Security and Defense: Hold your peace

There is a new understanding within the IDF: Better to work with the foreign forces than against them.

UNDOF cmdr jilke 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
UNDOF cmdr jilke 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In 1973, Wolfgang Jilke was a young lieutenant with the Austrian army, stationed in the Sinai Desert as part of a United Nations contingent responsible for overseeing the Israeli-Egyptian cease-fire obtained following the Six Day War. The day the Yom Kippur War ended, Jilke got a call from UN headquarters ordering him to take his squad and drive north - through the Sinai and the State of Israel, up to the Golan Heights. A day earlier, Israel and Syria had reached a cease-fire ending close to three weeks of fighting; and the UN, sensing the need for a peacekeeping force, wanted Jilke to get there as soon as possible, to begin securing the fragile cessation of hostilities. He spent the day driving north, and when he arrived on the Golan, he and his men became the security team for a makeshift headquarters that had been setup for the Israelis and Syrians to use to negotiate a disengagement of forces. Jilke, 58, has come a long way in the 33 years since then. Today, in what he says will be his final job in uniform, he is commander of the peacekeeping force he was sent to set up, now known as the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). Today, with tensions rising in the region and Israeli defense officials predicting that war with Syria is potentially near, Jilke's job has never been more important. UNDOF's main task is maintaining the cease-fire, and Jilke told The Jerusalem Post this week in his first interview since taking up his post in February: "My job is about deescalating." To maintain the cease-fire, UNDOF mans more than 40 outposts and patrols an 80-kilometer long, 10-km. wide buffer zone running from Lebanon to Jordan. The zone separates the Golan Heights from Syria: with the Golan Heights border known as "Line Alpha," and the Syrian border known as "Line Bravo." UNDOF also maintains "areas of limitation" - some running 35 km. deep into Israel and Syria - in which the countries are only allowed to deploy agreed-upon numbers of troops and weaponry. Jilke and his men conduct periodic inspections within these areas and go base-to-base counting the number of tanks, soldiers and weapons each side has amassed. ACCORDING TO Jilke, Syria has stationed only 40 percent of the permitted forces within the areas of limitation, a clear indication that it is not interested in war with Israel. In fact, he says, there is more military activity on the Israeli side of the border. A visit to the Ziouani UN base, just north of Merom Golan, is like stepping into a different country and is unlike any IDF base. There, Jilke is greeted at the front gate by the Indian base commander, who walks around with a small leather whip tucked under his arm. As he walks through the base, Jilke is greeted by each soldier with a quick salute and a "Good afternoon." He replies accordingly. Since the Second Lebanon War, the IDF has gradually begun granting more importance to the multinational forces deployed along Israel's borders. There is UNDOF in Syria, UNIFIL in southern Lebanon, the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai and the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) at the Rafah crossing in the Gaza Strip. The outcome of the Lebanon war and Israel's heavy reliance on UNIFIL to prevent Hizbullah from returning to its former border outposts have created a new understanding within the IDF: better to work with the foreign forces than against them. The same transformation has happened within the IDF with regard to its relationship with UNDOF. As with UNIFIL, the IDF has upgraded talks with UNDOF and invites Jilke for weekly high-level meetings with senior IDF officers, including OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and Golan Division commander Brig.-Gen. Eli Reiter. Jilke says he is aware of the importance of his job. He is concerned with the escalation in rhetoric on both sides of the border, he says, adding, "When I talk to [Syrian] authorities, I hear, 'We would like to have back the Golan' according to the UN Security Council resolutions. It is our land and we would like to have it back." But, he says, carefully watching his words as though to avoid a political slip, "As a military man, I understand the strategic importance of the Golan." JILKE'S DECISION to speak to the press was not coincidental; it was part of an attempt to alleviate Israeli concerns. While Syria is repairing military positions along the border, its army has not beefed up its forces on the Golan Heights, Jilke says. "Within my area of responsibility, there is no military buildup," he says. "From my point of view, there is nothing on the level of strategic interest that could or would lead to concern [for Israel]." Whether or not this assessment is entirely accurate, it should not be ignored. Jilke lives in Damascus and is based out of Camp Faouar on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. He holds daily meetings with Syrian and IDF officials, and has a sense of the mood within the Syrian military and political echelons. His motive is also quite clear: As the UN commander responsible for maintaining the cease-fire, he would like to prevent war at all costs.