UNDOF cmdr jilke 298.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
While Syria is repairing its military positions along the border with Israel, its army has not beefed up its forces on the Golan Heights, Austrian Maj.-Gen. Wolfgang Jilke, commander of the UN force deployed along the border, has told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview.
Jilke, commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) responsible for maintaining the cease-fire on the Syrian-Israeli border, dismissed Israeli claims of an unprecedented military buildup within Syria.
"Within my area of responsibility, there is no military buildup," Jilke told the Post in his first interview since taking up the post in February. "From my point of view there is nothing on level of strategic interest that could or would lead to concern [for Israel]."
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Established in 1974 following the Yom Kippur War, UNDOF troops conduct patrols and man outposts along an 80-kilometer section of the border.
It maintains an area of separation where no other military forces are permitted. The force also maintains "areas of limitation" - some running 35 kilometers into Israel and Syria - where the countries are allowed to deploy agreed-upon numbers of troops and weaponry.
Jilke said Syria was repairing trenches and positions along the border with Israel, but that within the areas of limitation, Syria had only amassed 40 percent of the permitted forces. There was more military activity on the Israeli side of the border, he said.
"We are much below the allowed figures," Jilke said. "There is a peaceful atmosphere and there is no intention to prepare for war."
Israeli defense officials rejected Jilke's assessment and pointed to what they called an unprecedented military buildup by the Syrian military that included exercises, the procurement of advanced weaponry such as Russian anti-aircraft systems and missile ships, as well as the movement of rockets and missiles within range of Israel.
Earlier this week, Ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor said Syria had missiles aimed at every part of Israel, and that its forces were deploying near the Golan Heights in numbers "that we have not seen since 1973."
National Security Council head Ilan Mizrahi told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that Syria's move to restart the peace process was authentic.
"It's not clear whether they want peace or whether they just want the peace process," he said. "They are still figuring out how it will best serve them, but the call for peace talks themselves is authentic."
Israel has received mixed messages regarding Syrian peace overtures - both from Damascus itself and from Israeli intelligence sources - since Syrian President Bashar Assad purportedly offered to renew peace talks last year.
At an Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting in late December, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni expressed sentiments similar to Mizrahi's when she questioned whether Assad was truly interested in peace, or only in negotiations.
However, Military Intelligence Research Division head Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz told the same panel a day earlier he believed Assad was sincere - contradicting Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who had told them the opposite the previous week and said the Syrian leader should not be taken seriously because his country was preparing for war with Israel.
That type of flip-flopping made it difficult for MKs on the panel to form a firm opinion on the Syrian overtures, said committee MK Matan Vilna'i.
On Monday, Mizrahi also spoke about the trend of Middle Eastern states' acquiring civilian nuclear reactors, saying it could lead to a nuclear weapons program.
"There is growing concern that those who talk about civilian nuclear capabilities are thinking about future military capabilities," he said.
Mizrahi also said al-Qaida was establishing a presence in Lebanon so that it could play a greater role in determining that country's political future.
Al-Qaida has also been trying to establish footholds in Sinai and in Jordan, the NSC chairman said. He is also a former deputy Mossad chief.
It was his first meeting in front of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
The full interview with Jilke will appear in the 'Frontlines' section of Friday's Post.