3 May 2017

Israelis Learn to Live With a New Neighbor: Islamic State

Yaroslav Trofimov

ELIAD, Golan Heights—On one side of a fence that snakes through eucalyptus-covered ridges is a swath of Syrian villages held by Islamic State. On the other, Yitzhak Ribak grows his Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons and Syrahs.

“My grapes are just 10 meters from the border fence. Sometimes I hear the booms on the other side. Sometimes I see people on the other side. They look like shepherds, but who knows,” said the Israeli winemaker. “It’s crazy.”

So far, Islamic State hasn’t bothered his vineyard. “I am here all alone on my tractor at night and I am not afraid.”

While most attention has focused on Islamic State’s shrinking but still vast territory in eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq, the extremist group has also proved surprisingly resilient in the pocket of land it controls just outside Mr. Ribak’s vineyard. The area sits at the confluence of Syria, Jordan and the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights.

Known as the Khalid bin Walid Army, the local Islamic State affiliate has rebuffed repeated offensives by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and other moderate rebels. The porous nature of Syria’s front lines and corruption within FSA ranks have allowed Islamic State personnel and weapons to infiltrate the area known as the Yarmouk Basin, said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a security analyst who follows the group.








Islamic State






20 miles


20 km

Source: Institute for the Study of War (Islamic State Control)

The presence of Islamic State so close to Israeli-populated towns and villages along the demarcation line in the Golan Heights poses an obvious threat—albeit one that so far hasn’t materialized into cross-border attacks.

“The Golan is still the quietest place in the whole country,” said Yoni Hirsch, chairman of the municipal council of Nov, an Israeli community of some 800 people about 2 miles from Islamic State-held areas. “But we know what is happening across the border, and we are getting ready for what may happen,” he added. “We know that in one day with the decision of one person on the other side, our lives can change.”

The Israeli government is taking no chances. Over the past three years, it has replaced the old security fence in the Golan Heights, a plateau seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, with a new structure some 20 feet high and equipped with modern sensors. It is also erecting a new fence further south along the border with Jordan.

“As the dangers go up, so does the fence,” Mr. Hirsch said.

Islamic State, like other jihadist groups, has repeatedly pledged to eliminate Israel as part of its plan to build a world-wide Islamic caliphate.

“We don’t have any doubt about their ideology and their dedication to destroying Israel,” said retired Israeli Brig Gen. Effie Eitam, a former cabinet minister and a resident of Nov.

But Islamic State also has priorities and in southern Syria, the militants have focused on fighting more moderate rebels.

Mr. Ribak pours a glass at his Chateau Golan winery. PHOTO: YAROSLAV TROFIMOV/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“They are cleverer than attacking Israel. They know Israel has an army and can launch airstrikes and they don’t want to open another front line,” said Free Syrian Army Maj. Issam al-Reis, a spokesman for the coalition of rebel groups known as the Southern Front. “They are not interested in killing Israelis. What they are interested in is killing us.”

Such an unexpectedly peaceful coexistence with Islamic State next door helps explain Israeli perceptions of the Syrian conflict. The U.S. and its European allies view Islamic State, which has carried out terrorist attacks in the West, as the principal threat.

Israeli officials, by contrast, are far more alarmed by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. Preventing Iranian proxies from getting close to the Golan has emerged as a key Israeli priority in the Syrian conflict.

Islamic State, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, “is not powerful enough to make us fear,” said Ayoob Kara, the only Arab minister in the Israeli government who says he is in regular contact with various Syrian factions.

“Daesh is going to lose,” he added. “There is no way it is going to be successful and by the end of the year, we won’t see it in any state around here. The problem of the Middle East is the capital of extremism that is Iran.”

On Thursday, Syria said Israel had launched a strike near the international airport in Damascus, where nearby buildings are believed to hold Iranian-supplied weapons bound for the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. Israel neither confirmed nor denied it was behind the blast.

Later Thursday, Israel’s military said its Patriot missile defense system struck a drone over the Golan Heights that entered Israeli airspace.

For Mr. Ribak, who moved to Eliad in 1973 a few months before Syrian tanks attempting to recapture the Golan were stopped outside the village, the growth of Islamic State across the fence carries a clear message. Israel was lucky, he said, that its lengthy attempts at peace talks with Syria, based on trading the Golan Heights for a peace treaty, finally collapsed in 2010.

“If we had given the Golan to Syria then, it would have all become ISIS-land,” Mr. Ribak said on a drive along the border fence, the minarets of a Syrian village across the valley glistening in the sun.

Like many people in the region, Mr. Ribak, who markets his wine under the Chateau Golan brand, said he has developed his own answer to the Middle East’s intractable problems.

“I know how to solve it,” he said, proffering his peace plan. “Very simple. If all the people here start to drink wine, they will become happy and then there is no problem.”

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com

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