It's Time to Calm the Northern Border

Haaretz Editorial
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IDF soldiers near the Syrian border, November 19, 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Haaretz Editorial

The attacks by the Israel Defense Forces in southern Syria were in response to the firing of a rocket or mortar shell that exploded in the buffer zone on the Golan Heights and caused damage in the town of Majdal Shams. Israel doesn’t know for sure whether the community was targeted or whether it was hit by anti-aircraft fire against an aircraft that had apparently crossed over from Israel, but it was quick to say that “The IDF holds the Syrian regime responsible for the fire, will continue to operate decisively and will respond forcefully to any violation of Israeli sovereignty.”

This was one more attack of the kind Israel has been conducting for months now inside the sovereign territory of Syria. While sanctifying its own sovereignty, Israel violates the sovereignty of neighboring states like Syria and Lebanon, and presumably that of Iran as well, all the while enjoying Russian silence and American support.

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Israel has adopted the territory of these states as an arena of free and legitimate operations, on the grounds that they extend patronage to Hezbollah, permit the entrenchment of Iran and pose a threat to Israeli security. This is a dangerous policy that could drag Israel into a violent confrontation or even war. For proof, look to the heightened alert and the bolstering of the IDF presence along the northern border, and the assessments regarding possible retaliation by Hezbollah.

The working assumption is that Syria, which is in a military, political and economic crisis, and Hezbollah, which has faced criticism for its role in Lebanon’s severe economic crisis, don’t want a confrontation with Israel. That had led to the conclusion that Israel can keep attacking with impunity. Experience teaches that such assumptions are dangerous, since the parties that are attacked are motivated, just as Israel is, also by considerations of prestige, a desire to achieve deterrence and a sense of national insult. It is impossible to predict with any certainty if and when Syria, Hezbollah or even Iran will choose to respond to these attacks.

Furthermore, just as Hezbollah must consider its public and political standing before deciding on a military response, so too must the Israeli government. The coronavirus crisis and the economic crash, which highlighted the government’s dysfunction and loss of control, should serve as a warning not to test Israelis’ willingness to also endure a war waged by a leader who has lost the public’s trust. The IDF, the defense minister and the entire cabinet have a duty at this time to calm the northern border and to avoid an escalation into violence. The free-fire policy must be reexamined.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.