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Israel trains for border clash with Syria

By Vladimir Duthiers, CNN
July 16, 2013 -- Updated 1520 GMT (2320 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Army wraps up a two-week military exercise along Israel's 81-mile long frontier with Syria
  • Golan Heights a flashpoint of violence as Syrian government and rebel troops clash nearby
  • IDF: Several hundred Hezbollah fighters backing Damascus are operating in the Golan Heights
  • Threat Syrian war may ensnare Israeli troops "is something we are dealing with every day"

Golan Heights (CNN) -- The Israeli army's Golani brigade recently wrapped up a two-week exercise of ground troops, special forces and air units along Israel's 81-mile-long (130 km) frontier with Syria. The drill was not aimed at preparing for an all-out war scenario but to respond to a new terror threat that has emerged from the ashes of the Syrian revolution.

Israel Defense Forces claim that close to 3,000 fighters from the militant group Hezbollah have infiltrated Syria in support of the Assad regime and several hundred are now operating the Golan Heights. Hezbollah -- the Iranian-backed group based in southern Lebanon - has called for the destruction of the state of Israel. Leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has stated that once the Syrian uprising is put down, he will turn his attention to Israel.

"Statements that were made by high ranking officials that the Syrian border will become a border with terror is something we are dealing with every day," said Lt. Col. Anan Abbas, the Golani Brigade Commander. "We are making sure that there will be no penetration through the northern border of Israel."

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Abbas gave CNN an exclusive tour of the region that has seen a tripling of Israeli forces and intelligence gathering over the last six months. The IDF now monitors the region 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Corporal Chen Holtzman, a soldier working in the IDF's Intelligence Operations Center, said they have the authority to deploy special forces units, artillery and aerial bombings if they suspect a threat to Israel.

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"We can see it for a few miles coming at us," she said. "If we see something coming at us, we can tell that immediately and everybody is prepared to do something about that."

In addition to the constant surveillance, Israel is erecting a fence with Syria along its side of the disengagement zone.

The mountainous Golan, known for its beauty and favored by backpackers and hikers, is one of the most traveled areas for Israelis. It was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 against Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria, but since 1974, right up to the Syrian revolution, the area was a quiet, almost bucolic military posting.

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The turmoil in Syria changed the equation and in June, both countries nearly came to a full-on, open confrontation at a crossing post in Quneitra. Syrian rebels overran government-backed forces and for a few hours occupied the area. The Israeli forces watched, ready to intercede if the fighting spilled across the border.

"The shooting began at 5am," recalled Abbas. "It was a morning full of fighting where the Syrian army and rebels were shooting at one another."

To strike back at the rebels, the Syrian army moved several tanks and armored vehicles into area and the IDF went on high alert. "We had a lot of forces ready to react. Tanks, intelligence, special forces ... artillery, air force -- everything was ready for this incident," said Abbas. "If we would have seen that there was a leakage or direct fire into our territory we would have reacted immediately and destroyed the source of fire."

Even before the skirmish at Quneitra, shots between rebels and Syrian government forces have strayed across the border. The IDF's response to these is to destroy the firing position -- whether rebel or Syrian army.

"I do not differentiate between a force that is Syrian or a force of the rebels," Abbas said. "If I identify armed men next to the fence, we are prepared to face all the threats and respond."

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