With no diplomatic relations and decades of mutual enemy-state status, there are no direct flights from Israel to Syria. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.
An Israeli army surveillance post spotted a man in a paraglider entering Syrian territory on Saturday and lost visual contact when he landed on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights in a rebel-controlled area and appeared to be picked up.
Paragliding is a common sport among Israelis and it’s common to see enthusiasts riding the skies on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights on weekends. But crossing the border is an entirely different matter.
The incident kicked off a massive military mobilization overnight as army forces fired flares and scoured the area while intelligence circles tried to find out if an Israeli was unaccounted for anywhere.
While aircraft grumbled overhead all night, rumors swirled on the ground and through the Internet. Military censorship clamped down on the details but social media were abuzz with reports of an Israeli crop-duster pilot who ejected after a malfunction. Or an Israeli glider swept by the wind.
Some thought with horror of what would happen to an Israeli at the hands of Islamic State, which controls a wide swath of Syria.
As day broke Sunday, the story was cleared by military censors. According to the military, the pilot was an Arab Israeli who had taken off for Syria deliberately, apparently to join rebel forces.
It wasn’t immediately clear what motivated the young man, whose face was blurred out in news reports. He was identified only as a 23-year-old Arab citizen from the town of Jaljulya.
Relatives told news media that he went to work in the morning and disappeared. Unidentified family members, whose faces were also blurred out on Israeli media, told reporters the man was just an ordinary Israeli, into bodybuilding and amateur film.
One said he had recently become more devout, but he and other family members rejected the idea that the young man intended to join Syrian rebels. “Israel must bring him back,” the relative said.
However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would revoke the man’s citizenship.
If the army’s suspicion is true, the mystery man joined a few dozen Arab citizens of Israel who have joined rebel forces in Syria and Iraq in recent years, a growing trend that authorities are aware of but careful to keep in proportion.
“This doesn’t characterize the entire population of Arab Israelis,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Sunday. “This is something they’ll regret having done when they’re older.”
Yaalon said the military stood back when it became clear the young man crossed of his own choice.
“Fine, let him enjoy it. Most of them don’t come back,” he said. Whether they do or don’t, the minister said, the issue should be “dealt with accordingly.”
Only the day before, Islamic State circulated a new video, threatening Israel and, for the first time, featuring a Hebrew-speaking fighter.
“The real war has not yet begun … soon not one Jew will be left in Jerusalem or anywhere in the county,” the speaker warns viewers. In partly colloquial Israeli Hebrew with a slight accent, he mocked Israel’s reaction to the recent wave of attacks by “our brothers in Palestine.” Just wait until “tens of thousands come to slaughter you,” he says.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the masked man in the video was also the speaker, but it was the second time in a week that Islamic State had issued a video voicing support for Palestinian attacks on Israelis.
About 40 Arab Israelis have joined the fighting in recent years, most crossing into Iraq and Syria through Turkey. About 10 came back -- some after fighting, some extricated by their families and mediators. Five were killed.
Last year, a missing teenager from East Jerusalem became the hapless star in an Islamic State magazine cover story before being executed as an alleged Israeli spy.
Israeli authorities have been taking measures to prevent the phenomenon from spreading and Islamic State sympathizers from spreading their messages. Last year, Islamic State was outlawed, along with any use of its propaganda, flag or emblems. On Sunday, it was declared a terrorist organization.
“Yesterday an Israeli civilian crossed our border … to join the ranks of the enemy,” Netanyahu said at the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday. “We will act to nullify his citizenship. That is what is done in any such case,” he said. An order to that effect was signed later Sunday.
Reportedly, the young man had planned his crossing. The family was told he had practiced paragliding and had a glider in his car. To avoid calling attention, he did not take off from the Mevo Hama cliff, a paragliding hot spot on the southern Golan Heights, but from a nearby field.
With increased military activity related to the civil war in Syria as well as growing security threats, Israel monitors its airspace tightly. Although the chief interest is to identify and intercept any incoming threat, outbound movements are also followed keenly.
Saturday’s initial fear of a sport accident that could end badly was not without precedent. In 2005, an Israeli paraglider was swept over the border and landed in Lebanon. He was extricated by the Israeli army amid a long gunfight with Hezbollah militants.
As a storm with forceful winds hit Israel on Sunday, weather memes also hit social media. “How stormy is it? You don’t need a paraglider to blow into Syria,” one quipped.
Sobelman is a special correspondent