Syrian rebels seize border crossing into Israel-held Golan Heights
Fighting in Syria’s civil war reached Israel’s doorstep on Wednesday, with rebels seizing the Syrian side of a crossing into the Israeli-held portion of the Golan Heights and the Israeli army reporting that stray gunfire wounded one of its officers.
The spillover of the Syrian conflict, though limited, rattled nerves, coming just a day after Israel and the Palestinian militant faction Hamas agreed to a truce after a 50-day battle in the Gaza Strip. That cease-fire held throughout the day on Wednesday.
The rebel group that overran the Quneitra crossing includes small elements of Al Qaeda-linked groups such as the Nusra Front, which would place Israeli army positions within firing range of some of the more radical Islamists battling Syrian President Bashar Assad.
An Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, confirmed that the crossing was no longer controlled by Syrian government forces.
Lerner said the Israeli army had declared a closed military zone in the border area and had “substantial forces” in the area holding defensive positions. However, he and other officials signaled Israel’s determination to avoid being drawn into Syria fighting.
With heavy explosions and gunfire audible from across the Syrian frontier, Israeli authorities ordered farmers to stay away from orchards and fields near the Quneitra crossing and closed some tourist sites and lookout posts to civilians, Israeli media reported. The Haaretz newspaper quoted tourism officials as saying visitors some distance from the crossing had not been given any special instructions in response to the fighting.
The Golan, filled with streams, forests and wildflowers, is a popular summertime vacation destination for Israelis.
Hours before the officer was wounded, the Israeli military said three mortar shells landed on the Israeli side of the border, and that Israeli forces had responded with artillery strikes aimed at Syrian army positions. Several similar incidents have taken place in recent weeks; last week a mortar shell fired from Syria struck Israeli-controlled territory, and in July a rocket hit an open field near an Israeli army post.
The fire was not believed to have been deliberately aimed at Israel, but as a matter of policy, Israel holds Syrian government forces responsible for any errant shelling. It has also complained to the U.N. peacekeeping force that operates along the frontier.
Amos Gilad, head of the defense ministry’s political-military bureau, told Israel Radio that Israel’s policy of a measured response to cross-border fire from Syria was intended to convey a message: “Leave Israel out of this.”
Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War, and fought off a Syrian attempt to retake the rugged plateau in 1973. Israel in effect annexed the Golan in 1981, but the step was not internationally recognized.
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman, Jordan. Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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