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Associated Press
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second left, and bodyguards move toward a helicopter following a visit to the Golan Heights.

Syrian rebels occupy villages near Israel line

– Syrian rebels control almost all the villages near the frontier with the Israel-held Golan Heights, the Israeli defense minister said Wednesday, bringing the conflict dangerously close to the Jewish state and raising the possibility of an armed clash with the region’s strongest power.

During a tour of the Golan Heights, Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave a scathing assessment of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and said Israel will remain “vigilant and alert.”

“Almost all of the villages, from the foot of this ridge to the very top, are already in the hands of the Syrian rebels,” said Barak, who was accompanied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The Syrian army is displaying ever-diminishing efficiency.”

The civil war in Syria has renewed tensions over the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967. Despite hostility between the two countries, Syria has been careful to keep the border quiet since the 1973 Mideast war.

But in recent days, Israeli troops have fired into Syria twice after apparently stray mortar shells flew into Israel-held territory. On Wednesday, an Associated Press journalist said an Israeli helicopter was patrolling the border area, and gunfire could be heard. The source of the gunfire was not immediately clear.

While it is widely believed that Assad does not want to pick a fight with Israel, there are fears the embattled Syrian leader may try to draw Israel into the fighting in a bout of desperation. Israeli officials believe it is only a matter of time before Syrian rebels topple the longtime leader.

Israeli political scientist Dore Gold, an informal adviser to Netanyahu, said it’s difficult to assess whether Israel is better off with rebels in control along the border.

“The forces fighting the Assad government are made up of diverse elements. And to make a judgment whether Israel should be more or less worried, that would require having a very precise picture of what’s going on there, which we don’t,” he said. “But it’s no secret that among the Syrian rebels are forces that identify with al-Qaida, and are a cause of concern.”

A buffer zone lines the Israeli border with Syria. Beyond the border on the Syrian side is a 46-mile stretch where no military forces other than U.N. forces are permitted.

Israeli military officials said Barak’s assessment depicted a situation that is not entirely new, and that rebels have held those villages for several weeks. It was not clear how many villages the rebels hold along the Golan Heights, which is about 40 miles from the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Israeli experts said nothing prevents Assad’s forces from entering the villages and retaking them, even ones in the U.N. zone.

“Just like any other place, it is a battleground between the army and the rebels,” said Itamar Rabinovich, the former chief Israeli negotiator with Syria.

He said Israel would likely continue to remain on the sidelines of the fighting because Israeli officials believe Assad will eventually fall and that any support for rebels would backfire.

But privately, “Israel is rooting for the right kind of insurgents,” he said, ones who have no links to Islamist extremist groups.