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The Explosive End of Israel's 'Quietest Border'

Mostly peaceful for decades, the Golan Heights are poised to become the front lines in Israel's defense against both the Syrian regime and Islamist rebels.
December 24, 2014, 4:57pm
Photo via AP

Watch 'The War Next Door,' VICE News' documentary on Israel's border with Syria, here.

Toward the end of harvest season, Tal Pelter's callused palms look like he's dipped them in ink.

"It's Shiraz," Pelter says with a smile. It's a sunny day at his winery located on Ein Zivan, a kibbutz near Israel's border with Syria, and he is recalling a day in September when he heard something flying overhead. As a precaution, he sent his kids home and told a group of Austrian tourists hoping to do a tasting that they should leave.

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"I don't really know why [I did it]," says Pelter, who had grown accustomed to the daily sound of explosions from across the border.

An hour later, however, a mortar hit the main building of his winery. Shrapnel severely wounded one of Pelter's employees and splintered tanks of fermenting juice, "It was many thousands of liters," Pelter says. "It washed over the blood of my worker, who was holding his neck before he fell over."

Evidence suggests Israel is helping Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights. Read more here.

The kibbutz lies among the rolling hills and black basalt rock of the Golan Heights, a few feet from Syria. Glancing at the border fence, Pelter — a sinewy former combat officer — says of the Syrian civil war, "It is just going to get worse over there."

But despite that prediction — and despite the mortar round that hit his winery — Pelter also says he's not worried about the fighting spilling over the border: "I can't see that it will affect us. It hasn't affected our routine at all."

This seeming contradiction points to the conundrum Israel faces on its Syrian border. Its longtime enemy, Bashar al Assad, is fighting against Islamist forces who may hate Israel even more than he does. In the muddle, Israel has been accused of collaborating with both Assad and with various rebel entities, accusations that provoke nervous chuckles in Jerusalem.

Formally speaking, there has never been peace between Israel and Syria. Wars erupted in 1948, in 1967 — when Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel, along with a few thousand Druze residents — and in 1973. Informally, however, the border was one of the quietest in the Middle East between 1973 and 2011.

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In fact, ask anyone in the Golan Heights, Jew or Druze, what they think about the region's shift in fortunes, and you will hear a variation of "it was our quietest border" uttered with disbelief at what is occurring today. Israeli governments from 1967 to the 2000s entertained motions for returning the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for official peace. During the Oslo peace negotiations in the late 1990s, nervous Israeli oenophiles would joke about the possibility, reassuring themselves that peace pioneer and then-foreign minister Shimon Peres loved fine wines too much to give the region up.

Today, however, the notion of a return of the Golan Heights is so absurd that it doesn't even score an anemic smile. Many people are old enough to be reminded of the period between 1948 and 1967, when Israelis living along the country's northern border were targets for Syrian snipers aiming at them from the heights. In some cases, people were targeted in their own living rooms.

Islamic State fighters capture Jordanian pilot after downing coalition warplane in Syria. Read more here.

Pelter's workers now work in the vineyards only after coordinating with security personnel. UN observers no longer patrol this border area; Last August, the al Qaeda-backed group al-Nusra Front kidnapped a contingent of Fijian peacekeepers. The Fijians survived, but the United Nations Observer Disengagement Force in operation since 1974 quietly ceased its activities.

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Pelter looks at his vines and shakes his head. "The crazies are running things now," he says.

Later, retired Colonel Eshkol Shokron, who commanded the IDF Golan division until his retirement in 2012, says, "[The Syrian rebels] will absolutely aim at us. I have zero doubt. Once they're done with Assad — which doesn't mean he'll be gone, but maybe only that he will no longer rule over this area — they will join forces to attack Israel. It may be the only subject they'll ever agree about."

In years past, relaxed blue-bereted UN observers were a common site in Golan coffee shops. Paunchy Israeli reservists in their forties often joined them. Today, however, crews of highly trained, well-equipped young soldiers patrol the border, supervising an array of sensors and new facilities. They don't have time for coffee.

Follow Noga Tarnopolsky on Twitter: @NTarnopolsky

Watch 'The War Next Door,' VICE News' documentary on Israel's border with Syria, here.