A fragile calm

Jerusalem and Damascus may not speak, but the Quneitra crossing works 24/7 to shuttle people and produce across the border.

By
March 29, 2010 18:02
UNDOF soldiers enter Israel from Syria (Ariel  Jer

quneitra crossing 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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Spring is in the air and the Golan Heights is in bloom. Its mountains and pastures – painted a bright green – are filled with grazing cows, Jewish cowboys and tourists from around the world.

The silence is broken by a tank or artillery shell, fired by IDF soldiers training on some distant field. Overhead, the occasional military transport helicopter flies by.

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To the north, one takes in a clear view of the Hermon, still lined with streaks of snow, giving off the impression that we are in Switzerland, not the volatile Middle East.

But underneath the seemingly tranquil atmosphere is a feeling of tension along the Israeli-Syrian border, which until just a month ago appeared to be on the verge of erupting. It was then, that during a tour of the northern border, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that peace talks with Damascus were critical for Israeli security. Otherwise, he warned, a full-blown war was possible.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem’s response was immediate. “Israel knows that if it declares war on Syria, such a war will reach its cities,” he threatened.

In response, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that in the event of a war with Israel “not only will you lose the war, but you and your family will no longer be in power.”

Behind the Israeli declarations was a growing concern within the defense establishment that Syria was planning to transfer advanced weapons to Hizbullah.

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Amidst the threats exchanged between the sides, in early March, a few dozen trucks made their way from the Druse villages of Majdal Shams and Mas’ada to the Quneitra crossing between Israel and Syria. Arriving at the crossing, the trucks unloaded 10,000 tons of apples – mostly golden delicious – which were then loaded onto the backs of Red Cross (ICRC) trucks and ferried across the border into Syria, where they made their way to “souqs” – old marketplaces – throughout the country.

Several months earlier, in September 2009, 550 Druse residents of the Golan traversed the Quneitra crossing into Syria for a five-day trip, which included a visit to the tomb of the Prophet Habil, the biblical Abel, located southwest of Damascus. Coordinated between the IDF, the Red Cross and the Israeli and Syrian interior ministries, this was the 14th crossing of its kind in as many years, and included a larger number of pilgrims than had taken part in previous visits.

This is not to mention the 200 Druse students – most of whom study medicine, dentistry and engineering – who annually pass through the Quneitra crossing to attend Syrian universities. They are allowed to return to Israel every few months, where they usually end up settling down after receiving their degrees.

“The Druse who study in Syria are no different than Russian doctors who make aliya to Israel,” explained one senior IDF officer. “After getting their degree, they return to Israel, take a test, get certified and then can work here.”

There is also the occasional Druse bride who leaves Israel via the Quneitra crossing to marry a family member in Syria, a story depicted in the award-winning 2004 film The Syrian Bride.

WHILE ISRAEL and Syria are still officially at a state of war, the Quneitra crossing works around the clock, serving as the only means of communication, even if indirect, between the countries.

The crossing’s history dates back to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Following the war, throughout which Israel held onto the Golan Heights – which it had conquered during the 1967 Six Day War – the United Nations established the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which set up headquarters along the border and began enforcing the Security Council-imposed ceasefire.

In order to facilitate its work, UNDOF required a crossing that would allow it to move freely between Israel and Syria, as it maintains bases and outposts in both countries. This is how the Quneitra crossing was born. Its name is derived from its location, just a stones-throw away from the ruins of the city Quneitra, located in Syria, just northwest of the crossing.

A popular tourist site, Syria has purposely left the city of Quneitra in ruins – it was largely destroyed during the Yom Kippur War – and built a museum to memorialize its destruction and Israel’s aggression.

UNDOF mans more than 40 outposts and patrols an 80-kilometer long, 10-km. wide buffer zone running from Lebanon to Jordan. This zone splits the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria, with the Israeli border known as “Line Alpha” – the original armistice line – and the Syrian border known as “Line Bravo.”

Consisting of three battalions, UNDOF is comprised by Japanese, Polish, Austrian, Indian and Filipino soldiers. The commanding officer is Major-General Natalio C. Ecarma from the Philippines, who was appointed to the post by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on February 1.

UNDOF also maintains “areas of limitation” – some running 35-km. deep into Israel and Syria – in which the two countries are only allowed to deploy agreed-upon numbers of troops and weaponry. Ecarma and his men conduct periodic inspections within these areas and go base-to-base counting the number of tanks, soldiers and weapons each side has amassed.

Today, the Israeli side of the crossing sits directly on Line Alpha and consists of a few small, dilapidated structures which are occupied by soldiers and customs officers. Fifty meters beyond this, and past a yellow gate – which is opened and closed by a soldier from the Military Police – is the UNDOF side of the crossing. Another 50 meters down the road is already the Syrian side.

FOLLOWING ITS establishment, the crossing was used strictly by UNDOF officers, dozens of whom cross through daily, transferring supplies, vehicles and sometimes ammunition. But in recent years, the crossing has taken on a humanitarian role, helping the Druse population in the Israeli Golan Heights.

“The crossing was created to provide a service for the UN officers,” explains Col. Eshkol Shukran, commander of the IDF’s Golan Brigade, which is responsible for Israel’s border with Syria, including the Quneitra crossing.

A native of northern Israel, Shukran has held several posts in the IDF that focus on Hizbullah and Syria. He grew up in the Golani Brigade and climbed the ranks, serving in the Second Lebanon War in 2006 as deputy commander of Brigade 769, which was responsible for the eastern sector of southern Lebanon, including Mount Dov.

In early 2009 he was appointed commander of the Golan Brigade, a position which he says requires a high degree of vigilance and restraint.

“The crossing is important since it helps Israel provide for the humanitarian needs of its citizens,” he explains.

The best example is the transfer of apples to Syria, an initiative that began in 2004.

Following complaints by Druse farmers that the Israeli market was already flooded with domestically-grown apples, the Israeli Agriculture Ministry decided to allow the sale of apples to Syria, a move that has enabled Druse farmers to successfully sell their produce, which would otherwise go to waste at stands throughout the North.

In addition, the farmers can sell their apples at a higher price, since the Syrian market is less competitive; and, Syria is able to show its loyalty to the Druse, many of whom still hold onto their Syrian citizenship.

IN 2009, a cumulative 18,000 UN cars, 700 students, 43,000 UN soldiers and 550 Druse sheikhs crossed through Quneitra.

Responsible for coordinating all of these crossings is Maj. Uzi Maor, the IDF’s liaison officer at the Quneitra crossing. A former military intelligence officer, Maor says that his job mostly entails “coordinating different interests” – Israeli, UN and Syrian.

“Our job is to find mutual interests and to work to advance them,” he says.

This has not always been easy considering that Syria believes Israel is illegally occupying the Golan Heights and as a result refuses to meet with Israeli officers in face-to-face meetings like the ones UNIFIL – the UN force in Lebanon – holds every month in Naquora between the IDF and the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Nevertheless, except for the occasional incident, Israel’s border with Syria is the quietest of all its borders, though drug smuggling has become a growing problem. Last year, the IDF confiscated several dozen kilograms of heroin along the border.

The last terror-related incident along the border occurred in January 2009, on the sidelines of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, when a Syrian military officer suddenly opened fire on an IDF patrol. No one was hurt in the shooting and the IDF returned fire.

But despite the seemingly open border crossing, relations between Israel and Syria are far from peaceful, and defense officials in Israel regularly warn of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s membership in the so-called Iranian-led “axis of evil.” Syria is the main supplier of weaponry to Hizbullah and is home to top Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists.

Israel has also become increasingly concerned with the construction taking place on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. The Syrians are in the midst of building seven different villages right along the border. The IDF fears that the villages, whose construction intensified following the 2006 Lebanon War, will be used as “death traps” for IDF troops in future Hizbullah-inspired attacks.

As the IDF understands, Syria drew three major lessons from the Lebanon War. The first was that missiles – 4,000 struck northern Israel during the 33 days of fighting in 2006 – can paralyze the Israeli home front. The second is that anti-tank missiles can penetrate the IDF’s Merkava battle tank and force infantry units to abandon armored personnel carriers and trek into enemy territory on foot. And the third is that the Israel Air Force’s superior capabilities are limited in villages and cities where IDF ground forces can also be toppled.

SINCE ITS defeat in 1973, Syria has been investing in missile development. According to Western security sources, Syria now has the ability to independently manufacture Scud missiles, of which it has an arsenal of several hundred, deployed just north of the demilitarized zone in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights.

A division of some 10,000 troops is responsible for operating the missiles, which include an isolated number of Scud-Ds, with a range of 700 kilometers and said to be capable of carrying non-conventional warheads. According to foreign sources, its missiles are stored in bunkers in various locations, but most are located in a valley near the city of Hama, where the Syrians have also built a missile assembly facility.

Syria has a massive military, with 12 divisions and close to 400,000 soldiers at full mobilization. One of the divisions is made up of 10,000 elite commando units – a formidable force that would serve as Syria’s first line in an offensive against the IDF. Since the Lebanon War, the Syrians have established additional commando units, armed with Russian-made advanced anti-tank missiles, and are even said to have increased urban and guerrilla warfare training for troops.

The IDF has taken note of increased training on the Syrian side as well as the fortification of various military positions. This is without mentioning Syria’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities, which ended in Israel’s bombing of the nuclear reactor in 2007.

While the IDF does not believe that Syria is currently interested in war, the defense establishment is concerned that in the event of an American or Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear reactors, Syria would feel compelled to retaliate against Israel on Teheran’s behalf.

In addition, the IDF is concerned that Syria might be considering sending a small force of commandos across the border to take hold of an Israeli site and conduct negotiations for the release of hostages, with the aim of putting the Golan Heights on the global agenda.

Since taking up his post three years ago, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi has been a major proponent of peace talks with Syria. He silently backed the last government’s indirect peace talks with the Syrians in Turkey and has said on more than one occasion that in his opinion a peace treaty with Syria could have a positive ripple effect through the region by helping to isolate Iran and stabilize Lebanon.

Currently in the throes of a profound economic crisis – Syria is running out of crude oil and Assad recently rejected an offer to sign an economic agreement with the European Union that would have boosted foreign investments – the Israeli defense establishment believes that billions of dollars in aid from Europe and the United States could also be instrumental in pushing Bashar Assad back toward the West.

The objective behind the IDF’s desire to make peace with Syria has changed over the past few decades and is no longer just about preventing war with Israel’s neighbor to the North – it is now based on the belief that peace with Syria would isolate Iran and increase the effectiveness of diplomatic efforts to stop Teheran’s nuclear build-up.

With the right assurances, peace could also mean the cutting off of weaponry supplies to Hamas and Hizbullah, two Iranian proxies that currently enjoy full Syrian support.

This, however, is all pending political decisions in Jerusalem and Damascus. Until any sort of agreement is reached, the Quneitra crossing will continue to serve as the only line of communication between Syria and the state of Israel.

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