As civil war rages in neighbouring Syria, Israel has taken a series of dramatic steps that alter the nature of its hold on the occupied Golan Heights and place the Jewish state clearly on the side of the rebel opposition in Syria.
The latest development came Thursday when the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu announced it has awarded a licence to a local subsidiary of a U.S. company to explore and drill for oil and gas on the occupied Golan plateau. The move followed the surprise admission to an Israeli hospital last weekend of seven wounded Syrian rebel fighters, and an apparent plan to set up a field hospital on the Syrian frontier capable of treating more fighters.
It's not just any exploration company that has received the licence to drill on the Golan. Aptly named Genie, the U.S. firm includes on its board of advisers the likes of former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney, British investment banker Baron Jacob Rothschild and Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch.
The Israeli subsidiary is reportedly headed by Effi Eitam, a Golan settler and former hardline Israeli cabinet minister who won a medal of honour for his bravery in countering Syrian forces on the Golan during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The Heights were first captured during the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1981, the government of Menachem Begin passed a decree applying Israeli law to the territory. The move, interpreted by most Israelis as a kind of annexation, has never been internationally recognized.
"Awarding a drilling licence on the Golan could cause an international fracas, given the Golan's status as occupied Syrian territory under international law," the Israeli business journal Globes warned readers Thursday.
About 20,000 Israelis now live on the Heights, along with a similar number of Druze, most of whom continue to hold Syrian citizenship.
As some Israeli analysts said Thursday, what better time to announce a plan to develop the territory's resources? The Syrian civil war is distracting people's attention and U.S. President Barack Obama, a verbal supporter of the Syrian rebels, is due to make his first-ever visit to Israel next month. How can anyone complain?
A planned visit to Israel next week by new Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, was unexpectedly postponed this week. State Department officials said the decision was made so as not to interfere with the ongoing coalition talks to form a government in Israel – though many will wonder if it was a way to show U.S. disapproval of the move to explore the occupied Golan's resources.
Israel also demonstrated its apparent support for the rebel cause in Syria with an unexpected intervention into the conflict last weekend.
In a move that was played down by authorities, Israel gave refuge to seven wounded rebel fighters who had presented themselves at the frontier that separates Syrian and Israeli forces on the Golan. The men, believed to be members of the Free Syrian Army, were treated at a military hospital on the Heights and then moved inland to a hospital in Safed. One of the men remains in serious condition.
It is not clear, but it is unlikely the men will be returned to Syria unless they wish to be. The United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention requires states to give asylum to anyone who crosses their international border and believes his life to be in danger in his country of origin. This applies even to citizens of an enemy state such as Syria.
This was the second incident on the Golan frontier in the past week. A few days ago, a man was reportedly spotted approaching the Israeli side of the security fence. He was ordered to stop failed to do so, at which Israeli soldiers apparently shot at his legs. Wounded, he was taken away by United Nations forces into Syrian territory.
Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that Israel opening its border to anyone would be considered on a case by case basis.
"We will continue to protect our borders and prevent people crossing or entering into Israel," said Mr. Netanyahu, "except for individual, specific cases, each of which will be considered on its own merit."
Israeli television reported this week that the Israel Defence Forces were planning to construct a field hospital on the Golan ceasefire line, so that wounded Syrian fighters could be treated there rather than admitted into Israel.
The refuge given Syrian rebels has outraged the Lebanese militant Shia movement Hezbollah, a strong ally of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The group's television network, al-Manar, denounced Israel this week for intervening in the conflict "under a humanitarian cover."
Increasingly wary that the occupied Golan Heights could become the target of an attack by Syrian forces, Israel has taken steps to ensure its control of the area.
A fortified five-metre wall is being constructed down the 100-kilometre length of the ceasefire line, and the nature of the Israeli forces serving on the Golan has been upgraded.
On Wednesday, an armoured division carried out a series of drills using the most advanced tanks, while, on the weekend, an elite infantry division conducted a major exercise testing preparedness for a surprise invasion.
While all the attention has been focused on the possibility of Syrians crossing into Israeli-held territory, however, a convicted Israeli murderer escaped into Syria.
The man, an Arab Israeli from the Galilee, was convicted of murder in 2006 and was serving a 20-year term in prison. He failed to return from a 12-hour furlough Monday and was spotted making his way across the frontier into Syria.