Israel worried after Austria leaves UN Golan force

Ban Ki-moon urgently looking for Austrian replacements; Israeli Foreign Ministry "regrets" Austrian decision to leave.

June 6, 2013 22:58
UNDOF peacekeepers in the Golan Heights

UNDOF peacekeepers in the Golan 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon scrambled on Thursday night to find troops to replace some 380 UN peacekeepers on the Golan Heights that Austria announced earlier in the day it was evacuating.

Israeli diplomatic officials said Ban understood the implications for the future of peacekeeping missions in the region if the force collapsed because of regional tensions.

The Austrian decision came after battles between Syrian troops and rebels near the Quneitra border-crossing.

The 1,000-strong United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been monitoring the border for the past 40 years.

Israel is keen on the force remaining on the border, and is trying to maintain the quiet that has reigned there for four decades. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that it “regrets” the Austrian decision and “hopes it will not lead to an additional escalation” in the region.

The statement said that Israel expected the UN to uphold its commitments under Security Council Resolution 350 to maintain the UNDOF.

One diplomatic official said Israel was watching the developments closely and that its faith in the international peacekeeping troops hung in the balance.

“If at a time when a few bullets are fired, these forces run away from where they are needed to keep the peace, then what is it worth?” the official asked, praising Ban for taking the matter seriously.

International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz issued a statement expressing regret at the Austrian move, adding that the lesson for Israel was clear: “Even as part of peace agreements, Israel cannot place its security in the hands of international forces instead of relying on the presence of IDF soldiers.”

On Wednesday, even before the incident, Steinitz came out strongly against any international force being part of a peace accord with the Palestinians.

A spokesman for Ban issued a statement saying he was approaching UN member states “in an effort to identify urgently new contributors or additional contributions to UNDOF.” The continued presence of UNDOF to monitor the Israeli-Syrian Disengagement of Forces Agreement was “essential,” he said.

Ban’s spokesman added that the secretary-general “urges parties to strictly respect the disengagement agreement, to stop fighting in the area of separation and to refrain from any violation of the disengagement line.”

Anti-Assad rebels briefly seized Quneitra – the sole crossing between Israel and Syria – on Thursday morning in the disengagement zone, sending UN staff scurrying to their shelters, before Syrian soldiers managed to push them back and reassert their control of the area.

The rebel attack appeared to be an attempt to regain some momentum after Assad’s forces – backed up by well-trained Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas – on Wednesday seized control of Qusair, a town close to Lebanon located on a vital supply route.

The IDF on Thursday issued a formal complaint to the UN saying that Syria violated the cease-fire with Israel by moving tanks into the demilitarized zone next to the Quneitra border crossing. Ban condemned the fighting there.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and his deputy, Michael Spindelegger, explaining their decision to withdraw their forces, said that freedom of movement in the area no longer exists. “The uncontrolled and immediate danger to Austrian soldiers has risen to an unacceptable level,” they said. “This morning’s developments show that a further delay [in pulling out soldiers] is no longer justifiable.”

An escalation of the situation in the border area could heighten Israeli fears that the fighting in Syria could spread into Israel, or that the country will become a launching point for terrorist attacks against Israeli targets by extremists fighting President Basher Assad.

After the fighting, Israel confirmed that two wounded Syrians had been let into Israel for medical treatment, though the IDF did not state whether they were rebel or government fighters.

The head of the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, confirmed that there had been incidents on the Syrian-Israeli border, noting that the UNDOF had taken measures to ensure the safety of its personnel.

“We are doing everything we can to reduce risks. We have closed posts that were too exposed, reinforced our equipment and vehicles, and our activities are more static,” he said.

In recent months, Japanese and Croatian troops have left the blue-helmeted ranks of the UNDOF, while the Philippines, the other main contributor, has said it might leave after several cases where Syrian rebels held its peacekeepers captive. India also has soldiers there.

Quneitra is significant since control over the crossing point is considered one of the more symbolic demonstrations of power exercised by the Damascus government.

Israeli military sources told Army Radio in recent weeks that a takeover of the Quneitra crossing by rebels would constitute a major turning point in Jerusalem’s attitude toward the Syrian civil war.

Earlier on Thursday, a mortar shell hit a United Nations base in Quneitra, just a few hundred meters from the border fence separating Israel and Syria.

In addition, Israel Radio reported that authorities have banned civilians from entering Kibbutz Ein Zivan, situated just hundreds of meters away from the border fence.

According to news reports, the military has also sealed off the section of Route 98 that extends from Moshav Alonei Habashan to the kibbutz.

Pro-government troops have won a string of successes in recent weeks in Syria, boosting Assad at a time when the United States and Russia are struggling to organize a peace conference aimed at ending the civil war.

Looking to ram home their victory, Assad’s troops have turned their fire on villages northeast of Qusair, where hundreds of rebels and civilians were holed up.

France, which earlier this week accused Assad of deploying nerve gas in the civil war, said on Wednesday that the situation on the ground needed to be “rebalanced” after the fall of Qusair, but did not say how that could be achieved.

Russia said on Thursday it was worried that allegations of gas attacks might be used as a pretext for foreign intervention.

With sectarian divisions widening in the region, the leader of Sunni Islamist group al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, urged Syrians to unite against Assad and thwart what he called US plans to set up a client state to safeguard Israel’s security.

Washington and its allies, which have backed the rebels, have become alarmed in recent months by the rise of an increasingly powerful rebel group that has pledged its loyalty to al-Qaida.

Western countries have shown little appetite for getting sucked into the Syrian conflict, but there is also a clear aversion to letting Assad, heavily backed by Shi’ite Iran and its Hezbollah associates, emerge victorious.

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