JERUSALEM – In spite of assertions by some officials here to the contrary, Israel has placed its forces in the Golan Heights bordering Syria on heightened alert for possible confrontations following a series of statements by Syrian President Bashar Assad that his military is preparing for war with the Jewish state, WND has learned.

Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the Israeli Defense Forces have fortified their positions in the Golan, including increasing security at checkpoints and the stationing of larger troop numbers at key areas throughout the territory.

Also, the officials said, the IDF has reinforced security fences on the Israeli side of the border.

The IDF has not moved in additional heavy weaponry, tanks, or troop divisions for fear of startling Syria, the officials said.

“We are taking Assad’s threats very seriously and are cautiously increasing our level of alertness for a possible provocation by Syria,” a military official said.

The official said Israel placed troops in the Golan on heightened alert during the 34-day war against Hezbollah in Lebanon that began July 12, but the alert level was raised in recent weeks following militant statements by Assad and Israeli intelligence warnings of indications Syria may be bracing for a conflict.

The Golan Heights is strategic mountainous territory captured by the Jewish state after Syria used the terrain to attack Israel in 1967 and again in 1973. The Heights looks down on major Syrian and Israeli population centers. Military officials here have long maintained returning the Golan Heights to Syria would grant Damascus the ability to mount an effective ground invasion of the Jewish state.

In an interview this past weekend with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anba, Assad warned the Syrian military is preparing for war with Israel, claiming Israel might attack first.

“We must remain ready at all times,” said Assad. “We have begun preparations within the framework of our options.”

Assad, whose statements were widely quoted by Syrian news agencies, said Israel could attack Syria “at any moment.” He said Israeli leaders have abandoned the peace process and are seeking a war.

Since the war in Lebanon ended in August, Assad has given a series of interviews in which he warned of possible confrontations with Israel. He has stated several times he views Hezbollah’s “victory” over Israel as proof military tactics bring results.

In an August address, Assad said members of Hezbollah used their “will, determination and faith” to counter Israeli arms, enabling the Lebanese militia to defeat Israel.

“We tell them (Israelis) that after tasting humiliation in the latest battles, your weapons are not going to protect you – not your planes, or missiles or even your nuclear bombs. … The future generations in the Arab world will find a way to defeat Israel,” Assad said.

Israeli officials here claim the IDF alert level in the Golan heights has not been raised.

“We have not made any significant changes in the Golan in recent weeks,” said an IDF spokeswoman.

Sources in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office, who refused to respond publicly to Assad’s comments, told Israel’s leading Yediot Aharonot daily the Syrian president’s statements were “a clumsy diplomatic maneuver.” They said Assad was trying to use threats as a pressure tactic to urge negotiations over relinquishing the Golan Heights.

Still, the sources told Yediot, Israel was not discarding Assad’s threats and is closely observing the Syrian front.

Jewish residents in the Golan told WND the heightened IDF status was plainly visible. They noted larger troop numbers and improvements made to border installations.

‘Damascus preparing public for war’

Security officials here told WND there have been indications the past few weeks Syria is seeking to launch a provocation. Besides Assad’s statements, the officials say state-run Syrian media have been broadcasting regular warlike messages unseen since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Syria and Egypt launched invasions from the Golan and the Sinai desert.

“The tone [in Syria] is one of preparing the public for a war,” said a senior security official.

He said any Syrian provocation would likely be coordinated with Iran. Tehran and Damascus, which both support Hezbollah, have signed several military pacts.

Reuven Erlich, a Syrian expert and director of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at Israel’s Center for Special Studies, told WND Assad’s threats “are to be taken seriously.”

“Assad’s support for terrorism, for the insurgency in Iraq, for Hezbollah and his alliance with Iran are all indication of the direction in which Syria is headed. Assad needs to demonstrate he is willing to sue for peace, but everything seems to indicate the opposite. Especially following the war in Lebanon,” Erlich said.

Reports: Syria to form own Hezbollah

In July, WND first reported Syria is forming its own Hezbollah-like guerrilla organization to attack Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, according to a senior Baath party official.

The Baath party official told WND Syria learned from Hezbollah’s military campaign against Israel that “fighting” is more effective than peace negotiations with regard to gaining territory.

Hezbollah claims its goal is to liberate the Shebaa Farms, a small, 12-square-mile bloc situated between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The cease-fire resolution accepted by Israel to end its military campaign in Lebanon calls for negotiations leading to Israel’s relinquishing of the Shebaa Farms.

The official told WND Syria’s new Front for the Liberation of the Golan Heights was formed in June, and that the group consists of Syrian volunteers, many from the Syrian border with Turkey and from Palestinian refugee camps near Damascus. He said Syria held registration for volunteers to join the Front in June.

One week after the WND article detailing the claimed group was published, state-run Al-Alam Iranian television featured an interview with a man who identified himself as the leader of the new Front for the Liberation of the Golan.

The man, whose features were blocked out, said his new group consists of “hundreds” of fighters who are training for guerrilla-like raids against Israeli positions in and near the Golan. He claimed the Front has opened several training camps inside Syria.

Last month, Amos Yadlin, head of the IDF’s intelligence branch, told the Knesset Syria is in the early stages of forming a Hezbollah-like group.

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