For nearly 40 years, the Quneitra crossing on the Israeli-Syrian border was a quiet point on the map, mainly known as a crossing for the commercial apple trade between Druze villages in the Golan Heights. Today the strategic crossing has come under fire as a result of the escalating violence of Syria’s civil war. The outgoing commander of the Israeli side of the crossing talks about the changes that have taken place at Quneitra over the past four years.
On a bright summer’s morning in June, Major Adham Ra’ad, commander of the Quneitra Crossing on the Israeli border with Syria in the Golan Heights, woke up to the sound of heavy gunfire. A group of rebels had managed to storm and take control of the Syrian side of the strategic crossing, and to rout the Assad forces who had been in control of the crossing since its establishment. However, like all recent matters concerning Syria, stability was not forthcoming; six hours after the rebels took the crossing, Assad forces returned with heavy fire and took back control. The clashes, just hundreds of meters from the Israeli border, though posing no threat to Israeli forces, did make clear the great strategic importance of the area.
After nearly 4 decades of quiet: A change in the security approach
Quneitra is the only border crossing between Israel and Syria. It was opened under the supervision of UN forces in 1974 following the Yom Kippur War. A border crossing between enemy states is no simple matter, as the outgoing commander explained.
“The crossing became active in serving the civilian populations and merchants between the two enemy nations, and operated in that format until 2011, when the upheaval in Syria began,” Maj. Ra’ad explained.
As the Quneitra crossing commander, Maj. Ra’ad worked with the civilian population, UN forces and the Red Cross. Maj. Ra’ad oversees operations at the crossing every day of the week, mainly for UN troops passing between the two side of the border. In light of the violence in Syria over the last two years, the commercial apple trade and number of Druze students from the Golan Heights crossing over to study in Syria have both been reduced significantly.
After his first two years on the border, things began to change for Maj. Ra’ad. The situation in the Middle East took a drastic turn with the beginning of what became known as the “Arab Spring.” The citizens of Syria took to the streets and the situation quickly escalated. The Syrian border, considered for close to 40 years as Israel’s quietest border, overnight became a hotbed of uncertainty and instability.
“The reality throughout the Middle East has changed – the crossing itself as well, what was once thought of as quiet. The border stopped being quiet when the war broke out in 2011, and then the infiltration of hundreds of Palestinians on Naksa Day brought with it the understanding that the situation is no longer the same.”
The Naksa Day incident, in which hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators from Syria stormed the border and infiltrated Israeli territory, proved a turning point at which the IDF began to reassess its approach to the crossing, which had worked fine for close to four decades.
Immediately following the incident, the IDF decided to build a new security fence on the border, part of the hourglass project – currently at the completion stages. The project refers to the construction of a massive fence with many built-in security measures which have already proven their effectiveness on Israel’s southern border with Egypt. Additional measures include the renovation of anti-tank trenches, additional observation posts and intelligence gathering means along the length of the border.
“Providing medical assistance to the wounded without distinguishing between organizational affiliation”
UN forces stationed in the area have also responded to the changes in the strategic reality. The once free and secure movement of troops acting as a buffer between the states has become tenuous. What was once a “light patrol” has been forced to move as a fortified convoy. In the past year, three nations pulled their soldiers out of the Golan Heights. The reality of two years ago when thousands of international troops would cross the border every year is no longer possible. Today, the thousands have become a rare few.
“The border has not remained the same border,” the outgoing crossing commander explained. “The population that comes to us seeking medical assistance is the same population that sees us as an enemy nation. It is a very complex situation. Nonetheless, we give medical assistance to all civilians who come to the fence, regardless of their organizational affiliation.”
Despite the IDF’s constant readiness and preparations, an atmosphere of concern about the regional uncertainty is felt in and around the border region. Though IDF assessments hold that the Syrians have no reason to open a front with Israel, errant mortar fire from the Syrian side of the border has landed in Israel and in several incidents, Israeli patrols along the fence came under fire from positions inside Syria.
“The war is inside Syria and it is difficult for me to believe that the Syrians are interested in attacking Israel in light of the situation there. They do not have the capability to open another front against a third party. Despite that, there are still concerns about the Syrian side. There is always a concern – that’s our job. That’s how we are always prepared for every eventuality,” Maj. Ra’ad said.
And what about the future of the crossing? Only time will tell. “As long as the regime in Syria remains the Assad regime, the crossing will continue to operate for economic and humanitarian purposes. In the event that Assad falls, I estimate that the crossing will close, at least for a certain period of time, until the IDF will assess exactly what is happening on the other side with whom against whom. Only then will decisions be made. Also the situation regarding UN soldiers will be forced to change and its likely that their work will be reduced.”