Israel Closely Watches Syria Unrest The border between Israel in Syria at the Golan Heights has been quiet for nearly 40 years, but some worry political instability and the popular uprising in Syria could threaten the peace. For the moment, Israel's government is saying little about the unrest.
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Israel Takes Wait-And-See Approach To Syria Unrest

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Israel Takes Wait-And-See Approach To Syria Unrest

Israel Takes Wait-And-See Approach To Syria Unrest

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Here's NPR's Jackie Northam in Jerusalem.

JAMIL ABUJABEL: I would like to show you the ceasefire line, behind us. It's about 10 meters...

JACKIE NORTHAM: Jamil Abujabel is a farmer and businessman in Majdal Shams, a small town nestled amongst the lush, green hills of the Golan Heights. Abujabel is standing behind large rolls of barbed wire running alongside a narrow road, which is patrolled by Israeli security forces. Beyond that is the demilitarized zone that separates the Israeli-occupied Golan from Syria. The demilitarized zone is heavily mined and is dotted with United Nations observation posts. Abujabel says he was just seven years old when the zone was created.

ABUJABEL: 'Til 73, there wasn't this. After the war, the October war, Yom Kippurim, they did this border, this line.

NORTHAM: Abujabel describes himself as a Syrian who wants out from under Israeli control. But his friend, Maher Ibrahim, a local dentist, does not feel the same way. He says he has a good life here and he's worried the trouble in Syria could spill over into the Golan Heights.

MAHER IBRAHIM: (Through Translator) If Bashar Assad falls and another president comes, and this president wants to change the status of the Golan Heights, then it will be a war between nations.

NORTHAM: Repeated diplomatic efforts to forge a peace agreement between Israel and Syria have come to naught. Still, the border region around the Golan Heights has been quiet for nearly 40 years. That stability was something Israelis almost took for granted. But Syria itself is far from stable now, and Efram Halevy, the former head of Mossad, Israel 's intelligence, says Syrian president Bashar al-Assad failed to take the uprising there seriously until it was too late.

EFRAIM HALEVY: So this misjudgment, of course, from Israel's point of view, shows that his lack of judgment is something which has to worry us.

NORTHAM: Eyal Zisser, a professor at Tel Aviv University, says there are three main schools of thought in Israel about Syria and its leaders.

EYAL ZISSER: Those who say, you know, let's stay with the devil we know; those who say, you know, because of Iran we should get rid of Bashar; and those who say it's a popular movement and if Israel sees itself as part of the Middle East, it should join or at least express its support, regardless of these strategical considerations.

NORTHAM: The uprising in Syria dominates newspapers in Israel - there are all sorts of predictions, such as how Iran will react if Assad is overthrown. And all sorts of suggestions, such as dropping medical supplies from unmanned aircraft over Syrian cities to aid the protesters. For the moment, the Israel government is saying little about the unrest across its northern border. Mark Regev is a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

MARK REGEV: And so we've taken a strategic deliberate decision not to play into anyone's hands and to keep a very, very low profile. The people out there demonstrating, it's not about Israel or Palestine they're demonstrating for. Why would we want to insert ourselves in an issue which could only hope to serve the interests of the more reactionary forces?

NORTHAM: Jackie Northam, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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