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.
decision came after battles between Syrian troops and rebels near the Quneitra
The 1,000-strong United Nations Disengagement Observer
Force (UNDOF) has been monitoring the border for the past 40
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.
statement said that Israel expected the UN to uphold its commitments under
Security Council Resolution 350 to maintain the UNDOF.
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
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
against any international force being part of a peace accord with
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
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
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
, a town close to Lebanon located on a vital supply route.
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.
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
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.
fighting, Israel confirmed that two wounded Syrians had been let into Israel
medical treatment, though the IDF did not state whether they were rebel or
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
With sectarian divisions widening in the region, the leader
of Sunni Islamist group al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, urged Syrians to unite
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.
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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