Golan Heights Paraglider Incident Highlights New Dangers for Israel

The Arab Israeli who paraglided into Syria on Saturday may be another sign of changes in the balance of power along the Golan border – and elsewhere in Syria.

Gil Eliahu

The incident involving the Israeli who paraglided into Syria from the Golan Heights and put the entire Israeli military on alert on Saturday was later discovered to be much less worrying than first imagined. The Arab Israeli, a resident of Jaljulya, may have succeeded in crossing the border into Syria – and what occurred afterward is not known with certainty. But at least it was not an Israeli citizen entering Syria by mistake and being abducted by one of the rebel organizations, as the Israel Defense Forces first thought after identifying the crossing.

The incident, which caused Israel Air Force planes and intelligence forces to be scrambled, was part of the price of preserving as normal a lifestyle as possible in the Golan – only a few kilometers from a country where 250,000 people have been killed in a civil war that has raged for more than 4.5 years.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis and tourists visit the Golan Heights every year, despite the fighting just across the border. The routine of work and tourism continues, even when occasionally stray fire from the fighting on the Syrian side lands near one of the Israeli communities. This is how Israelis still enjoy paragliding and hang gliding – even in the area around Mevo Hama, the southernmost village in the Israeli Golan and from where it seems the Arab citizen left on Saturday.

The man was sighted by a military observation post on Saturday afternoon as he crossed the border into Syria. His parasail looked as if it was descending toward the ground, but since the area there is hilly and covered with gullies, it was not possible to see exactly where he landed or what happened to him.

The actions the IDF took next were a sort of “real-time exercise”: employing all available means to discern what happened and preparing for the possibility that an Israeli citizen had been abducted by a rebel group. A series of clarifications were made with the various paragliding and ultralight aviation clubs, which after midnight Saturday ruled out the possibility that one of their members was missing.

At the same time, the Shin Bet security service managed to discover the identity of the man, establishing the possibility that he might want to join the fight against the Assad regime in Syria.

But the drill exposed an element of the true dangers of the present situation in the Golan Heights. First, the real danger exists of Israel being dragged into Syria by accident (and now may be the time to rethink the rules about aviation sports taking place near the border).

Second, there’s the possibility that terrorists might make their way in the opposite direction, in order to carry out an attack inside Israel – as Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine did in its 1987 attack (known as the “Night of the Gliders”) near Kiryat Shmona, which killed six Israeli soldiers.

Saturday’s incident provides a reminder of two more phenomena. This young Arab man is part of a growing trend among Israeli Arabs. Over the past two years, more than 40 have been involved with a couple of organizations fighting the Assad regime: the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. Among them were a number who actually entered Syria – usually after flying to Turkey – and others who were arrested after returning to Israel, or during their attempts to reach Syria. Some others tried to establish ISIS cells in Israel.

Israel is not high on the list of priorities of these organizations, who are still busy with the battle to overthrow President Bashar Assad. But the threats issued last week by Al-Qaida and ISIS, including a video clip in which a masked man was heard speaking Hebrew, show that this policy of ignoring Israel may not last forever.

“Don’t make a mistake,” one Western citizen, who had been held by ISIS in Syria, told a group of Israelis. “They have great hatred for you, it is only a matter of priorities. When they can, they will act against you, too,” said the former captive.

The second phenomenon is the presence of an organization affiliated with ISIS along the Israeli border in the Golan Heights. The southernmost corner of the Golan border with Syria is still controlled by a faction known as the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (Shuhada al-Yarmouk), which swore fealty to the ISIS over a year ago. Even though this is a relatively small organization, and even though larger rebel groups fought it in the past and pushed its forces southward, it is still hanging in there and controlling a small enclave near the three-way border point of Syria, Israel and Jordan.

This is the second Israeli border where ISIS is present, alongside the growing operations of a larger and rather more effective faction known as Wilayat Sinai (also known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis), ISIS’ affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula (along Israel’s southern border).

During the summer of 2014, ISIS’ advance in eastern Syria was actually repulsed by the fighters of the Nusra Front, who are affiliated with Al-Qaida, and now also close to the border with Israel. It is possible that the severe shocks being experienced in Syria due to the Russian aerial attacks against rebel forces will also influence the situation along the Israeli border.

Over the past few days, the Assad regime has made attempts to force the rebels out of their positions at the base of Mount Hermon (at the northern end of the Golan border with Israel). But there have been other, more important, developments, too. Last week, Russia and Jordan reached an agreement to prevent any confrontations between them – similar to the arrangements Israel made with Russia over the operations of the Russian Air Force over Syria.

The significance of such an agreement is that Russia seemingly plans to bomb the rebels in southern Syria, too – probably near Dara’a and the Jordanian border. If these bombing attacks cause the rebel groups in the south to move positions, it is possible this, too, will have implications for what is happening along Syria’s border with Israel.