NORTHERN ISRAEL – The spillover of violence from the Syrian conflict into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is threatening to jeopardize the decades old cease-fire between the two countries and spark a regional conflict.
A series of mighty Israeli airstrikes, apparently on weapons convoys heading from Syria towards President Bashar Assad’s allies in the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, has shattered the fragile truce that has existed along the border since 1973.
In a rare opportunity, we were invited to an Israeli air base in the north of the country – the Israelis wanted to make a public point about the heightened tension along the border.
As it turned out, just as the crew arrived, a deafening siren sounded and pilots raced to their aircraft.
Within a few moments, F-16 aircraft thundered down the runway.
“It’s the kind of thing happening more and more,” one of the uniformed escorts explained.
For an F-16, the base is a two minute flight from the Golan Heights.
“We have for 40 years been training for this exact moment. And we are ready for anything,” said a pilot that can be identified under Israeli military rules only as “Major L.”
The pilots at the base are not permitted to talk about the attacks. Officially, Israeli will not acknowledge responsibility.
"We are searching for peace, but preparing for war,’’ is all Pilot L would say. When asked if he had already flown missions across the border, he shook his head slowly: no comment.
But Israel’s leaders have said loud and long they will use whatever force is necessary to stop Hezbollah – their country’s sworn enemy – gaining advanced armaments from Syria.
“We don't know what will come the day after Assad,” explained a second officer, “Commander M,” referring to a potential post-Assad world.
“It could be that weapons that are pointed internally in Syria at the moment might be pointed at us in the future and that's what we need to be ready for," he said.
Israel has attacked Syria three times. After the last time, in May, Assad was finally moved to threaten retaliation in the event of a fourth.
This presents Israel with a dilemma and the world with a very obvious danger of escalation.
“We might be close to exhausting the number of opportunities we have to launch strikes into Syria without generating a response,” said Alon Ben-David, senior defense correspondent with Israel’s Channel 10.
“So if there is a next time – and I believe there will be a next time, perhaps very soon – Israel will have to count to a hundred before it decides to take action.’’
The next time would certainly arrive if Russia fulfills what it calls an existing order from Syria for S-300 air defense missiles.
It’s a sophisticated system with a range that could threaten Israel’s international airport near Tel Aviv.
Israel says it will destroy the missiles before they become operational in Syrian hands, never mind allowing them to transfer to Hezbollah.
So far, Russia has held off, but Israel fears an arms race. It is just about comfortable with the U.S. shipping rifles and ammunition to the rebels, but not much more.
For the past several days, Israeli troops, sailors and airmen have been taking part in a massive military exercise in the north. We’re told it’s a routine war game. But the message is again clear.
Until now, Israel has counted on its vastly superior forces acting as a deterrent. For Assad to look for confrontation with his southern neighbor would be to sign a suicide note for his regime.
But in times of crisis, calculations that once held good can break down.
“It might be reasons of pride, or dignity, or strategy he turns the civil war into an Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Ben-David.
“Then we would be going into a new game and we don’t know how it ends. Both sides could be dragged into a war they didn’t intend,” he said.
At the airbase, the F-16s we watched take off a few minutes earlier soon safely returned. A false alarm, this time. But the warning signs are real enough.