JERUSALEM: Israel’s frontier with Syria, where militants have kidnapped 45 UN peacekeepers, has become a magnet for militant activity and Israel itself is now a target, the defence minister and security analysts said on Tuesday.
The Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked group fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has established a major presence in the region, analysts said, and is poised to carry out attacks across the barren borderlands where Syria, Israel and Jordan converge.
Iran meanwhile is seeking to expand its influence in the region via its support for Assad and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, all of which are allied against the Sunni insurgency confronting Assad, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said.
“Iran’s fingerprints can be seen in Syria, including in the Golan Heights, in attempts to use terror squads against us,” Yaalon told an economic conference as he set out the combined threat from militant groups in Syria. In their latest assault, Nusra Front fighters seized 45 Fijians serving as UN monitors in the demilitarised zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. It is demanding to be removed from global terrorism lists in exchange for their release.
“We now have Jabhat al-Nusra, which is basically al Qaeda, on the border with Israel, and Israel is a legitimate target for Muslim militants all over,” said Aviv Oreg, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and a specialist on al Qaeda.
Oreg said it was only “a matter of time” before the militant groups now engaged in fighting in Syria turn more of their attention towards Israel.
“I cannot tell you exactly when, but it’s very risky. It only needs one suicide bomber to cross the fence and attack an Israeli military patrol or a tractor full of farmers going to work in the fields...”
But while Israel may be growing alarmed, it is not clear that the Jewish state is a strategic priority for Nusra or other radical Sunni Muslim groups.
Their focus since 2011 has been the overthrow of Assad, a campaign that has bogged down from infighting in their ranks and Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah’s intervention on the side of Assad.
If Israel is attacked in any serious way, the retaliation would likely be intense, setting back the insurgency and opening the way for Assad’s forces to further reclaim the initiative.
Israel has bolstered its forces in the Golan Heights, a rugged plateau seized from Syria during the 1967 war, with armoured patrols keeping a close eye across the frontier, sometimes passing within 300 metres (yards) of Nusra fighters.
The plateau, scattered with fruit farms, vineyards and rocky peaks, looks down across the plains of southwest Syria, where Nusra and other groups, including the secular, Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, can be seen battling Assad’s forces.
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