A tank on the Israeli side of the border in the Golan Heights, near Majdal Shams. BAZ RATNER/REUTERS
Until last week, against the backdrop of the ongoing civil war in Syria, the Israeli-annexed part of the Golan Heights had been usually quiet. All that changed last Monday, when dozens of Druze residents of Majdal Shams, a village in the Israeli-annexed Golan, attacked a military ambulance carrying two injured Syrians. The villagers beat one of the Syrians to death on suspicion that he was an Islamic militant. Two Israeli soldiers in the ambulance were also slightly wounded. The incident raises many questions about Israel’s involvement in Syria, particularly its alleged cooperation with the radical Islamist group, the al-Nusra Front, and the future implications of such involvement.
Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman ridiculed suggestions that Israel was aiding al-Nusra. However, many reports indicate some sort of cooperation between Israel and Islamist Syrian rebels. In September 2014, al-Nusra Front jihadists took control of Syria’s side of the border crossing in Golan. In a UN report covering the period from March to May 2014, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) detected contact between rebels and the Israeli army across the Golan ceasefire line. A Syrian fighter gave more details of the alleged cooperation between Israel and al-Nusra in this detailed report by Al-Monitor.
Helping al-Nusra ____ even if Israel denies it ____ makes sense for good reasons:
First, the enemy of my enemy: Since January 2015, the Golan has been the main Israel-Hezbollah front. By fighting on the side of Assad, the Lebanese guerilla group poses a serious threat to both Israel and Sunni rebels, including the al-Nusra Front.
On January 19, Iran confirmed that a senior Iranian general, among other Hezbollah cadres, was killed Sunday in an alleged Israeli strike on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Preventing Hezbollah from controlling the Syrian side of the Golan Heights is probably Israel’s main goal in its secret support of al-Nusra. Israel does not want to face another south Lebanon on its border with Syria. As Islamists rebels have clearly had the upper hand against other supposedly moderate anti-Assad groups, it is logical for Israel to cooperate with the strongest group in Golan.
Second, helping those groups with logistics and medical aid may tame their animosity toward Israel. Will those who are treated in Israeli hospitals feel the urge to fight the Jewish State in future? Probably not; at least that is what Israel is hoping for. Israel may not necessarily earn more friends, but it may lessen its enemies in the Levant.
Finally, although the Assad regime has survived four long years of civil war, the areas under its control have shrunk and the possibility of the regime’s complete collapse may soon become a reality. Infiltrating groups such as Nusra offers Israel a rare opportunity to build its intelligence database with information about Syria’s future rulers. So in the future, Israel will not have to face an unknown enemy if al-Nusra turns hostile and tries to attack it.
The incident in Majdal Shams has given credibility to previous reports of cooperation between Israel and al-Nusra. Some within the Druze community in Majdal Shams have already made up their minds, and believe Israel and Nusra are indeed partners. They are clearly unhappy with that and are willing to stop this cooperation, even by violent means. Israel may have calculated that its links with al-Nusra are a harmless win-win formula, but the Majdal Shams incident has shattered this assumption.
There is a long history of antipathy between the Druze as a minority branch of Shia Islam and Sunni Islamism in the Middle East. This hostility has now been aggravated by fears of an impending massacre of the inhabitants of the Druze town of Khadr on the Syrian side of the border by anti-Assad Syrian militants. Majdal Shams has a clear Syrian identity, despite the Israeli annexation. Today, the village is divided between those who support Assad and those who back the rebels. Nonetheless, the fear of Islamist militants is evident, especially after al-Nusra Front killed at least 20 Druze villagers in Syria.
Even if Israel manages to calm the Druze’s fear, which is unlikely after Netanyahu’s pledge to track down Druze rioters, its involvement in Syria will continue to backfire. On the one hand, the incident in Magdal Shams clearly highlights that Hezbollah–Assad forces are still operative in Golan and able to inflict injuries among rebels. Israel may have succeeded in curtailing Hezbollah’s involvement, but not eradicating it. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that al-Nusra will be less hostile to Syrian Druze community in return of Israel’ s assistance. In fact, al-Nusra will never acknowledge Israel’s help or be grateful for its support; the group may even spin its cooperation with Israel to portray itself as smart and manipulative.
Preoccupied by Iran, Sunni Islamism seems to have become Israel’s blind spot. If the allegations that Israel is helping al-Nusra are true, then Israel is repeating America’s mistake in Afghanistan, when it was lured into supporting the Islamist rebels while it was fighting the Soviets. It is one thing to help wounded Syrian civilians; it is another to get militarily involved in helping radical militants. The negative impacts will not just affect Israel, but the entire region.