Once it became undeniable, Israel confessed it was treating fighters, but claimed that they were moderates.
But after al-Nusra captured and ejected UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights last August, there was no longer any doubt that al-Nusra was the dominant force among opposition fighters in the area.
Since then, Ynet has resorted to whitewashing al-Nusra’s connections to al-Qaida. Citing unnamed Israeli officials, the publication claims that al-Nusra’s members are “simply local residents who joined the organization to benefit from the logistical and financial support it offers them.”
Retired Brigadier General Michael Herzog, a former chief of staff for Israel’s defense minister, told The Wall Street Journal that “Nusra is a unique version of al-Qaida. They manage to cooperate with non-Islamist and non-jihadi organizations in one coalition … They are totally focused on the war in Syria and aren’t focused on us. But when Hizballah and Iran and others are pushing south, they are very much focused on us.”
Israeli soldiers have also been seen providing Syrian opposition fighters dominated by al-Nusra with material aid.
Dozens of interactions between Israel and opposition fighters, as far back as 2012, have been documented by the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), the peacekeeping mission responsible for monitoring the 1974 ceasefire line between Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights.
The UN has good reason to observe these interactions closely.
In August last year, al-Nusra detained 43 UN peacekeepers and seized their equipment, prompting the UN to evacuate many of its soldiers to the Israeli-occupied side of the ceasefire line.
Quarterly UNDOF reports since the pullback reveal an ongoing pattern of Israeli coordination with those armed groups.
According to the December 2014 report, UNDOF observed two Israeli soldiers “opening the technical fence gate and letting two individuals pass from the [Syrian] to the [Israeli] side” on 27 October. Unlike most fighters seen entering the Israeli side, these individuals were not wounded and the purpose of their visit remains a mystery.
UNDOF “sporadically observed armed members of the opposition interacting” with the Israeli military across the ceasefire line, the report states.
The next UNDOF report, released in March, notes that UN forces witnessed Israeli soldiers delivering material aid to armed Syrian opposition groups.
“During the evening of 20 January, in the area north of observation post 54, UNDOF observed two trucks crossing from the [Syrian] side to the [Israeli] side, where they were received by IDF [Israeli military] personnel,” the report states. “The trucks were loaded with sacks before returning to the [Syrian] side.”
The coordination between Israel and armed opposition groups continued into May, according to the June UNDOF report.
Israel appears determined to keep the nature of these interactions as low key as possible, something Sidqi Maqt, a Druze resident of the Golan Heights, understands better than most.
In February, Maqt was arrested by Israeli intelligence for posting photos and videos to his Facebook page of Israeli army interactions with armed opposition groups. Maqt paid particular attention to documenting encounters he believed demonstrated the Israeli army’s alliance with al-Nusra.
Released in 2012 after serving 37 years in prison for engaging in armed resistance against Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, Maqt is once again behind bars. He has been charged with “espionage, assisting an enemy during wartime and contact with a foreign agent,” according to Al Jazeera.
On top of providing al-Nusra with material aid and punishing those who expose it, Israel has launched airstrikes almost exclusively against forces fighting al-Nusra.
On 18 January, for example, an Israeli air strike on a convoy near Quneitra killed six members of Hizballah and a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Days later, rockets landed in the Golan Heights, according to UNDOF. The Israeli army retaliated by shelling a location it said was the source of the fire.
A Syrian army official, however, told the UN that “terrorists” had fired the rockets and that the Syrian army planned to target their positions. The UN relayed this message to the Israeli army, which responded with airstrikes against two Syrian army artillery positions.
Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has said that some in Syria joke, “How can you say that al-Qaida doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force.”
While Assad’s policies, including the bombardments that have devastated cities and towns forcing millions to flee their homes, have contributed to the chaos and vacuum that has enabled extremist groups to flourish in some areas, Israel’s actions on behalf of those groups grant credence to his claim.