Israel prepares for the worst as tensions over Syria grow

Israel's 'Iron Dome' short-range missile defence system outside Haifa Israel hopes its Iron Dome anti-missile defence system will protect its northern towns

Following its long-held policy on such matters, the Israeli government has neither confirmed nor denied bombing an arms convoy inside Syria last weekend - the third such attack this year.

But Israel is widely believed to be responsible and had previously said it would intervene to stop weapons reaching its arch-enemy in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah.

It is a risky strategy for Israel - desperate to stop Hezbollah getting advanced weaponry but increasing tensions in an already volatile region.

Nearly seven years ago, during Israel's two month-long summer conflict with Hezbollah, I spent several weeks in northern Israel covering the war.

Whereas the larger cities and conurbations to the south were not directly affected by the fighting, here in the north shells and missiles fell on a daily basis. Nahariya, Acre and Haifa were all targeted by Hezbollah's rockets.

Haifa is Israel's third largest city and has the country's largest port. It is a busy, expanding cosmopolitan metropolis and has a genuinely mixed population of Jews and Arabs. Just 30km (17 miles) from the Lebanese border, it was repeatedly targeted back in 2006.

'Awkward neighbourhood'

I was here on one particularly grim day, a Sunday morning, when a rocket crashed through the roof of a railway goods yard, near the port. Eight railway workers were killed and many more were injured.

The city's mayor back then is the same man who holds the title now, Yona Yahav. He's a larger than life character - perhaps the archetypal big city mayor - who cares passionately about the city in which he was born.

Flames are seen as a shell, one of several, slams into the city and surrounding ocean of the northern Israeli city of Haifa, 6 August 2006. Rockets fired by Hezbollah hit central Haifa during the war in 2006

"In the period between 2006 and now we have prepared ourselves, we've trained the population and we've trained municipal workers. People are more aware of the functions they'll be required to carry out," Mr Yahav tells me in his office overlooking the port.

The mayor has big plans for the city to draw more investors and tourists in but still expects that, sooner rather than later, there will be another war between Israel and Hezbollah and he insists the city is ready.

"We live in a very awkward neighbourhood and we don't really know what they [Hezbollah] are going to do," says Mr Yahav, ruefully.

It is obvious as well, that not just the municipality of Haifa but the Israeli government and the higher echelons of the army are getting ready for the possibility if not the probability of another conflict in the north.

Driving out of Haifa, newly installed batteries of the much vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile defence system are visible in fields to the north of the city.

Start Quote

Bashar al-Assad is so dependent on Iran and Hezbollah for his survival that he cannot say 'no' to any demands from Hezbollah to supply them with weapons systems”

End Quote Brig Gen Shlomo Brom Institute for National Security Studies

After the system was successfully used in last year's Gaza conflict, it should provide added security for Haifa and other northern towns in the event of another conflict, even though there is still a debate about how effective the system - developed in Israel and financed by the United States - actually is.

It is no secret why there is increased chatter in political, military and civic circles about the prospect another conflict now. Two attacks last week in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus, are widely believed to have been the results of Israeli airstrikes.

'Israel had to act'

The bombing on Saturday night was huge and reportedly shook the whole of Damascus as a military base to the north-west of the city was hit.

Israel has neither confirmed or denied responsibility, but political leaders here have insisted on many occasions they would intervene if they had reason to believe weapons were being transferred from the Syrian regime to Hezbollah.

Retired Brig Gen Shlomo Brom is a military analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies. He is an expert on Syria and its relationship with Hezbollah and believes Israel was in receipt of such crucial information that it had to act last week.

Map

According to Gen Brom, and other sources we have spoken to, a convoy of Iranian-made medium-range rockets were being transported to Hezbollah, through Syria.

"Bashar al-Assad is so dependent on Iran and Hezbollah for his survival that he cannot say 'no' to any demands from Hezbollah to supply them with weapons systems that are more modern and effective," Gen Brom said. "That is why Israel had to act now."

Although all of the intelligence and military assessments concur that the greatest immediate threat to Israel still comes from the north and Hezbollah, in recent weeks and months there has also been a great deal of concern and attention focused on the eastern frontier.

A couple of hours' drive across Israel from Haifa and you hit the imposing, beautiful and rugged region known as the Golan Heights - captured from Syria in 1967 and occupied by Israel ever since.

Looking down from the vantage point of an old Israeli military position, from the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, you can clearly see Syrian towns and villages where there is daily fighting between soldiers loyal to the Assad regime and his opponents. Because of the proximity of the fighting on the other side, some warn that Israel is in danger of being drawn into Syria's civil war.

Until recently, the long frontier between the Israeli-occupied Golan and Syria proper was regarded as quiet, peaceful and relatively stable. Most Israelis who live up here, in settlements or communities that make their livings from the fertile volcanic soil, are phlegmatic and do not expect war with Syria.

Tension

Yael Sferia is a mother of seven who has lived in the settlement of Alonei HaBashan in the central Golan for 25 years. Her house is well inside the Israeli-occupied Golan - less than a mile from the de-facto frontier with Syria - and it is difficult for her to ignore the fighting on the other side.

"There were a few mortars that fell and one was fairly close to our house but, no, otherwise our life is fairly normal. We go to work and the kids walk around freely," she tells me as we stand on a vantage point looking over the plains of Syria to the east and Israel to the west.

"We of course understand that there's fighting on the other side of the border and it's their problem, not ours at this point."

Yael Sferia, a mother of seven who has lived in the settlement of Alonei HaBashan in the central Golan for 25 years Yael Sferia and her family have lived in the central Golan for 25 years

When I ask Mrs Sferia if she is confident the fighting will not spill over, she says: "I really don't think it will but in the meantime we're hoping that if Assad were to fall and if there were to be a new government, that there won't be complete chaos there. Perhaps it's better the devil you know than the devil you don't."

Israel's response to the fighting and upheaval on the Syrian side of the plateau has been spectacular if controversial.

A massive new 3m (10ft) high fence has been built in almost no time along the entire length of the de-facto border and Israel's military presence has been visibly stepped up in the region.

While Israeli army manoeuvres and exercises are not uncommon in the Golan, there is a palpable sense of tension in the air.

In many ways Israel has been unsure how to respond to the upheavals and dramatic developments in neighbouring countries - Lebanon to the north, Syria to the east and even Egypt far to the south.

Few people say there will definitely be another conflict in the region between Israel and one or more of its Arab neighbours, but Israel's policy is clearly to be prepared for the worst.

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