Sunday, 10 December 2006

Next battleground will be a familiar one, Israelis say

In Golan Heights, tensions with Syria are on the increase

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Jamie Ben-David, a San Diego native living in Israel, polices along a minefield in the Golan Heights, near the Syrian border. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Sunday 10 December, 2006

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Oz 77, Golan Heights -- From afar, the only thing that Jamie Ben-David could see moving in the picturesque valley of Kuneitra was a white U.N. jeep racing between the manicured fruit groves.

But as he drew nearer, the pastoral view was soon shattered. In the foreground lay rusted barbed-wire fences with yellow and red warning signs describing the fields of hidden land mines. And through his high-power binoculars, the bullet-riddled houses in the ghost city of Kuneitra and the remains of Syrian and Israeli battle tanks suddenly came into focus.

Ben-David, a 34-year-old San Diego native who moved to Israel two years ago, adjusted the black machine-pistol on his hip and clambered up the side of Oz 77, a disused Israeli military bunker with a commanding view of the Valley of Tears below, where the Syrian advance was halted in the Yom Kippur war of 1973.

Thirty-three years later, Ben-David, an officer in a volunteer Israeli Border Police unit, has come to the Golan Heights to help prepare for the next war. According to Israeli military intelligence, the battle will erupt here within the next two years. And the status of the Golan broke into the news Wednesday, when the Iraq Study Group advised President Bush to pressure Israel to return the disputed land to Syria if it cooperates on other matters of importance in the Middle East.

"If you look at all the pieces of the puzzle, you can see the writing's on the wall as far as the intentions of our enemies are concerned," Ben-David said. "When they say they want to kill us and wipe us off the map, I tend to believe them. We are taking it seriously to try and prepare and be ready if they carry out what they say they want to carry out."

The Golan is a largely flat plateau that soars 500 yards above the Sea of Galilee, punctuated by towering volcanic mountains and rising in the north to the peak of Mount Hermon and the mountain ranges of southern Lebanon. Today it has a population of about 36,000, half of them native Druze whose villages were overrun by Israel, the other half Israeli settlers who farm the rich volcanic soil that produces some of the country's best Chardonnay wine grapes.

Until 1967, the Golan Heights belonged to Syria, which used it as a launchpad for the 1967 Six-Day War. The Israelis beat the Syrians back up the narrow passes onto the plain as far as Kuneitra, and the area eventually was annexed in 1981 by Israel. In the 1973 war, the Syrians swept back across the plateau, where Israeli and Syrian armored divisions staged the second-largest tank battle since World War II before the advancing army was beaten back. The Syrians surrendered only after Israeli troops came within striking range of the capital Damascus, about 25 miles away.

The 1973 cease-fire left the two sides more or less where they ended in 1967, facing each other across a half-mile wide no-man's-land patrolled by the United Nations. To the west, on the Israeli side, stand hollow volcanic mountains now bristling with antennas and state-of-the-art eavesdropping equipment. On the east are the man-made Syrian bunkers dubbed "pitas" by the Israeli army because of their resemblance to the flat Arab bread.

After 30 years of quiet, the volcanoes of the Golan are rumbling again. Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, combined with the diplomatic fallout from the U.S. war in Iraq, has upset the delicate balance that has kept the peace since 1973.

Now, the Iraq Study Group report on the Iraq war, made public with great fanfare last week, has placed the Golan Heights back on the U.S. diplomatic agenda. The report's authors, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and ex-Rep. Lee Hamilton, recommended that Washington enter into face-to-face talks with Damascus and encourage Israel to enter direct negotiations to return the Golan to Syria, accompanied by U.S. security guarantees.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected that call Thursday, saying, "In my view, Syria's subversive operations, its support for Hamas -- which may be what's preventing real negotiations with the Palestinians -- do not give much hope for negotiations with Syria any time soon."

The Israeli military has closed the north-south border road to civilian traffic for fear of a cross-border abduction such as the one that sparked the war in Lebanon on July 12.

A security official at one of the Israeli border settlements, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the army was at its highest alert since 1973, and there was a feeling that war could be imminent.

He said a Syrian tank advance was not possible in the southern area of the Golan, which is scarred by deep ravines, but further north toward Kuneitra, the flat plain is easily traversed, inviting the advancing forces to sweep southward down the border road, which is edged by tank traps. The road itself is marked by chicane-type back-and-forth twists running through 20-foot-high mounds of large boulders, built by Israeli army engineers and packed with explosives. In case of war, he said, they will be detonated, blocking the road with large rocks and rendering it impassable to Syrian tanks.

But Israeli intelligence officials are not so sure the war will resemble 1973, according to a report published in the Israeli daily Haaretz. They think the Syrians have learned the lessons of the summer's war in Lebanon. If war comes, it may resemble a Hezbollah campaign -- cross-border raids, hails of rocket fire and guerrilla-type combat using shoulder-held anti-tank rockets instead of traditional battles.

Amos Yadlin, head of Israeli military intelligence, said in July that Syria was creating a military force modeled after Lebanon's Hezbollah. He said it could well be the Front for the Liberation of the Golan Heights, which was formed in June and includes Palestinians refugees living in camps near Damascus.

In an Aug. 25 interview with the Kuwaiti daily Al Ra'i Al-Aam, an official of the new Front said, "The sons of the occupied Golan, and the sons of proud Arab Syria, are continuing on their path, since the international community has abandoned them and turned its back on them. There is no other option left for us other than to adopt the Lebanese resistance as our patience has come to an end."

According to the latest monthly Peace Index poll, conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, only 18 percent of Israelis believe there will be long-term peace with Syria. Two-thirds -- 67 percent -- of Israelis reject the idea of returning the Golan Heights to Syria in return for a full peace treaty, and half -- 51 percent -- believe that sooner or later, there will be another war with Syria in the Golan Heights.

"The Jewish public firmly opposes the formula of full peace with Syria for full withdrawal from the Golan, even at the risk of imminent war," said Peace Index authors Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann.

Sami Bar-Lev, head of the local council at Katzrin, the largest Israeli town on the Golan Heights, disagreed with the Iraq Study Group recommendations on negotiating a return of the region. "The pre-1967 borders are not holy borders. They are frontiers drawn by the British and the French, and we don't need to go back to them -- we will never return to them," he said.

Israeli opposition to returning the Golan Heights is based in part on the conflicting signals coming from Damascus.

Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to permit the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical Palestinian groups to operate in Damascus, and Syria is the main conduit for arms transfers to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Assad is also moving closer to Iran.

During the summer, Assad began calling for peace talks with Israel and the return of the Golan. Yet at the same time, he and his ministers threatened to take military action.

"If in the next coming months there will not be a political solution, military resistance will be the only solution for Syrians," Syria's Information Minister Mohsen Bilal declared during a high-profile tour of the Golan Heights in August.

Israel responded to the saber-rattling by dispatching Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz to the Golan, where he spent an entire week on a well-publicized inspection of the Israeli brigade guarding the border.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters recently, "There's no indication that Syria wishes to be a stabilizing force. They are causing problems in Lebanon of extraordinary proportions. They have been totally unhelpful to (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas). ... They have stood side by side with militant Palestinian factions ... and they have insulted the moderate Arab states that are devoted to the road map," said Rice, alluding to the U.S.-backed peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians.

"That's not a very good record on which to suggest that just going and talking to Syria is going to get a change in their behavior," she said.
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The flat area near Kuneitra, Syria, seen from the Israeli side, has been the site of ferocious fighting. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

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