A 700-square-mile plateau in southwestern Syria and northeastern Israel known as the Golan Heights may be the only thing standing between the violence of Syria's civil war, and Israelis near the Syrian border.
On Thursday, Syrian rebel groups took control of the Quneitra crossing, Syria's only access point to the Golan Heights, in a bout of heavy fighting. The forces eventually lost control of the crossing, but the turmoil led Austria to pull its troops from the region. Austrian troops made up a third of the UN forces dedicated to enforcing the 1974 peace deal between Israel and Syria.
What makes this plateau so significant that a failed takeover could cause such international concern? A long history, a strategic military position, a wealth of resources, and, most of all, an extremely and unpredictably violent border.
Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel eventually annexed the land in 1981, although the annexation was not internationally recognized. The area has over 20,000 Jewish settlers and about 20,000 Syrians. However, the Golan Heights is not just a contested territory. It serves as a strategic vantage point for Israel and a key water resource for the surrounding regions. The land is only 40 miles from the capital of Syria, Damascus, allowing the Israelis to easily watch Syrian movements. When Syria controlled the land, it was able to easily attack northern Israel from the territory.
The Golan's water resources alone make it a contested area. In fact, Syria has previously accused Israel of extracting water from the Golan Heights and diverting it to Israeli settlements elsewhere, resulting in the loss of water for Syrians living in the Golan. Israel may be more concerned about the Golan's strategic military importance. According to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the territory provides a defensible border against invasion by land, and prevents enemy combatants from directly firing on northern Israel.
This year, the Golan Heights is vital to international peacekeeping for yet another reason: the Syrian civil war. The war between forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad and those forces who wish to oust his government began in 2011. Now, tensions continue to heighten and the conflict is moving ever closer to the Israeli border. Two missiles from Syria landed in Israel on Thursday, leading the Israeli government to announce a closed military zone near the Quneitra crossing.
So how will the Syrian civil war impact Israeli policy? That's a difficult question with no clear answer. The only thing experts know for sure is that the war will further complicate an already extremely complicated situation. Israeli officials do not want to get involved in the Syrian conflict. However, the attack on the Quneitra crossing was one of the most severe clashes of the Syrian war occurring near the Israeli border. If such attacks continue, Israel may have no choice but to get involved.