MEROM GOLAN, Golan Heights (AP) — For the first time in the Syrian civil war, al-Qaida fighters are hunkered down on Israel's doorstep, and Israelis in the lush, hilly Golan Heights who have long considered Syrian President Bashar Assad their bitter foe are now worried about something more ominous — that they could become the militants' next target.
The push into the Golan by the Nusra Front, as al-Qaida's branch in Syria is known, comes just two weeks after Israel ended a 50-day war against Hamas on its southern border with the Gaza Strip, giving the conflict-weary nation another cause for concern.
Israelis in the Golan -- a long-disputed territory that marks the frontier between the two countries -- have grown accustomed to hearing the sound of distant battles between rival forces in Syria's civil war.
But last week's seizure of the strategic Quneitra border crossing by a mix of rebels — including the Nusra Front, fighters of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and others — has created an unprecedented situation that has brought the extremists to within just a few meters (yards) of Israeli positions.
The Syrian government is "not our cup of tea," said Gabi Kuniel, an Israeli who tends vineyards recently damaged by mortar shells when the violence spilled over to the Israeli-held side of the strategic Golan Heights.
But "we prefer that the Syrian army controls this region and not a group of radical al-Qaida Muslim people," he said Wednesday, sitting behind a concrete structure near his fields to stay out of the line of fire.
As he spoke, heavy machine gunfire could be heard in the distance. Earlier, a plume of smoke rose from the Syrian side of the frontier fence.
For the past three years, Israelis in the Golan have had a relatively safe front seat view of the civil war as Syrian government forces battled rebels attempting to wrest control of the area.
But now the Nusra Front and the other rebels move around in camouflaged trucks and on foot with guns slung over their shoulders, in some cases just 50 meters (yards) away from Israeli military outposts and Israeli farmers' fields. Some Israelis are convinced it's a matter of time before the Islamic radicals set their sights on them.
"They'll come at us in the end, I have no doubt," said Yehiel Gadis, 56, peering through a small pair of binoculars at an Israeli lookout point across from Syria's Quneitra crossing.
"The entire Arab world is furious with us," said his friend, Yigal Bashan, 57.
The two men, who live in central Israel, were on a sightseeing trip in the region and were among some two dozen curiosity seekers who stopped at the lookout.
Israel captured the Golan, a plateau overlooking northern Israel, from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. It later annexed the area, a move that has never been recognized internationally. Since the aftermath of the subsequent 1973 war, U.N. monitors have helped to enforce a stable truce and the area has been tense but generally quiet.
That started to change when the Syrian uprising erupted in March 2011, and the frontier has grown more volatile as the conflict has escalated into a complex and bloody civil war.
Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines of the war, quietly content to see Assad's forces tied down by battles with various rebel groups trying to oust him. However, Israel has occasionally responded to mortar fire that spilled over the border, usually unintentionally, and is believed to have carried out several airstrikes on weapons shipments thought to be bound for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.
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