Middle East


Fearing a spillover from Syria's civil war, Israel has announced it will build a fence along its northern border with Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is concerned about rebel groups that have captured areas close to the border, and that the fence is a necessary precaution. Sheera Frenkel reports.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Yael Saperia sits at a cafe just a few miles from the Syrian border. A few months ago, an errant shell fired by a Syrian tank landed in her neighbor's backyard. Their village, Alonei Habashan, is one of the closest to the Syrian border, but she says that the violence raging just across the border is still hardly felt in Israel.

YAEL SAPERIA: In the meantime, we're getting, you know, we're getting information through the army to go on with our regular lives, go to work, your kids go to school. I mean, we haven't changed anything.

FRENKEL: Despite the relative quiet, Prime Minister Netanyahu is going ahead with plans to build the new border fence. In a transcript released after last Sunday's cabinet meeting, Netanyahu is quoted as saying that the Syrian army has moved away from the border area while jihadist forces have moved in. Netanyahu adds that the Syrian regime is very unstable and that the fence will protect Israel from both infiltration and terrorism. In a recent tour along Israel's northern border in the Golan Heights, scattered gunfire and explosions could be heard coming from inside Syria.

Amos Harel, defense correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper, says that the Israeli defense establishment sees little chance that the Syrian army would launch an attack on Israel at this stage. But standing on the ruins of a bunker used by Israeli soldiers in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, he said a conventional attack is not the only concern.

AMOS HAREL: There is the problem I mentioned of al-Qaida, chemical weapons, whatever you'd like, but not the conventional warfare of divisions. In '73, this was the site of the greatest tank battle since World War II.

FRENKEL: Harel says Israel is concerned about the strengthening of various rebel groups along the frontier. He says the rebels have used the border with Israel to play cat-and-mouse games with the Syrian army.

HAREL: The presence of the Israeli forces close by is sort of a shield against Assad loyalists' military activity. This is not something Israel is happy about, but it's quite logical for the rebels to use this method to try to avoid being hurt by attacks from Syrian side.

FRENKEL: In a background briefing given to NPR, an Israeli intelligence officer in the north said Israel has increased efforts to gather intelligence about the Syrian rebel groups, especially those with links to hard-line Islamist movements. The officer said that in the past few months, rebels have managed to take control of large swaths of territory, including in areas close to the Israeli border. He said that while many groups seem focused solely on overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, Israel is worried about a handful that have already promised to turn their attention to Israel once Assad is gone. Moshe Maoz is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. He says that the Israeli premier is rushing to build a fence.

MOSHE MAOZ: Mr. Netanyahu, our prime minister, wants to do it because he's afraid that if a radical Islam organization will take over, then Israel will be in danger, but my analysis is that we - the possibility of them taking over is slim.

FRENKEL: Maoz says Netanyahu's announcement of the border fence was well-timed, with parliamentary elections now less than two weeks away.

MAOZ: Thinking about the forthcoming elections, Netanyahu does everything possible in order to induce the public to vote for him, and this is one of his tricks.

FRENKEL: Maoz says that with the campaign in full swing, Netanyahu wants to reassure the country that he's strong on security issues. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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