Fierce fighting between Syrian rebel and government forces over the strategic Quneitra crossing on the Golan Heights has compelled Israel to up its readiness in the area
Forces loyal to the Assad regime have been fighting over the past day to retake the border area from rebels who captured it Wednesday, while rebel forces, including from the al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front, have been streaming to the area in a bid to hold the spot.
The IDF’s top brass was meeting Tuesday morning to assess the escalating situation, while the army’s Northern Command has deployed infantry forces in armored personnel carriers to the border area, Channel 10 reported.
On Monday morning, in the wake of the latest in a series of mortar shell explosions inside Israeli territory, the IDF declared the area near the Quneitra crossing a closed military zone.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday that both sides have sustained casualties in the fighting, which was focused around the town of Hamidiyeh in Quneitra province, near the Israeli border.
Syria’s state news agency said the military killed “many terrorists” and destroyed a heavy machine gun in the fighting.
The IDF’s new measures have prevented Israeli farmers with fields in the area from entering their fields in recent days. The army has also asked journalists and civilians not to approach the area due to the multiple incidences of errant fire from the Syrian battles striking inside Israel.
The fighting has also endangered the UN forces in the demilitarized zone separating Israel and Syria on the Heights. Over 70 Filipino soldiers and 45 Fijians were taken by rebel forces later last week, although the Filipino forces escaped their captors and fled into Israel.
The 45 Fijians remain in rebel hands, touching off criticism among some nations contributing troops to the peacekeeping force about how the Golan Heights operation functions. Their captors published demands for the soldiers’ release early Tuesday.
Ireland, which contributes a 130-member armored rapid-response unit to the UN mission, warned Monday that it won’t replace its troops next month if UN leaders in New York do not agree on strengthening the force’s firepower, command and control, and rules of engagement.
“I’ve made it very clear that I’m not going to continue to commit Irish troops to this mission unless there’s a very fundamental review of how it’s going to operate. Clearly this is no longer a demilitarized zone,” Irish Defense Minister Simon Coveney told RTE state radio in Dublin.
“We need to get a significant reassurance from the UN, and the Syrian side, that we can operate a mission safely. The risk levels, given what’s happened over the last three days, are not acceptable.”
AP contributed to this report.