Israel is wary about the possibility of United Nations observer forces in the Golan Heights withdrawing their peacekeepers in the wake of this week’s kidnapping of 21 UN troops by Syrian rebels, government sources said Thursday.
At the same time, an Israeli expert stressed the limited mandate of the peacekeepers, who are deployed to observe, rather than intervene on the Israel-Syria border. Thus their potential departure would not necessarily re-ignite a military conflict, just as their presence would not necessarily prevent one.
“We certainly hope that the UN will keep its commitment to help keep the ceasefire in the Golan Heights. It’s been a cornerstone of regional peace since 1974,” when ceasefire agreements were reached following the previous year’s war, an Israeli government official told The Times of Israel on Thursday. “We know that some of the peacekeepers are bit afraid. The Japanese have already pulled out, and the Croatians are also considering withdrawing.”
For many years, indeed, Japan dispatched Self-Defense Forces personnel and units to the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), stationed in the Golan Heights, the high strategic ground that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war. In December 2012, the troops concluded their mission, and they returned home last month. Last week, Croatia too announced that it would withdraw some 100 peacekeepers from the area, citing fears the Syrian civil war might endanger the troops.
On Wednesday, a group of about 30 Syrian rebels fighting the rule of President Basher Assad grabbed 21 Filipino UNDOF troops near the Golan Heights town of Jamla. The commander of the UN force in the area said Thursday that he was negotiating with the head of the rebels for the release of the peacekeepers. The president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, said talks were progressing and that he expected the troops to be released shortly.
It was not immediately clear whether the remaining UN forces in the area were intimidated by Wednesday’s kidnapping to the point of considering a complete withdrawal, the Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
But Jerusalem was worried that this incident, which underlined the volatility of the status quo in the area, could prompt the four countries that currently have boots on the ground to withdraw their troops, the official indicated, in order to prevent them from coming to any harm at the hands of the rebels.
“This kidnapping is likely to convince countries which participate in this force to bring their troops home, which would undoubtedly create a dangerous vacuum in no man’s land on the Golan,” an Israeli official also told AFP. “Since its creation, this force has fulfilled its mission which was to keep the peace.”
Currently, there are about 1,150 UNDOF troops in the Golan, from Austria, India and the Philippines, and the soon-to-be-withdrawn Croatians. Since the force’s establishment in 1974, 43 troops and one civilian have died on duty.
Besides UNDOF, whose peacekeepers carry light weapons, there are also troops from the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) stationed on the Golan.
On Israel’s border with Lebanon, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has about 12,000 troops on the ground, but Israeli officials are currently not worried about this force withdrawing.
If the UNDOF troops were indeed to pull out, this would not necessarily result in the resumption of hostilities between Israel and Syria, stressed Dr. Benjamin Molov, who teaches international relations and conflict resolution at Bar-Ilan University and has served for several years as a liaison officer with UNDOF and UNTSO. But neither would their presence necessarily prevent potential altercations between the IDF and the Syrian rebels, he suggested.
“UN forces are not there to serve as policemen between Israel and the Syrians, or whoever might be on the Syrian side, in this particular case. In the event of actual direct hostilities and complications, their primary mission is to ensure their own security. They’re not there to endanger their lives as part of an active shooting war,” he said.
Molov, who served in the Israel Defense Force’s special liaison unit to UN and foreign peacekeeping forces in the Golan throughout the 90s, said he couldn’t predict whether UNDOF and UNTSO would stay put despite the danger emanating from the Syrian rebels.
“If these troops come significantly into harm’s way, their host governments will most likely ensure that their own security is protected,” he said. “From my experience, they will definitely take a low profile. They will not be directly involved in [dangerous activities], because that is not their mission. Their job is to observe — to make sure the ceasefire is maintained according to the mandate they have.”
UNDOF and UNTSO troops have been “effective” in strengthening the ceasefire on the Golan border, Molov asserted. The role of the UN’s forces in the region is to maintain existing calm, not to interfere in armed conflicts between local parties, he reiterated.
“The reason that the Golan Heights has been a stable border between Israel and Syria is because both countries have had an interest in respecting that ceasefire since the  Yom Kippur War. What do they do? They strengthen that peace, or stability, by offering a calming or moderating influence on the border. They prevent local misunderstandings from escalating into unintended perceptions on both sides.”