How Israel Stopped Attempted Attack at Its Disputed Border With Syria

Two young Israeli soldiers initiated an operation to thwart what their country's military said was an attempted attack at one of the world's most sensitive—and controversial—borders, where Syria has accused Israel of actually killing civilians.

The Israeli soldiers, both 20 years old and referred to as Corporal S. and Corporal K. for security purposes, were drafted into Israel's mandatory military service only months ago. As part of an all-female field observer team, they are stationed at the Golan Heights, a stretch of southwestern Syria occupied and annexed by Israel decades ago despite nearly no international recognition, save for the United States. The pair walked Newsweek through an otherwise average night earlier this month.

At around 11 p.m. on August 3, Corporal K. said she "spotted a cell of four suspicious people" slowly approaching the fence that separates the Israel-controlled section from a no-man's-land that stretches into Syrian government-administered territory. "We noticed that something was out of the ordinary, something was not OK," she explained.

"We are the eyes of the forces in the field, and we conducted the first observation," Corporal S. told Newsweek. She said when the group made it roughly 25 meters from the fence, she noticed them acting in a way consistent with the planting of an improvised explosive device (IED) and immediately informed soldiers in the area waiting for action, opening up new camera feeds to observe the incoming units from different angles.

"We knew to tell these forces where to go to exactly—and obviously did not take our eyes off of them for a second and constantly updated them about where they are as they got closer and closer," she added.

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An Israeli military field observer recently involved in what was described as an attempted attack watches a screen fixed on the occupied Golan Heights of Syria in this photo obtained exclusively by Newsweek. Israel Defense Forces

Neither of the two women imagined she would be in this position months ago, nor did they plan to remain in the military beyond their mandatory 28 months of service. Corporal S. sees herself becoming a child psychologist or perhaps a teacher, while Corporal K. wants to do something artistic, like music.

But here, Corporal K. said, she performed as a machine, defying the unique stresses of directing a lethal operation in internationally disputed territory. "I really tried to disconnect myself from the situation," she said. "It's just to be like a robot, like automatic—to do whatever I need to do, not to overthink, not to evolve myself emotionally, just to be professional."

"It's an immense pressure, it's an immense feeling of responsibility," Corporal S. said. "It also gives an immense feeling of pride to know that you're there and protecting the forces. I don't regret this position even for a minute."

On the ground, an elite Israeli Maglan commando unit, already in the area because of a heightened alert, was poised to strike. They opened fire as an aircraft simultaneously hit the targets, killing all four, according to the operations officer of the Syrian Border Field Intelligence Battalion, who spoke to Newsweek under the condition of anonymity.

The officer, who credited the operation's success to Corporal K. and Corporal S.'s "exact" directions, said an IED was found among the bodies, as well as at least one weapon. The cell's suspected target was an unmanned Israeli military post used during the Syrian civil war to receive wounded civilians or insurgents whom Israel is widely suspected of actively supporting against another major foe.

"When the Syrian military finished fighting in the Syrian civil war and came back to the Syrian Golan Heights, we've seen that the Syrian military acts as the host to the Shiite axis, and the way that you see that is that we identify cooperation between the Syrian military and Hezbollah," the operations officer said. "We will not allow southern Syria to become southern Lebanon."

Israel's disputed border in the north is known as the Blue Line, and here Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement, which is backed by Iran, operates. Hezbollah's powerful, influential militia has fought two wars with Israel, and as recently as late last month, just about a week before the Golan Heights incident, Israel accused it of attempting to infiltrate and attack Israeli troops there.

In a statement to Newsweek at the time, Hezbollah denied attempting to attack and referred to Israel's "state of terror" owing to a heightened alert after an Israeli strike killed a Hezbollah operative in Syria, as well as Israel's "complete inability to know the intentions of the resistance." The statement said that "all of these factors made the enemy move in an anxious manner both on the field and through the media."

In the Golan Heights, however, Hezbollah has not been directly implicated in the IED attempt, nor was Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, also known to operate in Syria. "It's not that the Iranians are on the border, but they're using people in tough economic situations to do their deeds. They're using the local Syrian people on the border," the Syrian Border Field Intelligence Battalion's operations officer said.

The Israeli military said it held Syria "responsible" for the operation and, in retaliation, struck observation posts, intelligence collection systems, anti-aircraft artillery and command and control systems, some of which the Israeli officer said his battalion helped to identify in the southwestern Al-Quneitra province. Here, a defense source cited by the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported, Israeli aircraft "launched a burst of missiles" across the de facto border," inflicting only "material losses."

To Syria, the situation in the Golan Heights is a painful reminder of seemingly everlasting conflict not only at home but at a strategic border.

"On 3 August 2020, the Israeli occupation forces (from within the occupied side of the Golan) targeted four Syrian civilians who were hunting in the area which resulted in their
death. Such attacks are a flagrant violation of the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement, international law, the United Nations Charter, and the Security Council relevant resolutions," the Syrian mission to the United Nations said in comments later sent to Newsweek.

"These attacks would not have taken place had it not been for the failure of the Security Council to impose the implementation of its decisions related to the Arab-Israeli conflict over many decades, and had it not been for the unlimited support provided by some permanent members of this Council to this vile occupation, which encouraged it to increase the frequency of its crimes and violations in addition to practicing state terrorism far from any accountability," it added.

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Figures are seen approaching a border fence in the Golan Heights on July 27 in this clip from Israeli military footage. Israel Defense Forces

In his latest speech, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday called the people of the disputed Golan Heights "the righteous children of Mother Syria and a thorn in the eye and throat of the occupying Zionists."

He linked the struggle to regain the stretch of land to the larger war effort to stabilize the country as a whole by defeating rebels and militants—and, ultimately, to expel unwanted foreign forces from Syrian soil.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, a U.N. Peacekeeping spokesperson said recent events at the Golan Heights "are of concern" because they put U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) "at risk."

"The incidents heightened tension between Israel and Syria and had potential to escalate the situation across the ceasefire line," the spokesperson said. "UNDOF protested the incidents to the parties and reminded them of their obligation to respect the terms of the Disengagement Agreement."

While UNDOF engages with both sides of the conflict, the spokesperson noted that "UN resolutions have affirmed the status of the occupied Golan as Syrian territory, and its annexation by Israel as null and void."

But for Israel, the status of the Golan Heights was finalized four decades ago, and it was only further cemented by the White House's decision last year to recognize the annexation despite overwhelming criticism by the U.N.'s Security Council and General Assembly. Israel's top priority now is how to best enforce its presence there in the face of an ever-evolving threat.

"It's much more of a multi-domain defense of the border than it used to be. That's one of the things we're dealing with now," Brigadier General Amir Ebstein, commanding officer of the military's Border Defense Array, told Newsweek. "We usually talk about this constant learning competition that we have with the enemy. It's definitely becoming harder to keep up with."

He continued, "It used to take years for our enemies to either acquire or build new technologies. Today, you just go get the newest technology you could find on eBay, and you could use it against us. That's definitely one of the things that we're finding very challenging."

This article has been updated to include comments sent to Newsweek by the Syrian mission to the United Nations and a U.N. Peacekeeping spokesperson.