Sunday, June 22, 2014

Syria's neighbour

As Israelis worry for the safety of the three teens abducted in Gush Etzion, the ongoing conflict to our north claimed more Israeli victims on the Golan Heights. Syrian forces (it's not clear if they were pro-Assad or rebels) fired over the border into Israel, scoring a direct hit on an Israeli civilan vehicle, killing 13 year-old Mohamed Keraka and seriously wounding his father and another man, all from the Galilee village of Arabeh.

Summer break is just beginning and Mohamed was excited to accompany his father to work, with the promise of a visit to a Golan nature site and swimming in a freshwater pool later in the day. Their home village is no stranger to tragedy, two young children were killed there after a direct hit by a Hizballah rocket during the 2006 Lebanon War.

Israelis are not used to thinking of the border with Syria as risky though. For decades is has for the most part been quiet, the armistice following the 1973 war holding steady. The Golan has developed a thriving tourism industry, popular with Israelis of all religions and ethnicities.

For all that Israel has made a point of warning Syria's warring factions to maintain that quiet, the conflict has gradually been creeping closer, battles between government forces and Jihadi rebels raging in towns such as Kuneitra, right on the border with Israel.

The main impact in Israel has been a stready stream of Syrians injured in the fighting making their way to Israel for treatment in hospitals across northern Israel. So many Syrians have sought medical aid that the Israel army has established a field hospital near the border. Israeli hospitals in the Galilee have been overwhelmed by the extent and complexity of the serious war wounds they are seeing, far more than they have been used to even during the Lebanon wars. Children and other civilians with horrorific shrapnel damage, amputees, multiple gunshot wounds and burns.

Syrian refugees have established encampments hugging the border with Israel in the hope that Syrian forces and rebels alike will think twice before attacking so close to the sensitive Israeli border. As with all Syria's neighbours, there has been occasional "spillover" into Israel, stray shells and mortars, a handful of Israeli casualties, brush fires and other damage. The Israeli military has done its utmost to ensure that Syrian forces understand that Israel will respond swiftly to any attacks on Israel, whether accidental or intentional, and for the most part that message seems to have been heeded. Until today. Today's incident it would seem was an intentional targetting of Israelis by Syrian forces, which Syrian forces remains to be seen.

Despite all this, for the most part the situation has been calm enough that it seems as though all the headlines about the ISIS and Al-Nusra Front aren't happening right in our neighbourhood, in some cases just over our border. The fact is though that most of the Syrian side of the Golan Heights is now in the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliated Jihadi rebels. The latest incarnation of the Afghanistan bloodbath is on our doorstep.

We pray that today wasn't a harbinger of a possible future escalation, but with the chaos and terror engulfing ever more of our region, Israelis are feeling increasingly tense about what the future may hold for our neighbours. Twenty years ago Shimon Peres spoke enthusiastically of the tangible chance of creating a New Middle East. Looking around the Middle East today it would seem that his utopian dream has turned in to a nightmare.

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