In the Golan, Israel Deploys Drones and Steel Fences Against Threats From Syria
At a cost of $75 million, new fortifications stand as physical reminders that peace in the north is further away than ever
The last round of negotiations collapsed when the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring flared up across the region in early 2011 and quickly spread from Tunisia to Syria and other countries. Assad refused to clearly commit to severing his ties to Iran, making the Israelis worry that an agreement wouldn’t ultimately diminish Tehran’s regional standing or force it to limit its relationship with Hezbollah. Netanyahu, for his part, apparently concluded that Assad’s standing at home was falling so fast that he wouldn’t be able to deliver on any promised deal. The talks ended in the summer of 2011, just as the Syrian civil war was getting going, and never resumed. Netanyahu, to this day, publicly denies that he was willing to agree to a full withdrawal from the Golan.
In any event, the prospects of a deal have never looked more remote. Even if Assad hangs on, Netanyahu or his successors are certain to be skeptical about the wisdom of swapping some of Israel’s most strategically important terrain for a treaty with a weakened leader who seems likely to fall sooner rather than later.
If Assad goes, he will be replaced either by an Islamist government that will be overtly hostile to Israel or by a fragile secular one that won’t have the standing at home. It’s hard to imagine the leadership of either country being willing to resume talks, let alone make the painful concessions needed to actually make a deal happen. In the meantime, the Israelis are left to counter the threat of jihadist groups taking advantage of the increasing exhaustion and desperation of Syria’s rebels to expand their reach.
Israeli concerns center on a jihadist group called the al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida and begun mounting suicide attacks deep inside Damascus and other major Syrian cities. Al-Nusra leaders openly refer to Israel as an enemy of Islam, and Israeli officials worry that the militants will eventually look across the border for new targets. The new wall is meant to keep them out. “The situation has changed,” the Israeli military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation in Syria. “Syria is becoming a hub for global terror groups. At the end of the day we know they’ll eventually try to come into Israel and hit us.”
That leaves Israel rushing to complete the final 30 kilometers of the security wall by the end of the year, at a total cost of more than $75 million—giving both shepherds and militants on the other side plenty to photograph. Israeli construction crews are expected to arrive at Bar Sheshet’s base in the next couple of months to put in one of the final sections of the new security wall. The work, he says, can’t start soon enough. “The border looks quiet now,” he says, pointing to the grass rustling softly on the Lebanese side of the frontier. “But it can change in a hurry, in a flash.”
This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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