EIN ZIVAN, Golan Heights — The updates poured in by two-way radio and cellphone as Tomer Lahav’s pickup sped around this kibbutz near Israel’s cease-fire line with Syria one recent evening. Mortars were falling on Ein Zivan. A car broke through the nearby Quneitra border crossing. Two armed infiltrators killed, 20 residents injured, a child — or was it two? — missing.
Mr. Lahav, head of the kibbutz’s civilian security team, dragged his 14-year-old son across a grassy plaza, though his knee wound, like the rest of it, was imagined, as part of a training exercise. “Razi, climb into the back,” his father told him. “I have to take you to the ambulance.”
The drill was the most intense anyone here could recall, after weeks in which real fighting in Syria had repeatedly spilled across the fortified fence. A worker at a winery on the kibbutz was nearly paralyzed by a tank shell, Ein Zivan’s orchards were hit several times and seven recent alarms ordered the 300 residents to seek shelter from incoming fire.
Israel’s quietest frontier for four decades, the Golan Heights is now seen by some experts as its most volatile and unpredictable. Syrian insurgents, some aligned with Al Qaeda, have seized border villages, along with the crossing at Quneitra, and the United Nations forces that patrolled the demilitarized zone have mostly evacuated their posts. Late last month, Israel shot down a Syrian plane that entered its airspace.
As an American-led coalition targets the Islamic State with airstrikes, Israelis are waiting, warily, for what seems like an inevitable escalation near, if not on, their turf. The military at the end of 2013 added a new division focused on the growing threat. Now, local tourism is in trouble and people are increasingly on edge.
“The sky has become cloudy, more black or gray,” said Eyal Ben-Reuven, a retired major general with experience in the area. “It’s like a huge bottle with gas surrounded by candles. You just need to push one candle and everything can blow up in a minute.”
The military would not provide details about the events it calls “zligah” — Hebrew for “spillover” — other than to say there have not been more than 100. A senior official in the new division, speaking on the condition of anonymity under military protocol, said the chief concern is how Israel’s 1974 cease-fire agreement with Syria would be upheld “if there’s no sovereign military on the other side.”
“Now we’re planning for a different type of threat,” he explained, “the terror and Islamic extremist threat.”
Analysts here believe that the myriad fighting forces in Syria are, at this point, uninterested in engaging Israel. But they also know that the Nusra Front, the Qaeda-affiliated group controlling towns in sight of Israeli territory; Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia backing the Syrian Army; and the Islamic State, also called ISIS, all consider Israel an illegal occupier of the Golan. Even a mistake — an errant shell that kills a family on a hike — could set off a conflagration.
“I can’t say that I am afraid 24 hours a day, but today I don’t have any security of what the other side can decide to do against me,” said Udi Arnon, who has been living in Ein Zivan since 1972 and lately keeps a flashlight by his bed. “This is a crazy paradox: You have a big wall; on one side they fight and kill each other, and the other side you have the flowers and the birds and the children laugh. I can’t sleep quietly.”
Israel captured the Golan, a strategic plateau of lush hills, from Syria in 1967. After the 1973 war, it returned a small section, which became the United Nations-patrolled zone. Israel and Syria remain technically at war, and the world does not recognize Israel’s 1981 annexation of the 444-square-mile area.
The Jewish population has doubled to 30,000 in the past 20 years, most people drawn not by ideology but by financial incentives, stunning landscapes and rural quiet — the last two now punctured by an imposing high-tech border fence and the soundtrack of steady shooting beyond. There are also about 22,000 Druze, a native sect that mostly shuns Israeli citizenship but volunteers for its military.
For the Druze, the developments in Syria have direct repercussions. Apple farmers are unlikely to be able to export to Syria through Quneitra this year, which Asaad Safadi, a warehouse manager, estimated would reduce the annual $100 million market by about $7 million. Hundreds of Druze usually attend university in Damascus; this year it is “tens,” according to Salman Fakhreldin, a local activist.
At the Valley of Tears, a 1973 battle site, two middle-aged men stood on an old Israeli bunker with binoculars trained on the billows of bomb smoke. They declined to give their names for fear it could hurt their relatives on the Syrian side, but said they come every day to watch the war.
The latest fighting, the men said, has been in a government-controlled village at 1 o’clock from the lookout point; the insurgents have the villages at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. Recently, the men added, the opposition seemed to have replaced its pickup trucks with motorbikes to race along the road by the fence.
At another lookout, atop Mount Bental, a group of Christians from Norway held hands in a circle and prayed for the destruction of the Islamic State. (“Stop them, Lord; stop them and crush them.”) Nearby, other tourists practically tripped over two members of the United Nations Truce Supervision Office, who have planted their telescope on Bental since abandoning their post on the Syrian side after Nusra insurgents kidnapped other international observers.
For Israeli Jews, the situation has all but erased the debate over giving back the Golan to make peace with Syria, something that came close to happening as recently as 2010. Imagine, people said over and over in interviews, if that deal had gone through, and Nusra or Islamic State insurgents were near the Sea of Galilee rather than across a deep valley in the Golan.
Golan residents are steadfast about staying, but unease is seeping in. Giora Chepelinski said visitors to his chocolate factory, who provide 40 percent of its revenue, were down about 75 percent this September from last. On Monday night, only one of Ein Zivan’s 48 guest rooms was occupied. Many spoke of the situation as surreal: The August day the winery here was hit, a midwife from Ein Zivan helped deliver the baby of a Syrian woman, one of more than 1,300 refugees treated in Israel since April 2013.
Mr. Lahav, the kibbutz security chief, said his budget was doubled this year, and that Ein Zivan and the state spent another $50,000 to turn an old bomb shelter into a modern “war room” with closed-circuit cameras, cots and a closet full of machine guns. Israeli soldiers regularly join Ein Zivan’s apple-pickers now to boost confidence, and Mr. Lahav does three to five patrols daily rather than one.
It is hard to be a bystander to someone else’s war, said Mr. Lahav, who dismissed the word “zligah” — spillover — as “political.”
“It hurts exactly the same if somebody meant to shoot at you or didn’t mean it,” he said. “But our response is not the same.”
Last week’s drill started with live-ammunition sharpshooting for the 22-man security team, including a 58-year-old poultry worker, a man who makes insoles and the driver of a tour jeep who said he had a single client in the past two months. Hours later, they were combing the kibbutz alongside soldiers to mock-ensure all the residents were accounted for.
As they huddled over maps between houses, the familiar sound of shooting erupted not far away. “That’s real,” Mr. Lahav said. “That’s not training.”
Rina Castelnuovo contributed reporting.
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(via NY Times)