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Heavy shelling rocks Golan Heights area between Syria, Israel

By Nic Robertson and Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
updated 11:13 AM EST, Fri February 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: At least 11 shells strike a Golan Heights village just past Israel's frontier with Syria
  • A Syrian government position near the village of Bir Ajam can be seen firing its weapons
  • Israel is treating some of the injured who cross from Syria to go to its hospitals
  • Israel's aid may help to keep more moderate Syrian rebels near the frontier

Golan Heights (CNN) -- Heavy shelling and gunfire echoed close to the Syrian-Israeli frontier at the Golan Heights on Friday as the long-running war between Syrian rebels and government forces raged in a strategic area.

Plumes of smoke rose from Syria's southern villages, only a few miles across Israel's northern frontier, and bursts of automatic weapons fire were audible from the rocky plateau of the occupied Golan.

In the space of a few hours Friday, a CNN team overlooking the village of Bir Ajam, less than a mile from the fence marking the frontier, saw at least 11 shells land on a community where earlier farmers had been seen and children heard playing.

A government artillery position about a mile and a half from the village was seen to fire, and heavy machine gun fire was also heard.

A Syrian rebel fighter keeps an eye on government troops in Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday, December 17. The United Nations estimates nearly 200,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war. A Syrian rebel fighter keeps an eye on government troops in Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday, December 17. The United Nations estimates nearly 200,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war.
Syrian civil war in 2014
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The village is about five miles from Quneitra. The Quneitra crossing is the only access point between Syria and Israel and has previously been fiercely fought over by rebels and government forces.

The area being fought over by rebels and Syrian forces is strategically important because the Syrian capital, Damascus, lies only about 25 miles away.

If the rebels take control of the border area, they could potentially use it as a base to move toward the capital.

The border with Jordan is also not far away.

In recent months, reports have emerged -- denied by the Jordanian government -- that rebels are being trained in Jordan for operations just over the border in Syria against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Netanyahu: Dividing line between good and bad

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Golan Heights this week, underlining its importance to Israel.

"Here's the dividing line, on the Golan Heights, between the good and the bad," he said. "The bad is what is happening on the Syrian side of the border."

According to the United Nations, more than 100,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011 when government forces cracked down on peaceful protesters and then the conflict morphed into a civil war.

In the past year, Israeli authorities have treated injured people brought across the heavily fortified frontier between Syria and Israel.

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The injured, numbering dozens a month, are taken to Israeli medical facilities, including a field hospital specially set up just over the border.

On his visit to the area, Netanyahu toured the hospital, where children are among those being treated.

One patient, a 21-year-old Syrian man from Daraa who received three weeks of treatment for a leg injury may or may not have been a rebel.

Col. Tarif Bader, chief medical officer for the Israel Defense Forces' Northern Command, said it didn't matter to him whether the young man was a fighter, though he probably was.

When asked, the young man said he was not a rebel and returned to war-torn Syria later that day.

Does Israel have strategic aim?

Such help may surprise some observers, given the long history of enmity between Israel and Syria.

But the hospitals and other humanitarian aid may play a more sophisticated role for Israel: keeping radical rebels such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria away from the border by helping more moderate rebel groups.

Ehud Yaari, a longtime Israeli analyst and TV commentator who tracks radicals and Israel's response to them, said he saw a strategic plan in Israel's actions.

"Israel is just making sure that the villages along the frontier remain sort of friendly, at least, nonhostile, and they are not shooting at us," he said.

At the field hospital, Bader insists the army is simply helping people in need.

But Israel's approach may be helping to win over the minds of those across the frontier.

The young man from Daraa, asked if his view of Israel had changed, replied: "It turns out to be the best state. ... The regime used to make us hate it, but it turned out to be the best country."

The mountainous Golan was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 against Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. A peace deal was reached between Israel and Syria in 1974, and a U.N. observer force monitors the cease-fire line. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981.

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Read: CNN exclusive: Videos show brutality of radical group ISIS in Syria

CNN's Nic Robertson reported from the Golan Heights, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN's Saad Abedine contributed to this report.

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