JERUSALEM – Israel's premier pledged Sunday to build a fortified fence along the frontier with Syria, warning that radical Islamist forces have taken over the area.
Israel has largely stayed out of the civil war that has engulfed Syria and killed more than 60,000 people, but it is concerned that violence could spill over into Israel.
Israel worries that Syrian President Bashar Assad might try to draw Israel into the fighting as a distraction if his situation becomes desperate. An even greater concern is a scenario in which Assad is toppled, Islamic extremists take his place and gain control of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke as Assad delivered a rare nationwide address in Syria, calling for a national reconciliation conference. Assad claimed that "terrorists who carry the ideology of al-Qaida" were active in his country and demanding that foreign countries stop arming the rebels.
Speaking at a weekly Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said the Syrian regime was "unstable," and Israel was concerned about the country's chemical weapons capabilities. Therefore, he said Israel needed a barrier on its frontier with Syria, similar to a structure it has nearly completed along its border with Egypt. That fence has largely stopped the flow of African migrants.
"We intend to erect an identical fence, with a few changes based on the actual territory, along the Golan Heights. We know that on other side of our border with Syria today, the Syrian army has moved away, and in its place, global jihad forces have moved in," he said. "Global jihad" is the term Israel uses for forces influenced by al-Qaida. Syria's rebels include some al-Qaida-allied groups.
"We are coordinating our intelligence and readiness with the United States and others so that we might be prepared for any scenario and possibility that could arise," Netanyahu said. His office did not say long it would take to complete the project.
Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed the strategic plateau, a move not recognized by the international community. Despite constant hostility between the two countries, Syria has kept the border mostly quiet since the 1973 Mideast war.
Israel has grown jittery since pro-Palestinian activists breached the frontier during two demonstrations in 2011. Following that unrest, Israel began laying mines along the frontier and reinforcing the fence that already exists.
Defense officials say they have already fortified 10 kilometers (6 miles) out of the planned 70-kilometer (45-mile) route it plans.
Since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, several mortar rounds and other light munitions have landed on the Israeli side of the frontier. Israel suspects these were cases of stray fire and were not intended to spark a new front, but Israel fired warning shots back to deter further incidents.
Israel has almost completed a barrier along 200 kilometers (125 miles) of its border with Egypt to block African migrants and militants from crossing in from the lawless Sinai peninsula.
Israel previously constructed a barrier along and in the West Bank aimed at keeping Palestinian suicide bombers out of its cities.