Thursday, 2 May 2013

Analysis: Israel prepares for the worst as militants eye Syria's chemical weapons

About 2,000 Israeli army reservists were woken in the middle of the night this week and instructed by recorded announcement to report immediately to the northern border with Syria. They raced there, armed for war, only to discover it was a drill – Israel's largest in the north for years.

Every day, Israeli military leaders say, is a day in which peace could turn to war, especially in the north. Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz warned last month that Israel's border with Syria, its most stable border since the two countries signed their disengagement agreement 40 years ago, could explode at any moment.

"We are commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, and the years of quiet and stability are disappearing," he said at meeting at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies think tank, choosing his words carefully. "Instability (on the Golan Heights) is increasing."

Israel conquered the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it, a move not recognized by the international community which considers it to be occupied territory. Today, 44,000 people live on the Golan Heights and a United Nations force is stationed in a buffer zone between Israel and Syria.

Israel has warned it will do whatever is necessary to prevent the Syrian government's large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons from falling into the hands of militants, believing that one day they may be used against Israel. It would be better, Israeli leaders believe, to fight in Syria against Islamists armed with non-conventional weapons than wait for them to attack Israel with them.

According to army sources quoted in the Maariv newspaper, Israel is sending fresh troops to man forward bases that have not been used for years because it was so quiet. The roads to the bases will also be paved and improved, the paper said.

Bullets and rockets have been fired from Syria into Israel at least a dozen times this year. Most are believed to be errant fire from fighting on the other side of the border, but the army says it sometimes comes from bunkers abandoned by the Syrian army, which pulled out to defend President Bashar Assad's regime in Damascus.

That vacuum along the border has been filled by Islamist militias – especially the al-Nusra front which says it is allied with al Qaeda – who repeatedly say their goal after toppling Assad is to use his territory as a launch-pad for attacks against Israel.

Israel has a history of short, sharp, specific attacks when its interests are threatened. In September 2007, Israel destroyed Syria's al-Kibar nuclear facility with a single devastating air attack. Earlier this year, Israel destroyed a truck convoy allegedly transporting strategic weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But the prospect of Israeli soldiers operating on the ground in Syria, even if to protect Israel's interests, is at the very bottom of Israel's agenda, according to military analysts and politicians alike.

From a high point overlooking Israel's border near the Syrian town of Quneitra, abandoned and heavily damaged during the 1973 war, there is little sign of tension for now. The United Nations base for 1,000 international peacekeepers whose job is to patrol the buffer zone between Israel and Syria, showed no sign of activity during a two-hour visit this week. Not one vehicle entered or left the base.

It sits on the Israeli side of a new hi-tech razor fence that Israel built along its 50-mile border with Syria to keep the Syrian conflict from spilling into Israel. It is designed to keep out Syrians seeking refuge, militiamen seeking to attack Israeli targets, and above all, to keep Israel from intervening in Syria's civil war.

But the longer the bloody conflict lasts, Israeli military analysts warn, the more likely Israel will be dragged in.

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