businessman. As part of his businesses, he has been in touch since 2000 with many of the different factions in the Syrian opposition. “In our area there are two factions,” he explained to ‘Mida’, “Jabhat al-Nusra, who are the minority, and the Free Syrian Army, who are the majority.”
Because Jabhat al-Nusra is the smaller organization of the two, it’s developed a system: they wait from behind, let the Free Syrian Army run ahead first and free the territory from Assad’s forces and then Nusra members come in and take over: “The cooperation between the forces is not voluntary,” Safdi says, but due to necessity. Jabhat al-Nusra is funded by Qatar and has better quality weaponry, while the Free Syrian Army is poorly trained and armed. The latter thus need the former.
The Qataris continue to play a serious role on the Syrian chess board. Safdi encountered this fact first hand. “It was on the 6th of September, if I remember correctly, after two weeks of negotiations to release the UN Fiji hostages, we arrived at an agreement that would set them free.” Safdi spoke with guys from the Free Syrian Army who were in touch with Jabhat al-Nusra and it was agreed that the UN people would be released in return for humanitarian aid to areas of their choice. The same day he went to the Golan, near the Quneitra crossing, to help absorb the released hostages. Then things got complicated.
“I waited, and suddenly people form the Free Syrian Army called me and said: ‘Mandi, there’s a problem’. It quickly turned out that Qatar had called the local commander of Jabhat al-Nusra, demanding that the captives only be released via Qatari mediation. “That’s why they didn’t transfer the captives that day, but a few days later through Qatari mediation,” Safdi says. “Qatar’s fingerprints are spread throughout Syria.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, members of Jabhat al-Nusra announced yesterday that they captured another strategic location in the Quneitra region, Tell El-Hara. Another detail that not many know, Safdi tells us, is that on every Tell on the Syrian Golan Heights is a listening center: “One Russian, one Iranian and the rest Syrian. As for the Iranians, even the Syrian Chief of Staff is prohibited from going into these centers.” During the battles, all these Tells fell. “The Iranians held out the longest, because they had the most weaponry, but they reached the point where they were out of food and ammunition. When Assad’s planes tried to help them, Israeli planes signaled them and they headed back. Thus the last Tell – Tell el-Ahmar, fell and the rebels rejoiced. I met afterwards with rebels who were part of the force that liberated those areas.”
The Residents: Fearful but Optimistic
Residents of the towns next to the Syrian border have responded with mixed feelings to the new situation. We need to remember that this was the quietest border for 40 years. “In Ein Zivan there were two hits – one at the entrance to the orchard and one underneath Mitzpeh Quneitra,” one of the kibbutz residents told us, “The situation is starting to be scary. We’ve been hearing the booms on the other side for two-three years, but now it’s close.”
Alex Kudish, an Ein Zivan resident since 1978, says there’s a clear difference between the veterans and the young newcomers: “In the past few years, we had an amazing process of youth absorption: In Ein Zivan, there are 70 families of members and 40 families being absorbed. The new guys are scared. They’re the population that responds with anxiety, more than the veteran residents. The IDF is doing a very good job, and all in all you can say that the settlement is strong.”
There’s no doubt that life has been disrupted. Before the Syrian Civil War started, some 20,000 tons of apples used to pass through the Quneitra crossing into Syria, and “Druze students and brides also crossed,” Alex recalls. “Now all that’s stopped, of course.” Alex employs 200 workers a day. He still hopes that he won’t have trouble getting compensation from the state for the days when the area was sealed off to civilian movement during the battles. “Until now, we’ve had 6-7 incidents where we had to clear the area. I’m not asking anything for the harvest, but at least they should help me with paying the workers.” Despite the fire, the farmers, he says, are not worried: “There’s an atmosphere that something’s gone wrong, that’s for sure. To work like this feels different, unpleasant. But we’ll make it through this as well.”
Similar voices can be heard from other settlements in this sector. Thus Ran Kaminski, resident of Kibbutz Ortal since 2000, and today the kibbutz secretary and head of the settlement emergency team: “There have been a few alarms since the battles on the border began. There are two unexploded Grad missiles in our orchards, but all in all things are routine. Nothing’s changed in way of life and activities are taking plans on schedule.” In one of the evenings, there was a culture evening in the kibbutz club, when suddenly a siren sounded. The residents didn’t panic; they acted according to instructions and then went back to their business. “I, as head of the emergency team, don’t know of emotional problems among the members in Ortal,” Kaminski said.
The possibility of stray or creeping fire concerns the Ortal residents less. “There’s a difference between places. There are a lot of open spaces here, and even if a missile falls near Alonei Habashan, in Ortal we’ll only hear about it in the news. The kindergartens won’t close,” Kaminski explains. “As for the possibility of deliberate fire towards Israel, and there have already been attacks in the past, that’s something else. As of today, there have only been three such cases, of deliberate indirect fire. It didn’t change the routine but it did change our preparedness.”
Uri Heitner, a publicist, educational figure and spokesman for Ortal gives a similar description: “The war has been in our area for two and a half years now. We hear the echoes but it’s not like an area where there’s non-stop fighting. For over a month it’s been very intensive. There were some strays and alarms. It’s not fun, but no-one makes too big a deal of it. We remember that this is not our war but that of different sides on the other side of the fence. True, a stray shell can hit just like a deliberately aimed shell, so I’m not saying there’s no tension, but we take it in stride.”
From talks with locals, it’s clear that there is close cooperation with relevant parts of the IDF, something which adds a feeling of security. One of them received the impression that the IDF responds against any stray fire and hits back for every violation of sovereign territory. In contrast to the residents, B., the reserve officer, is far less optimistic: “Now it’s quiet there, but it’s an imaginary quiet. Both the rebels and Hezballah members walk along the fences and we can’t do anything to them. We see them, there are warnings and we can’t respond. We’re the only ones who respect this line.”
There are testimonies of “shepherds” moving around near the fence with walkie talkies and notepads. “They know exactly where to go, where they shouldn’t be but can’t be driven off. The ROE allow for shooting to drive people off, but in practice there was no OK to open fire, and we haven’t even gotten the OK to fire crowd dispersing means,” R. says. “We’d approach them with our jeeps and yell at them until we said to ourselves, ‘Halas, I’ll bet the next time there’ll be an explosive device here.’ And look what happened last Friday.”
Major B. tells us that shell landings in the area were quickly silenced. One time “they said there was ground movement and a mine exploded. There’s an attempt to keep things quiet and not open up another front.”
The IDF does indeed not allow the Syrians to cross the line and fires back in case of fire creep, but certainly not in every single case. “After all the Syrian artillery creep towards us and after the soldier was injured, they fired a few missiles at the Syrian artillery battery, 15 kilometers from here.” When 4-5 Grads fell in Ortal, the IDF did not respond. Even when a shell fell next to Merom Golan, the IDF couldn’t identify the source of the fire, so this was hushed up as well.
The Druze Gaze Northward With Worry
There’s something symbolic about following the battles on the Israeli-Syrian border exactly 41 years after the Yom Kippur War. Assad’s running again. Except that this is not the same Assad, the unquestioned leader, and this time he’s not running from us. At the Quneitra observation point, strong winds are blowing, a harbinger of fall. One can identify the rebel positions, but in the last week there was almost no detectable movement on the other side.
A Druze merchant sells us fresh apples nearby, and as usual in Israel, it sparks a conversation. “They are sons of the Devil,” he says of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. “Druze, Christians, Alawites, Jews – they’d slaughter them all.” A. lives in Buq’ata. He has relatives in Mount Druze (Jabal al-Druze in Arabic) in Lebanon and Germana in Syria. “They have no food. They eat bread and white cheese once a day.” A. says that relatives in the countryare sending money to Syria and Lebanon via Jordan, primarily now during Eid el-Adha. “How do you know the money makes it?” I ask. The phone, it turns out, still works over there.
Who’s Better for the Druze in Syria – Assad or the Rebels?
“Israel,” he answers, following up with a rolling laugh.
The Golan Druze, as you probably already understood, are torn between Israel and Syria. “The Druze of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are one unit with common interests,” Mandi Safdi tells us. Today he lives in the center of the country, but he’s originally from Majdal Shams. “If the Druze in Lebanon are hurting, so am I. That’s how the population has lived all these years. We are a minority persecuted for many years by Islam, even more than the Jews. The artificial divisions between us were created by Sykes-Picot; there’s no difference between the Druze of the Carmel, As-Suwayda and Germana.”
There’s a common conception that the Golan Druze have been loyal to Assad over the years and not to the State of Israel. Is this the situation today?
There’s a thesis that everyone knows that the Druze follow the strong, because they are a minority. It’s true, but it doesn’t hold in Israel. If the Druze went with the strong, they wouldn’t have stood with the Jews in 1938. If you visit the Yad Lebanim building in Dalyat al-Karmel, you’ll see some names of Druze protecting the Jewish Yishuv already back then.
I remember myself as a child in first grade, 38-9 years ago, when a minister or MK would put us in a row and we would wave the flag of Israel. Then what happened? In 1981, Begin passed the Golan Law – an excellent law, awful execution. They came with television cameras and distributed blue [Israeli citizen] ID cards. And when the whole world sees, we couldn’t receive him [Begin – E.G.] with embraces.”
Why was the execution awful? What did Begin miss?
The State of Israel and the West conduct a dialogue of the deaf with the Middle East. Before you come into my home, you need to have some minimal knowledge about me. You need to understand the culture. When you come with TV cameras, you need to understand that the Golan Druze have family in Syria. Everyone remembers what happened when Assad wanted to punish Walid Jumblatt, who was at the head of the struggle to get the Syrian army out of Lebanon. So Assad incited the Bedouin against the Druze. The former went, took a guy, cut off his hands and legs and left him buried in the ground to bleed to death without anyone being able to get near him.”
Nothing’s changed with the breakout of the Civil War in Syria?
Look, the whole world’s problem is that a noisy minority is setting the tone. Among the Druze, 15 thousand from among about 180 thousand are those that set the tone. There are in the Golan Heights, and in Syria, about 60% who are neutral, with a tendency to be anti-Assad. They’re not interested in getting involved. Because of the loudmouths, if you get slapped with a stigma, nothing will change it – and the worst possible stigma in the Arab world is that of the traitor. So the loudmouths come out with flags of Syria and shout. The neutrals know that the loudmouths also pass information on. You should also know, that when you see a demonstration in the Golan Heights, you’ll see 50 Golan Druze and 250 Arabs brought in from the Carmel by bus. Last time it was Sheikh Raad Salah who would bring them.”
The End of the Vision of Withdrawal
And then there is the problem hovering over Druze and Israeli relations on the Golan Heights since 1967: the threat of Israeli withdrawal.
“There are people who were Baath even before the Golan was taken, and they stayed that way until today. These people have an interest to lead opposition to a sensitive issue, to strengthen their public standing,” Mandi explains. “Things only got worse in ’93, when Rabin came and started talking about peace. Since then, there have been four times when the government of Israel almost gave the Golan to Syria. Fortunately, Assad wouldn’t agree.”
“In ’93, a discussion started in Majdal Shams, and there was an idea to designate territory in the State of Israel for those who wish to leave the Golan Heights. My father told me ‘we didn’t leave when there was war, we should leave when there’s peace?’ Therefore, before the cameras no-one will say anything against Assad.”
There are no “sobering insights” among the Golan residents in the wake of the battles. Everyone we talked to was always a strident opponent of ideas of withdrawal from the Golan. “The residents of the Golan are different than those on the Gaza perimeter. All of us here were against giving up the Golan. I was on the Committee of Golan Settlement Against Withdrawal and I participated in demonstrations,” Alex Kudish told us. Ran Kaminski of Kibbutz Ortal said similar things: “Today people say how lucky we were that we fought against withdrawal.” His friend Uri Heitner explains: “Today when the only question is ‘What’s Better – ISIS or Hizballah – it’s clear to anyone with a brain how dangerous the idea of withdrawal was. Today there’s a phenomenon of sobering in the general public, and we need to cultivate it. People need to understand just how much the idea was folly.”
These days, with black flags over houses over Israeli houses, one need only look around and understand that the State of Israel cannot afford to give up territory, a security asset against security threats. As former Government Secretary Tzvi Hauser admitted at a “self-examination evening” which the Tabor Mechina conducted before Yom Kippur: “If we had arrived at the arrangement Barak wanted in 2009, of gradual withdrawal from the Golan, the collapse of the Syrian state would find Israel at the end of the withdrawal and we would find Jabhat al-Nusra in Ein Gev.”
The Middle East changes quickly and exposes the great danger in retreats. “In one of my speeches,” Mandi Safdi sums up, “there were many people from the Labor Party, including former MKs and Ministers. I gave them an overview of what happened in our area from ’93 until today. And I say: All this was happening while you were looking for the New Middle East. Damn it, what was wrong with the old one?”
English translation by Avi Woolf.