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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got a view of the Syrian border this week, its southern border, where the civil war has sometimes spilled over into Israel. Hagel was on a helicopter tour with the Israeli defense minister. NPR's Emily Harris recently travelled to Israel's frontier with Syria and sent this report on Israel's assessment of the conflict next door.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The wind whips up fast on Mount Bental, a high spot in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights with sweeping views into Syria.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Shalom, and welcome to the Bental lookout.
HARRIS: An audio recording tells the many tourists who come here about the lush fruit orchards and vineyards in the Golan Heights and about the military history of this region - two wars between Israel and Syria in 1967 and 1973.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Since signing the disengagement agreement in 1974, this border has been the quietest border that Israel has ever known with any of its neighbors.
HARRIS: It's gotten a bit noisier recently because of Syria's civil war.
NADAV KATZ: Beyond the fields, there are Syrian villages.
HARRIS: Local resident, Nadav Katz, points out places in Syria where Israelis have seen fighting between army forces and rebels. He turns and points toward places in Israel where Syria's civil war has spilled over.
KATZ: South of us, there is a village where a number of mortars have fallen. Soldiers in that part have been fired at. To the north of us is Kibbuz El-Rom. In their orchards a number of mortars have fallen.
HARRIS: The Israeli military counts more than 10 times that mortars, rockets or bullets have been fired in Syria and landed in Israeli territory. Israeli troops have fired back six times, when they believed they were targeted or when shells landed in civilian areas. All returned fire has been at the Syrian army.
Colonel Peter Lerner is an Israeli military spokesman. He says Israeli reserve troops in this area have been replaced by professional soldiers. They're always on alert now, because anything could happen.
COLONEL PETER LERNER: Along all of our borders, the biggest question mark is the Syrian border. Everything seems to be breaking down there. On one side, you have the military where there is no or very little chain of command. On the other side, you have numerous different types of armed groups from Al-Qaida to people who are just fighting for their own freedom within their country. It could develop into various different scenarios.
HARRIS: Retired Israeli Colonel Kobi Marom imagines a few scenarios as he looks across a new fence Israel has almost finished building along the entire Syrian-Israeli line. It's 30 feet high and topped with barbed wire. A Syrian military post on the hill across the fence is so close that we can squint and see people moving around inside. There's a United Nations observer post there, too. Syrian rebels kidnapped nearly two dozen U.N. soldiers in this area last month, increasing the Israeli sense of destabilization.
Colonel Marom believes that Islamist extremists among Syrian rebels will become a real threat to Israel.
COLONEL KOBI MAROM: It's just a question of time because the day after Assad is going to fall, they're going to start - in my point of view - attacking Israeli targets. And that's one of the major Israeli concerns that this border that used to be quietest border that we have for the last four decades, will be very unstable and very escalated. Israel must be prepared for that.
HARRIS: Some Israeli analysts suggest a new government in Damascus could eventually be an improvement, if it were less friendly to Iran and Hezbollah than President Assad has been. Eyal Zisser teaches at Tel Aviv University. He says the most important thing for Israel strategically is that chaos is contained.
EYAL ZISSER: I think that Israel is interested in a stable regime, strong enough to force itself upon its population and is committed to the cease fire agreement, hopefully to a peace agreement.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
KATZ: This is a bomb shelter.
HARRIS: Back in the Golan Heights, Nadav Katz has been cleaning out the bomb shelter on his kibbutz.
(SOUNDBITE OF SWITCHES AND BANGING)
HARRIS: He flips on lights and leads the way underground. In a square concrete room painted white, there is a large water jug and two weaving looms. Even though shelters here are always ready to use, sometimes they are used for a little storage. Katz says given the uncertainty in Syria, he and other kibbutz residents have been double-checking that shelters are clear and everything is up to snuff.
KATZ: It's primarily state of mind of being prepared for various events that might come along. The idea is to defend ourselves as much as we possibly can.
HARRIS: Including, if need be, from Syria.
Emily Harris, NPR News.
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