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The Syrian Army and rebels today battled for control of the only Syrian crossing with Israel in a Golan Heights demilitarized zone. The fighting sent peacekeepers scrambling and starkly illustrated Israeli concerns about its northern neighbor's war.
The fighting in the UN-controlled area lasted for seven hours, continuing even after government forces announced they had retaken control of the crossing at Quneitra, which allows passage between Syria and Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, according to the Guardian.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) declared a state of high alert along the northern border, and the area was proclaimed a closed military zone. Much of the highway running along the cease-fire line was closed, farmers were evacuated from nearby fields, and local residents were told to stay indoors, the Guardian reports.
"This is the most tense the situation has been since 1973. Even a very tiny provocation could result in regional deterioration," said David Nisan, a risk consultant who monitors the region for the Israeli firm Max Security Solutions.
Israel has three overarching concerns as it watches the war unfold to the north, an unnamed Israeli military official told the Guardian: "strategic weapons, chemical weapons, and the Golan Heights."
"The [Assad] regime has assured us [of] quiet on the Golan border for 40 years. Now it seems we have someone in control of that border who has their back to us now but may turn around and face us at any point."
The Christian Science Monitor reported in March that although Israel is trying to stay out of the fray, it is assiduously preparing for all possibilities. As Syrian government control over much of the country crumbles, it will become increasingly difficult for Israel to ensure its security without crossing into the war itself.
A sturdy new fence, surveillance sensors, and troop deployments along the Israeli side of the 65-mile border reflect concern in the Jewish state about the spillover from Syria’s civil war and what comes after the expected downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Errant fire from Syria has already crossed into Israeli territory several times, prompting Israel to fire back once.
"Things can change dramatically in hours," says Kobi Marom, a resident of the Golan Heights ski village, Neve Ativ, and reserve Army colonel, as he surveys the valley. "We are trying to be prepared for a new situation in the region."
Israel is perhaps most concerned about the jihadist groups fighting alongside the rebels, some of which have ties to Al Qaeda and an anti-Israel agenda. Israel is worried that such groups will use Syria as a springboard to launch attacks on Israel.
It's unclear whether the rebels fighting at Quneitra today came from the rebel Free Syrian Army or were foreign jihadist fighters. Several such groups have established themselves in the northern Golan, according to the Guardian.
"Some of these fighters are from local villages but others are foreign jihadists, many of them Iraqis," Nisan said. "We've seen a lot of YouTube videos from a group calling themselves the Quneitra Liberation Front waving the black flag of al-Qaida."
Austrian peacekeepers patrol the area. None of them were injured in the fighting – although one Filipino peacekeeper was, according to Israel's Ynet News – but the Austrian government announced today that it would be pulling them from the area, Bloomberg reports. “An uncontrollable and immediate risk for the Austrian soldiers has grown to an unacceptable level,” Austrian government officials said in the statement.
The Austrian contingency to the UN Disengagement Observer Force, the name for the UN peacekeeping force deployed in the Golan, has been the largest since UNDOF was created in 1974 to monitor the cease-fire between Israel and Syria. It has roughly 1,100 members, with about 380 of those coming from Austria, according to Haaretz.
Twenty-one Filipino peacekeepers were kidnapped earlier this year while on patrol in the area.
Within Syria, the Quneitra crossing is symbolically important, both because it is the only passage to the Golan Heights and because it is a major conduit between Syria's south and Damascus and the Mediterranean Coast farther afield, according to Ynet.