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3 June 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:01pm

Listening to the guns from on high: a view from the Golan Heights

Hezbollah has been fighting rebels and Isis in Syria, now Israel is worried they will turn their attention back to Jerusalem.

By Hannah Lucinda Smith

In a gift shop on the Golan Heights, tourists queue to buy slogan T-shirts. Most of the garments on offer here follow the same theme, a distinctive brand of Israeli tough-guy humour. “Mossad: my job is so secret even I don’t know what I’m doing!” reads one. “Don’t worry America! Israel is behind you!” screams another, above a picture of a F-35 stealth fighter jet.

Yet one of the captions is rather more topical. “Groups that have tried to destroy the Jewish people,” it says. Underneath is a list that runs from Ancient Egypt to Nazi Germany. Each is marked off as “destroyed!”, but the last on the list is followed by a question mark: “Iran?”.

The question of Iran’s attitude to Israel is rather less ironic for the Israel Defence Forces officer tasked with watching the steady progress of Iranian-allied forces just across the border from the Golan Heights. The Israelis took this piece of land during the Six-Day War of 1967 and fully annexed it 14 years later. Syria has never stopped insisting that, one day, it will seize it back. The two countries are officially at war along this border, as idyllic as this lush, mountainous area looks on a recent late-spring morning.

Recently, though, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has had more urgent matters to attend to than reclaiming the Golan Heights from Israel, in the form of the war with rebel and Islamist militias that has been fought across vast swathes of his country since 2011. From this vantage point high up in Israel, tourists get a sweeping view of a part of Syria divided into a messy patchwork of rebel and regime fiefdoms. In the distance, you can hear the occasional sound of machine-gun fire.

“Assad can’t stand on his own – his is a Soviet army, it’s not designed to fight an uprising,” says the IDF officer stationed here, who just gives his name as “Oz”. He spends his days in his small prefab office on a military base high up in the Golan Heights, monitoring a war that is playing out just a few miles away.

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Oz’s biggest worry in relation to Syria is not Isis or the rebels but Iran, one of the major powers supporting the now reinforced Assad regime. Iran is determined to keep Assad in his presidential palace in Damascus, seeing him as a key component in its plans to extend an arc of Shia influence from Tehran, through Baghdad, to Syria and Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast. This trajectory would bring Iran up against the border of Israel, a state that it loudly wishes to destroy.

The Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, a spearhead of Iranian influence if not a direct proxy, has been at the vanguard of Assad’s fight against the Syrian rebels since early 2013. Starting in small numbers, Hezbollah gradually built up its troops and influence inside Syria to the point where, two years ago, it was this faction, and not Assad’s government, that was arranging trips into Syria for journalists. The town of Quneitra in south-western Syria, one of Hezbollah’s footholds in Assad’s territory, is less than two miles from the border with Israel – laid out like a toy town beneath the viewing point with its gift shop on the Golan Heights.

Hezbollah is estimated to have lost up to 2,000 fighters in Syria – but it has gained experience of tough urban warfare and, for the first time, enough acumen credibly to call itself an army rather than a client militia.

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“Hezbollah has experience of urban warfare. But once you give a terror group access to an area, they won’t leave,” says the IDF’s Oz.

Hezbollah has been firing rockets at Israel for decades from their traditional strongholds in southern Lebanon. Now, with new territory in Syria and with the opposition to Assad seriously weakened, Israel is worried that the group will soon turn their attention away from the rebels and back to Jerusalem. Sporadically, the IDF attacks Hezbollah and Syrian army positions over the border, whenever it feels the group is growing too strong.

Recently, Israel’s strikes inside Syria have been growing more frequent: at the end of April, missiles most likely fired by the IDF hit Damascus airport.

For six years, Israel has played the tense role of outside observer, sat uncomfortably on the sidelines of the Syrian war even as the rest of the world’s major powers have been sucked in. But that may not be feasible for much longer.

Just along from the lookout point on the Golan, Farid al-Saeed Ahmed is watching the war over the border too. He is a Druze, a follower of a secretive sect of Shia Islam whose communities are long established in this part of the Levant. As many as 90 per cent of the people living in the Golan are Druze, and, even after 50 years as part of Israel, they speak Arabic among themselves and identify foremost as Syrians.

Ahmed’s fruit farm, a vista of apple and cherry trees coming into bloom in the bright sun, runs right up to the barbed wire and landmine warning signs that mark the frontier. From his land, he looks across to the other side, where the Druze villages that fell on the Syrian side of the 1967 divide have faced a very different fate. “Some say that we are lucky we are under Israeli occupation, because, if there was no occupation, then we would be facing Nusra,” says Ahmed, of the faction linked to al-Qaeda that has threatened to overrun the Druze communities on the Syrian side.

When rebel groups have previously seized Druze areas in the north of the country, they have forced the inhabitants to convert to their brand of Sunni Islam.

He may have fallen on the lucky side of the border, but Ahmed has lost much in this war, too. Before 2011, Druze students from the Golan were allowed to study at Damascus University and Ahmed sold his produce in Syria. Now, his passage to the place he considers his homeland is closed. He can see it, laid out tantalisingly beneath him, but he can’t step on its soil.

“All our family documents are in Quneitra; even our kids still feel like they are Syrian,” he says. “Sometimes we cry for everyone. It’s not our fault that our leaders are dictators.” 

This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning