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From Golan Heights, Increasing Concern Over Civil War Next Door in Syria

January 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The Golan Heights is a bucolic, agricultural region of Israel, where the nearby civil war in Syria has begun to spill over its borders. Margaret Warner reports on Israel's growing concerns about the unrest in Syria and the growing infiltration of Islamic jihadists among the ranks of Syrian rebels.
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GWEN IFILL: Next to Israel.

President Obama called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today to congratulate him on his victory in last week’s parliamentary elections. The two leaders spoke about ensuring security in the region at a time of growing tensions. With their elections behind them, both men now plan to address the civil war in Syria, the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, and the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians.

And those are the subjects of three stories this week from Margaret Warner, who is on a reporting trip to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

She begins tonight reporting on Israeli concerns about the conflict in nearby Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: The sweeping vistas of the Golan Heights plateau and the bucolic life of the Israelis who live here bear quiet witness to the strategic importance of this area, which Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

But after four decades of quiet along this border, Israel, just like Syria’s Arab neighbors, is increasingly worried about the unpredictable spillover from the civil war there.

This cease-fire line between Israel and Syria has been maintained for nearly 40 years by their armies and U.N. troops as well. But with conflict raging inside Syria, Israel is taking no chances. It’s now fortifying the security barrier behind me to guard against any dangers that may arise.

Here, fence adjoining a United Nations’ observer force outpost. U.N. officials voiced concern this month that the Syrian conflict could threaten the longstanding separation line between the two countries.

COL. RONEN GILBOA, Israel Defense Forces: What we can see here is the military has strengthened the barrier. They have strengthened the gate that we see here. And the military is also introducing new technology devices to protect the border.

MARGARET WARNER: Ronen Gilboa, a reserve colonel in the Israel Defense Forces who lives nearby, says Israel is trying to ensure that the conflict in Syria doesn’t threaten Israel’s hold on the Golan, nor the way of life of the 20,000 Israelis who moved here after Israel took control.

Many live in housing settlements. Others live, as he does, on agricultural kibbutzes growing fruit and wine-producing grapes.

Yet the fighting has already spilled over. Wind farmer and settlement leader Avi Zeira took us to see one of his hilltop wind turbines and point out his settlement across the way.

AVI ZEIRA, Golan Windenergy: To the east of us, we can see the community of Alonei Habashan and this is a typical community, a religious one, something like 100 families.

MARGARET WARNER: That very settlement was hit last December when a Syrian army mortar shell fired at rebel fighters went astray. After several more shells crossed, the Israeli army fired back, destroying a Syrian mobile artillery battery and wounding several Syrian soldiers, just one of many measures Israel has gone to, to protect their unrecognized hold on this strategic land.

AVI ZEIRA: We are located on a military outpost that will be manned in case of war. So this outpost is secured by mine fields. And I’m speaking as an expert. I am an engineering officer. So I was laying this mine field and clearing them. So, take my advice. Don’t cross them.

MARGARET WARNER: You know whereof you speak.

AVI ZEIRA: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: He took us to a second ridge top overlooking a Syrian town the rebels now control, as they do many areas abutting the Golan. There, Zeira spoke of Israel’s second major worry, the danger of infiltration by the growing number of Islamic jihadists among the fighters opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Also concerned on that score, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who flew here recently to tour Golan fortifications. He had just announced Israel would construct an unbroken security wall along the Golan cease-fire line. And, as he did so, he spoke publicly about Israel’s deepest worry involving Syria.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel: Of course, we are monitoring what happens on the other side of this buffer inside Syria regarding the rebels taking over and any movements vis-a-vis the chemical weapons. This is not only an Israeli matter. We are in close contact with the U.S. on this issue. This is a strategic interest for both countries.

MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, on Netanyahu’s order, at least one Iron Dome anti-missile battery was moved north to the Golan. The system was used most recently to protect Israel from rocket attacks during the Gaza conflict.

Vice Premier Silvan Shalom was explicit about the dangers.

VICE PREMIER SILVAN SHALOM, Israel: It means that chemical weapons, if it will move into the hands of the extremists and the terrorists, it will change dramatically the balance of power in the Middle East. And that’s something that I believe most of the world cannot tolerate.

MARGARET WARNER: The Assad regime is believed to have the largest chemical weapons arsenal in the Middle East, say Western intelligence sources, but its fate is uncertain as Assad loses his grip on parts of the country.

Just yesterday, Israeli TV reported Islamist rebel forces near one chemical weapons site and clashing with Syrian troops near another.

DAN MERIDOR, Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy: It’s an open story with no end yet. We don’t interfere in that. We can’t interfere in that, but it’s of real concern. There is the chemical warheads and our very good evidence on bad guys, so to speak, al-Qaida and others, trying to take over. Iranians may try to get in. Hezbollah wants to have their share.

MARGARET WARNER: Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor says that Israel and its allies are most concerned that, as Assad goes down, he may transfer some of Syria’s chemical arsenal to his ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.

DAN MERIDOR: There are many scenarios possible. I don’t want to go into them. One is that they move it to Lebanon and they move it to Hezbollah in Syria and then to Lebanon.

MARGARET WARNER: The militant group Hezbollah, Syria and Iran’s proxy in neighboring Lebanon, fought Israel to a surprising draw in 2006. It is now believed to have missiles, including some supplied by Syria, that could strike Tel Aviv. That city has come under such fire before. And Israelis are prepared.

Every apartment and every house in this middle-class neighborhood contains a safe room where the family can take refuge in the case of attack. That’s been required of every dwelling built here in the last 20 years, ever since Saddam Hussein aimed missiles at Israel during the first Gulf War.

Dani Avram owns a company called Ani Mugan, I Am Protected in Hebrew. He installs, upgrades and retrofits residential safe rooms that serve as shelters in the case of attack.

So what makes this a safe room?

DANI AVRAM, Ani Mugan Construction: First of all, the walls are thicker and of — of concrete. You have a special door for blast. And when it’s locked like this, it’s also being sealed.

MARGARET WARNER: What do — what do your customers tell you? I mean, do they think they will really ever have to use this room?

DANI AVRAM: First of all, they used it.

MARGARET WARNER: They have already used it?

DANI AVRAM: They already used it, we know, just a few months ago. The whole country was in the safe rooms.

MARGARET WARNER: During the Gaza conflict.

DANI AVRAM: Yes. And it’s well-known that these rooms saved — saved a lot of people.

MARGARET WARNER: So they know it works, and they have already used it?

DANI AVRAM: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

DANI AVRAM: Hopefully, not to use it again.

MARGARET WARNER: Avram was referring to the conflict last November, when radical Palestinian groups in Hamas-controlled Gaza fired rockets into Tel Aviv, sending residents scrambling to their shelters. Avram was repairing this safe room after it failed inspection because it wasn’t airtight.

DANI AVRAM: But we can fix it.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

DANI AVRAM: They will survive the next war.

MARGARET WARNER: If you have got enough lead time.

DANI AVRAM: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

DANI AVRAM: That’s true.

MARGARET WARNER: Ensuring enough lead time is the job of Israel’s intelligence community.

RONEN BERGMAN, Yedioth Ahronoth: It would be hard to describe the extent of sources, manpower, money that was poured into Israeli attempts to understand what is happening in Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: Ronen Bergman is military and intelligence correspondent for Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. He says Israel has been spying intently on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, before him for decades.

RONEN BERGMAN: In fact, it led to the belief, President Assad’s belief that there is no communication in Syria, you name it, SMS, Telex, GSM, e-mail, regular phone, cellular phone, that is not bugged by Israel signal intelligence unit. Every time, Mustafa called Mohammed, Moshe is listening.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he says, that surveillance effort has intensified further still, as Israel works to head off any transfer.

What do Israelis fear the most about chemical weapons?

RONEN BERGMAN: If Israel is convinced that Syria is supplying Hezbollah with chemical weaponry of any sort, it would be deemed as crossing a red line, and Israel would go for preemptive strike, period.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the U.S. and Israel are on the same page with how to deal with Syria, chemical weapons threat or anything else?

RONEN BERGMAN: Yes. Yes.

I think that on this — this is a unique topic where President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu do not differ.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, despite the potential threats of the unknown that lie ahead in Syria, Bergman believes the collapse of the Assad regime would be good for Israel’s security.

RONEN BERGMAN: They always say that Israelis are very Israeli-centric, and everything happening in the world is judged only by the question, is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews? I think that every fall of a tyrant in the Middle East is a good development.

MARGARET WARNER: Up on the Golan, Avi Zeira isn’t so sure.

AVI ZEIRA: With all the problems we had with the Assad regime, he kept this border quiet. Who will be the followers? Who is going to replace him?

MARGARET WARNER: Unanswerable questions at this point, which keep Israel on the Golan and elsewhere watching with human eyes and unblinking ones.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret’s next story looks at the debate in Israel over how to deal with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Our reporting team also visited an Israeli winery near the Syrian border. Workers there were eager to portray the Golan Heights as a bucolic destination, not a spot close to a war zone. You can read a very interesting post about that online.