by Adam Gonn
JERUSALEM, March 10 (Xinhua) -- Syrian rebels on Saturday released 21 UN peacekeepers who were taken hostage on Wednesday. The peacekeepers, all Filipinos, are part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force, which has been stationing on the Golan Heights border area between Israel and Syria since 1974.
Israel first captured the heights in the 1967 war, and despite briefly losing control during the 1973 war, the area has since been annexed by Israel, an act not recognized by the international community.
Despite the fact that Israel and Syria still formally are at war, the border between the two have been quiet since the 1973. However, as the civil war in Syria between President Bashar al- Assad's administration and numerous rebel organizations rages on, there is a growing concern in Israel that its most stable border could become its most problematic.
So far, a number of shells fired from inside Syria have landed in Israel, causing no damage. They have done so by mistake, not as part as an effort to target Israel.
Nevertheless, the Israeli army has boosted its presence on the Golan by deploying additional forces as well as installing new alarm systems, according to the Israeli news-site Ynet. The additional forces will primarily be tasked with protecting contractors who are working on upgrading Israel's border fence.
Prof. Eyal Zisser, of the Tel Aviv University, told Xinhua on Sunday that the presence of rebels along the border means that " instead of the Syrian regime that was committed to maintaining the border quiet, there are now these gangs and it's very difficult to identify these groups."
"It will now be a challenge to see if one can establish with them any sort of contact or relations to keep the border quiet," Zisser added.
Prof. Benny Miller, of the University of Haifa, said that the " importance of the UN presence was just symbolizing the interest of both Syria and Israel to avoid an armed conflict between them and it kind of reinforced this inclination."
Miller, who was stationed on the Golan Heights as a soldier in the Israeli army during the 1973 Six-day war, said the problem for Israel is that the Syrian government has become much weaker and there are other forces emerging and that some of them might be extremely hostile towards Israel and some of the others might be not.
Miller outline three possible scenarios for the border region, starting with the possibility that the Syrian government would be able to continue to function, while fighting the rebels, and eventually regaining control of the area, hence insuring that stability would return.
"Or, whether there will be the other options namely that the insurgents will take over there and some of them might be Islamist- jihadists which might use the territory they occupy to attack Israel, by either guerilla or terrorist actions, or firing rockets and so on," Miller said.
He added that a third possibility would be that the "there will be a continuation of the civil war indefinitely, like the situation now, which also might spill over into the Golan Heights in different ways, either because of accidental firing or because the insurgents might also attack Israeli targets."
However, both analysts stressed that, at the moment, the Syrian rebels would focus their attention on toppling the Syrian administration and attacking Israel would be a secondary objective.
Zisser said that "right now there is a war and the regime is after the rebels and the rebels are after the regime and it's not in the interest of anyone to engage with Israel. But these are undisciplined groups, you never know."
While the Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization in the past used to be a part of the equation whenever the risk of a confrontation between Israel and Syria escalated, this time the situation is different.
Because Hezbollah has sent some of its troops to aid the Syrian army in the fight against the rebels, and as long as that fighting continues, the prime objective for both the Syrian army and Hezbollah will be to defeat the rebels, and not to confront Israel, he said.
In fact, Syria has not tried, or been able, to retaliate against Israel for an air raid which the Israeli air force carried out in February, in which, according to Syrian media, a research facility was destroyed, but Western media reported that the true target was an arms convoy heeding for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Having hostile non-government groups along is northern border is not an entirely new scenario for Israel, prior to the first Lebanon war in 1982, the Palestine Liberation Organization used southern Lebanon as a base of operations to carry out attacks against communities in northern Israel.
However, Miller said the more fitting and current analogy would be "the Sinai Peninsula if the control of the Egyptian army gets weaker of the Sinai and having all of these jihadists Islamist radical forces there -- like the few incidents that happened in the last two year."
Miller was referring to the attacks that have occurred along the Israeli-Egyptian border in the past two years since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down and the Egyptian army essential withdrew from Sinai to focus on maintaining calmness in the post-revolution chaos.
However, while the border with Egypt is not heavily guarded, the Israeli army has had a strong presence along the border with Syria ever since the 1973 war, which should reduce the risk of Syrian insurgents carrying about attacks in Israel.