Tourists walk past a sign post showing the direction and distances between the Syrian and Israeli capitals, as well as other Israeli and foreign cities at an Israeli army outpost turned tourist site on June 3, 2008 on the peak of Mt. Bental in the Golan Heights. (Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images)

Israel Kills Four Gunmen Affiliated with Islamic State in Clash on Golan Heights

Fears that fighting in Syria could spill over into Israel

In a brief firefight, Israeli forces shot and killed four gunmen from a group affiliated with Islamic State, after the gunmen fired small arms and mortars at them. An Israeli army spokesman said a reconnaissance unit from the Golani infantry brigade, which was patrolling along the cease-fire line on the Golan Heights, came under fire from across the border. The Israeli troops were beyond the fence which marks the border, but still inside Israeli territory.

“Gunmen opened fire and launched mortar shells from Syria at IDF forces in the southern Golan Heights,” the Israeli army (IDF) spokesman said in a statement. “Fire was exchanged between the terrorists and IDF forces. The IDF successfully targeted the terror cell. No injuries were sustained by IDF forces.’”

Military sources said that after the small arms fire on Israeli troops, Israel spotted a vehicle with a heavy machine gun on top and destroyed it with a rocket, killing the four gunmen inside.

“What is new is the involvement of this branch of Islamic State,” Shlomo Brom, an expert on Syria at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University told The Media Line. “There were previous cases of fire from the Syrian side to the Israeli side, but in most cases it was a mistake. The Israeli policy is to reciprocate to keep our deterrent posture. There is concern that if you do not reciprocate, the next attack will be intentional.”

The Israeli army said the gunmen were from the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, a group that pledged loyalty to Islamic State in 2014 when they began taking over large swaths of Syria and Iraq. The group, also called the Khaled Abed al-Walid Brigades, has been active in fighting against both the Syrian regime and rebel groups, says Daniel Cohen, the CEO of CYNESS, a company deals with counterterrorism and cyber security.

“Since they started to be present in the area, most of their fighting was directed at moderates or rebel groups,” Cohen told The Media Line. “This was real shooting, with several kinds of weapons including missiles and guns.”

Until now, he said, when Israeli troops were hit with errant rocket or mortar fire, Israel has sent messages to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, urging him to calm the situation. Israeli military analysts said that in this case, neither Israel, nor the Brigades, nor rebel groups have an interest in bringing Israel into a protracted conflict.

“There are different parties in Syria engaged in an existential struggle and it’s in the interest of everyone in Syria not to open a second front,” Brom said.

Islamic State has frequently threatened to attack Israel once it controls all of Iraq and Syria. Cohen of CYNESS says that Islamic State is currently on the run in both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, a US-backed coalition has been working to dislodge Islamic State from their last stronghold in the country, the city of Mosul. It has been slow going so far, although the coalition has made gains on the outskirts of the city.

Israeli officials have been careful not to take sides during the five-year-old civil war in Syria. They have treated hundreds of Syrians wounded in the fighting, most of whom belong to rebel groups. Privately, some Israeli officials have said they prefer to see Bashar al-Assad remain in power, despite proven human rights abuses, as he has kept the Israel-Syrian border calm since the disengagement agreements following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Israel acquired the Golan Heights in 1967, and applied Israeli law in 1981, an equivalent move to annexation. Syria says the area is occupied territory and must be returned to Syria. In 2000 Israel and Syria held talks about an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty, but the talks ultimately foundered over where exactly the border should run.

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