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Inside Israel: The rising tension on Israel’s northern and southern borders

Eliezer Shulman

High alert near Gaza’s exploded tunnels, and higher alert on the volatile northern frontier

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

 Mishpacha image

 

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he rising tension on Israel’s northern and southern borders has the country’s defense establishment in a constant state of high alert. While a retaliatory attack could come at any moment from Islamic Jihad and Hamas to avenge the deaths of top terrorist leaders inside a tunnel near Gaza, the IDF’s eyes are focused primarily on the escalating situation in the north.


The North

The Syrian perimeter drew high-level attention last week as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, deputy chief of staff Aviv Kochavi, Northern Command head Yoel Strick, and territorial division commanders — devoted Tuesday and Wednesday to a comprehensive tour of the area.

This unusual senior staff excursion was precipitated by Iran’s stated intention of expanding its presence in Syria. Satellite images posted online two weeks ago by the BBC clearly show construction underway on some sort of large compound south of Damascus. It doesn’t appear to be a naval or air base, which would be Israel’s main concern. However, Iran admits to building the installation in response to an official request by the Assad regime. And a month ago, on a visit to the Syrian capital, General Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of the Iranian military, did ask his hosts to build a port and an air base in Tartus, for use by his forces. A very highly placed source said that Israel’s main efforts at the moment are directed at preventing any such bases, as well as enforcing a no-go zone in the Golan Heights.

“Iran wants to establish itself militarily in Syria, right next to Israel,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in a BBC interview two weeks ago. “Israel will not let that happen.”

As the Syrian civil war began to wind down in recent months, Israel was insistent in talks with both the US and Russia that Iranian forces be kept out of Syria in any final settlement, but that request was turned down. Israel subsequently demanded that a strip 40 kilometers deep (25 miles) from the Syrian border be demilitarized. Ultimately, Israel was granted a buffer zone of only five to seven kilometers (3–4 miles).

 

According to a senior source in Jerusalem, Netanyahu tried to argue that Moscow’s interests would best be served by curbing the Iranian presence in Syria because otherwise, once the civil war ends, Russia would find itself competing with Iran for Syria’s economic resources. The Russians, however, didn’t buy the argument. Moreover, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared two weeks ago that Iran’s presence in Syria is legitimate, and that Russia had never committed to ensuring that Tehran-linked militias would be pulled out of the war zone. That having been said, however, Israeli defense officials informed me that during working meetings, the Russians had given assurances that this policy is only temporary and liable to change.

Senior US officials delivered a similar message, couched in more diplomatic terms, at a secret meeting two weeks ago in Brussels. General Curtis Scaparrotti, supreme allied commander of NATO and head of the US Army’s European Command, hosted IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, IDF Strategic Division head Ram Yavne, and IDF Foreign Relations division head Erez Maisel to discuss Iranian influence in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. After consulting with chief military rabbi Eyal Karim, who said it was a matter of pikuach nefesh, Eisenkot, Yavne, and Maisel held the meeting on Shabbos. Eisenkot declared in no uncertain terms that Israel would prevent Iran from setting up bases near its border, and that he expected full backing from the Western powers. Those discussions led to US National Security Council representatives being dispatched to Israel to hold high-level discussions on the Syrian situation. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 686)

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