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Conflict within and without

Fifty years after the dramatic gains of the Six-Day War, Israel is shoring up contested borders as a bulwark against persistent Islamic foes

Conflict within and without

Israeli military medics assist wounded Syrians who crossed into Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. (Associated Press/Photo by Dusan Vranic)

JERUSALEM—Mount Hermon rises in the distance bearing a fading snowcap, surrounded by high wisps of clouds on a late spring day. In the near distance, scuffs of dust fly, making clouds of their own as Syrian forces recommence firing on rebel positions. Mortar rounds thwunk, creating puffs of smoke that billow first here, then there, across the horizon. As they land in swift succession, the plains before Mount Hermon exhale red dust.

“That’s a regular sound,” says Ilan Shulman, a former paratrooper and intelligence officer in the Israeli Defense Forces. Shulman grew up on the nearby Merom Golan kibbutz in the heart of the western Golan Heights region.

Mortar rounds and shelling continue, but Shulman, who runs a jeep touring company from the kibbutz, isn’t fazed. He stands casually with a map in his hand just inside the Israeli-controlled area of the Golan Heights, watching at a safe distance perhaps the world’s worst ongoing conflict.

Across a narrow demilitarized zone is Syria, where a six-year war has killed more than 500,000 people. There, government nerve gas attacks or Islamic terrorism have afflicted thousands, and fighting has uprooted approximately 12 million, leaving more than half a country homeless. The nearest village, visible across the plains, sits nearly empty.

From a promontory extending into the demilitarized zone, Israelis are closer to Damascus than to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Lebanon and Jordan are within sight, but it’s the 45-mile border with Syria straight ahead that’s the focal point. Islamic State militants are perhaps 7 miles away, Shulman notes, and each week brings fresh news of encroachments.

Ahead are two brigades of the Syrian army, with regular ground support from Hezbollah and air cover provided by Russians and Iranians. None of those parties are fond of Israel, it goes without saying. But Shulman notes wryly, “Right here is Safe Zone Number Four,” a reference to the de-escalation plan dividing Syria into four areas proposed recently by Russia and supported by Iran and Turkey. As billows of black smoke rise in the distance, Shulman continues: “You can see how it looks. This is supposed to be under a cease-fire now.”

At the same time, the two-thirds of the Golan Heights controlled by Israel appears, like Shulman, unfazed by the proximity of war. Vineyards extend in disciplined rows behind us, and the nearby kibbutz includes orchards bursting with apples, pears, kiwis, and cherries, plus groves of mango and avocado. The IDF closely patrols this border, but it keeps a low profile. Tractors are more prevalent than army vehicles.

Israelis understand the progress of war in Syria—and the stakes for the region—better than most. While the Trump administration has made a pledge to work toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Israelis themselves know their security rests inside an ever-widening zone of insecurity and threats. Hardly breaking for breath, Shulman can run through the evolution of jihadist groups fighting the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a who’s-who of terrorists: “In the beginning they were Jaba al-Nusra, Victory Front, or al-Nusrah Front; and they changed their name to Fatah al-Sham, or Conquest of Syria; then to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Liberation of Syria, which sounds even better.”

It’s all al-Qaeda, Shulman points out, led by Muhammad al-Jawlani, head of the group’s growing Syria operations. In May the United States put out a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture—making him one of the top five most wanted jihadist leaders in the world. That’s probably news to most Americans, whose political leaders strike a studied fixation on defeating ISIS, another splinter group formed under former al-Qaeda leaders in Syria in 2013. Israelis cannot afford to overlook all the complex threats lurking in doorways like the Golan Heights.

After reciting a detailed history of the Syrian conflict, Shulman concludes: “These are Sunnis, and they fight Shiites. And Shiites, and they fight Sunnis. And we are not Sunnis, and we are not Shiites. And finally it’s an advantage to be a Jew in the Middle East: This is not our war.”

Since June, fighting in Syria’s southern Quneitra province—situated in the one-third of the Golan Heights that Syria controls—has intensified. After 10 mortars landed inside Israel not far from the promontory where Shulman had given his briefing, the IDF fired back. On June 24 it launched airstrikes, reportedly killing two Syrian soldiers, to halt the stray shelling as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham rebels fought Syrian forces nearby.

Such incidents aren’t uncommon, but this time the Israeli army went further, closing for 48 hours the Golan border area to all civilians. Israeli Defense Minister Avidgor Liberman said Israel has “no intention of launching a military operation” against Syria or rebel groups, but how long Israelis can say “not our war” is questionable.

Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli soldiers patrol near the border with Syria after projectiles fired from the war-torn country landed in the Golan Heights in June. (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images)

IN BIBLICAL TIMES the Golan plateau fell to the half-tribe of Manasseh—one of Joseph’s sons—but the Assyrian kings wrested it away, taking Manasseh’s descendants into captivity. The Golan Heights didn’t again return to Israeli possession until 1967 in the Six-Day War, also known as the Arab-Israeli War.

In a dramatic showdown, Israel decided to invade the Golan on Day 5 of the war, even as its diplomats at UN headquarters in New York engaged in all-night negotiations for a cease-fire.

In swift days of battle, the IDF had captured Gaza and portions of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and wrested East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. As Israel eyed its exposed northern border with Syria, the Soviet Union stepped in with the first shipment of weapons to Cairo, and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who headed Arab forces fighting Israel, rejected the UN Security Council’s cease-fire initiative.

While Syria protested Israeli encroachments on the Golan Heights, Israel declared the cease-fire effort nothing but a camouflage for a premeditated attack. Opening a third front in a war no one had expected Israel to win, however, was a dramatic escalation: It risked drawing a direct response from the Soviet Union in support of Arab nations. That, in turn, threatened to provoke the United States, which to that point had evaded aiding Israel.

Heedless of the UN negotiations in New York underway, IDF commanders threw eight brigades against Syrian defensives and launched paratroopers over the Golan just as Israel’s political leaders ordered them to stop. The orders, the commanders said, came too late.

While the Soviets threatened to send ground forces to Syria, and the United States warned Israel to halt, the IDF advance on the Golan already had begun. Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s minister of defense and soon-to-be head of state, gave his troops perhaps the most memorable order of the war, setting the course for the next half-century of Israeli-Arab enmity: “Strike the enemy’s settlements, turn them into dust, pave the Arab roads with the skulls of the Jews.”

But Assad’s military was weak, and he miscalculated. Convinced Israel would strike Damascus, he ordered three brigades to fall back from the Golan Heights to protect the capital just 30 miles away. Israeli paratroopers on the Golan Heights found abandoned tanks and deserted trenches as they crossed the plateau, and quickly seized control.

As Syrian forces massed at Damascus, its diplomats pressing for protection at a 4 a.m. emergency session of the UN Security Council, they were abandoned by both Egypt and the Soviet Union. At the same time, the United States ordered the U.S. Sixth Fleet, heading west in the Mediterranean away from the Middle East, to turn back, a sublime but significant show of support for Israel.

In six days, a country barely two decades old with less than 3 million people had defeated three Arab armies, conquered remote heights plus Jerusalem’s Old City, and tripled its size. Israelis had moved in a week’s time, as author Yossi Klein Halevi noted, “from fears of a second holocaust to military mastery of the Middle East.”

Further, by Israeli forces stopping at the Golan, a Cold War confrontation was averted and the modern Middle East alignment was born—with Syria affirming the Soviet Union as its ally while the United States for the first time came to the direct aid of Israel, launching a relationship now the cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy for 50 years.

Mindy Belz

Shulman (Mindy Belz)

IT’S NOT LOST ON ISRAELIS THAT, apart from the Six-Day War, ISIS fighters today might threaten Israel from the Golan Heights. Syria and Egypt returned to fight for the territory in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, whose outcome led to Egypt signing a full peace deal with Israel in 1979, normalizing relations. Syria under Hafez Assad chose a different path: It relied on Soviet support and, after the 1979 revolution in Iran, a new alliance with the ayatollahs.

The “radicalization of Syrian politics and the frailty of the Syrian state” played a major role in the crisis pushing the region into the Six-Day War, argues former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Itamar Rabinovich, and that same frailty “resulted in a civil war that has become the single most important issue in the Middle East.”

American presidents in succession have focused on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and President Donald Trump looks to be no different. But on the ground Israel appears more intent to use the still-contested borders it acquired half a century ago as a bulwark against outside foes.

“The single most dangerous threat to Israel today comes from the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies,” said Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project, a New York–based organization promoting Christian engagement in the Middle East. The West Bank and Gaza present their own dangers “through armed terrorist factions, rockets, attack tunnels, and random stabbing attacks,” he noted, but these are “low intensity” challenges compared with Iran’s ongoing threat to wipe Israel off the map.

Increasingly, Iranian encroachment via Syria represents the line in the sand. “The domination of Iran in this area of Syria is something that Israel won’t tolerate,” said Shulman, suggesting Israel also would oppose any safe zone jointly patrolled by Iran. “For Israel, it’s dangerous, it’s significant, it’s extremely concerning if we will have here Iranian officers by this [Golan Heights] fence.”

Halevi, the Israeli-American author whose 2013 book recounts the Six-Day War (Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation) is willing to go further. “My prediction is the next Israeli war will be fought over Iranian presence in Syria,” he said during a briefing in Jerusalem in May. “Every inch of Israel can be covered by Iranian missiles. No one will allow the possibility of a Hamas flag flying over Jerusalem,” he said, referencing the Iranian-backed militant group now ruling Gaza.

Facing existential threats, Israel appears more determined than ever to secure what it has retained of its borders from the 1967 war, though these are still contested by its neighbors and the UN.

Israel evacuated the Sinai Peninsula under the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace agreement, and unilaterally left Gaza in 2005 as part of a disengagement plan that followed the collapse of the Oslo Accords. It maintains the West Bank of the Jordan River, including all Jerusalem. Before the war, Jordan controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank. These areas Israel conquered and annexed in the Six-Day War, but the UN deems them occupied under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Associated Press

An Israeli soldier lines up captured Egyptian troops during the Six-Day War. (Associated Press)

After reducing Israeli settlements in the West Bank—and eliminating altogether settlements in Sinai and Gaza—Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has begun again to expand them. In 2011 the Israeli Cabinet transferred authority to approve settlement construction from the Agriculture Ministry to the prime minister.

Netanyahu initially pledged support only for “needs of natural growth in the population” but in 2012 announced a plan to build 851 new homes in five settlements—and from there has OK’d tens of thousands more—approving 3,000 new units in one two-week period early this year. With expansion nearly 10 percent—or 600,000—of Israel’s 6.3 million Jewish citizens now live outside Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

Over the last decade Israel also has constructed a 450-mile security barrier as a way to halt Palestinian terrorist attacks. The fence follows mostly pre-1967 borders—in many areas cutting Israel off from the gains it made in the Six-Day War. The Israeli government claims the barrier has dramatically cut terror, but Palestinians say it has devastated the West Bank economy. They attribute the drop in terror incidents to increased cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian police and counterterror units.

CRITICS ARGUE that both the security barrier and the continued expansion of Jewish settlements into Palestinian areas of the West Bank make impossible a two-state solution, which would require carving out contiguous geographic areas, and that they threaten Israel’s character as a Jewish democratic state.

But as serious threats to Israel’s security have grown, there’s been no significant progress toward the two-state solution in decades. Both Israelis and Palestinians acknowledge it remains a dim prospect—particularly with Palestinian leadership divided between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

For all these reasons, both sides—plus some Democrats along with Republicans in Washington—cautiously welcomed the initial guidelines President Donald Trump put forward on the eve of his May trip to Israel. Trump’s guidelines were a departure from previous blueprints.

The White House proposed—and Israel tentatively agreed to—measures to improve “both the Palestinian economy and the quality of life for the Palestinian public.” Those include expanding zoning for Palestinian agricultural, industrial, and residential use in the West Bank; expanding hours and reducing wait times at key crossing points between Israel and the West Bank; and improving infrastructure, mainly sewage, water, and electricity in certain areas.

Such improvements “could in fact be meaningful—but only if they take place on a large scale,” said Hady Amr, a career U.S. diplomat who served as State Department deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the Obama administration: “The Trump administration’s game plan for the West Bank makes eminent sense—at least in the very short term.”

Associated Press/Photo by Ariel Schalit

The Shuafat Palestinian refugee camp stands behind the security barrier in Jerusalem. (Associated Press/Photo by Ariel Schalit)

Rezoning carefully selected portions of the West Bank, Amr wrote in an article for the Brookings Institution, could add a billion dollars a year to the Palestinian economy. “In a situation where per capita GDP in Israel is 10 times higher than in the West Bank and Gaza, any and every step that better allows the Palestinian people to better reach their human and economic potential … is desperately needed.”

Most past efforts at peace between Israel and the Palestinians have tended to focus on a political settlement. “It’s easy to criticize President Trump as yet another president convinced that he can bridge these divides, but it’s also notable that Trump is taking a much stronger economic approach to the problem,” Nicholson said. “If Trump is able to devise an economic plan for improving Palestinian lives, showing those living in the West Bank that dealing with Israel actually leads to better quality of life, the political side of the process is much more likely to move forward.”

Nicholson’s Philos Project, which launched in 2015, will bring this year 2,000 American students and dozens of Christian leaders to the region for seminars, service, and study. Westerners tend to see the political tensions in the Middle East without understanding cultural and economic life, he said. Firsthand tours are a way to help them become smarter on Middle East issues “by connecting them with real-life people on the ground.” I attended a Philos-sponsored trip in May with other journalists, analysts, and educators. We visited key border areas from the Golan to Gaza, and met with Six-Day War veterans, Israeli leaders, Palestinians, and journalists.

At Israel’s southern end, earth movers and digging rigs are clearing a path for a new north-south security wall to boost the east-west security barrier with Gaza already in place. This will be the most sophisticated and expensive security structure yet. The 37-mile expanse will come equipped with underground sensors to detect tunneling, a reaction to Hamas having used tunnels to launch attacks on Israel and to smuggle weapons into Gaza. And just on the other side of the tiny enclave—Gaza is roughly 25 miles long and varies from 3 to 7 miles wide—more foreign jihadist fighters linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda await.

A growing mınority

Associated Press/Photo by Diaa Hadid

An Israeli student studies Aramaic (Associated Press/Photo by Diaa Hadid)

Two million Arab-Israelis are citizens of Israel, or 20 percent of the population. Most are Muslims whose family lineage in Israel predates the country’s founding. But a small percentage are neither Muslims nor Arabs. An estimated 135,000 are Aramaean Christians, many of them with roots in Israel stretching back to the time of Jesus. For decades the Israeli government forced them to identify as Arab-Israelis because they are not Jewish, consigning them to Arabic-speaking schools and lumping them culturally and politically with Muslims.

In 2014 that began to change when Israel formally recognized Aramaic-speaking Christians as a population category. Those born to such families—including Maronites, Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, and Assyrian Church of the East members—now qualify to register as Aramaeans.

“Israel is not separating us, they are recognizing our identity, which was trying to be wiped out since the Arab conquest in the seventh century,” said Shadi Khalloul, chairman of the Aramaic Christian Association. “If ISIS conquered this land today, we face the same destiny as Jews.”

Israeli soldiers forced Khalloul’s Maronite family from their village of Kfar Birem during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. They told his grandfather the family would be allowed to return in two weeks, but instead the Israeli Defense Forces blocked their return and destroyed Kfar Birem in 1953. Its Aramaic-speaking community—which traces its roots to the church of Antioch where followers of Jesus were first called Christians—was permanently relocated to Jish, in northern Galilee.

Like Hebrew and Arabic, Aramaic is a Semitic language and was the everyday spoken language of tradesman—Jew, Babylonian, Greek, or Persian—traveling the ancient Near East from the sixth century B.C. It gradually replaced Hebrew as the language of the Jews and was the language Jesus commonly spoke. But it too was supplanted with the coming of Islam in the seventh century A.D. by Arabic.

Prior to creating the separate ethnic category, Israel estimated several hundred citizens would qualify; but now officials realize there are tens of thousands of Aramaic-speaking Israelis. Last month the government agreed to subsidize the legal fees for Christians who qualify to change their identity cards from Arab to Aramaean. Khalloul, who also serves as a fellow with Philos Project, is with the group pressing Israeli officials to assist Aramaic-language training, to recognize the contributions Aramaic-speaking Christians have made to Israel (by building a memorial to fallen Christian IDF soldiers, among other projects), and to restore forgotten Aramaic-speaking villages.

Khalloul is far from bitter about past grievances, calling them “imperfections in democracy.” These, he says, “can be fixed by a positive attitude and engagement in the political system.” For Christians in the Middle East, Khalloul said, Israel is perhaps the only country at present where their numbers are growing: “We are the voice for Eastern Christians, who cannot speak out in Lebanon and Iraq and Syria.” —M.B.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.


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  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Thu, 07/06/2017 04:41 pm

    Thanks for a very informative report.

  • GP
    Posted: Thu, 07/13/2017 05:44 pm

    Not to nitpick, but the cover is a bit odd. "Israel Stands Alone." At what point in their history have they not stood alone? And to discount my (and World's) own point, they don't really stand alone. Egypt is more friendly to them than we probably know, and at least for the next 4 years, America stands firmly with them. 

  • Greg Eades
    Posted: Fri, 07/14/2017 09:28 pm

    Excellent article!  Thanks for the balanced perspective.