Israeli military personnel are operating in non-combat capacity in an area across Israel's border with Syria, GlobalPost has learned.Say what?
This area may be in Syrian territory that, with the redeployment of regular Syrian army units to Damascus, has become a contested arena for various rebel groups.
Israel and Syria have been in a formal state of war since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. There are no diplomatic ties and no contacts, except through UN offices; it is illegal for Israelis to enter Syria, and Syrians entering Israel are considered enemy infiltrators.
UN peacekeeping forces have safeguarded a demilitarized zone along the generally quiet border since the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The last Israeli soldiers known to have been in Syria were returned to Israel in an exchange of POWs following the war.
Reports that Israelis may be operating, even in non-combat capacities, in an enemy state can be compared to information indicating that American military personnel are operating in North Korea — if North Korea lay on the American border, and if it was consumed by a civil war in which extremist elements were involved.
What is really going on can only be discerned many paragraphs later:
Late last month, after 11 Syrian citizens were treated in Israeli hospitals, AFP reported that the Israeli army set up a field hospital on the Israeli-Syrian border to provide emergency care on-site. The army spokesman has refused to comment on the report.In other words, the area near the border has become effectively a no-man's land and in the absence of any governance there, Israel is acting to secure its own border and to (secondarily) help provide medical care to those who need it.
Standing on the northern Golan Heights, a white tent-like structure is visible within Israeli lines, on the grounds of military base 105.
"I think behind the scenes there are steps being taken to prepare. We haven't set up a field hospital for thousands. But there is some preparation, more ambulances, more doctors, more medical equipment. We're ready. It's only logical," Ret. Col. Eshkol Shokron, who commanded the Golan Division until his retirement last August, told GlobalPost.
"It’s a terrible situation there. Injured people are dying in the field because of a lack of medical treatment. Sometimes they just bleed. If possible, caring for them on the border without bringing them into Israel is better. I think the army is doing things in the field."
When asked by GlobalPost if non-combat military personnel are operating across the Syrian border, Israeli Defense Forces spokesman, Capt. Eytan Buchman, did not deny the possibility.
In a written statement, he replied, "The IDF places a great deal of importance on the provision of humanitarian care when necessary. As such, we have provided initial medical assistance to a number of Syrians over the past few months. We cannot at this time comment on the process that takes place during such incidents. The IDF's primary goal is to provide for the safety and security of the State of Israel and its residents."
Whether there is an established base of medical operations on the border itself, or whether Israelis are operating just across the frontier, "the State of Israel doesn't need to take sides in the war," Shokron said.
He added that there is reluctance in Israel to address the matter head on because of concerns that wounded Syrians, both civilians and combatants, could flood the Israeli border.
"If we advertise that there's a hospital here, the whole world will come. If they understand there's an option here, and no one will shoot at them, that the army is moral and will take care of them, of course it is their best option."
Ret. Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, an expert on Israeli military strategy, says the significance of any Israeli presence across the Syrian lines would be tactical, not strategic, and that he doubts there exists a "permanent Israeli presence" across the border.
"It may mean there are ties or communication developing with some of the saner, more secular rebel groups," he said. "Dialogue like this is essential to cope with new security demands. Israelis may go in and out as the situation demands. But I'd say its farfetched to believe that any Israelis are sitting there in a permanent capacity."
The beginning of the report made it look more like a land grab. And no doubt Israel haters will interpret it that way as well.
There is another point that is important to stress - Israel does not want thousands of Syrians requesting asylum in Israel, for its own security purposes, so giving medical treatment to them in Syria itself provides the care they need without endangering Israel.