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Austrian FM raps Israel over UN peacekeepers in Syria

Local Jewish community censures minister for implying IDF troops constitute a danger to UNDOF troops in the Golan Heights

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) peacekeeper on a watch tower at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and Israel. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
A United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) peacekeeper on a watch tower at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and Israel. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Austria’s foreign minister threatened both Syria and Israel with the withdrawal of the country’s troops from the international peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights if the two nations are unable to better secure the border area. In a letter to the United Nations, the minister explicitly mentions Israel, demanding the UN address Jerusalem with “very clear words” and threaten it with “consequences.”

Michael Spindelegger’s comments this week drew criticism from the local Jewish community, whose leader emphasized that Israel has been fully cooperating with the UN peacekeeping forces since they started being stationed in the Golan in the 1970s.

Last week, Syrian rebels fighting against government troops kidnapped 21 Filipino UN troops near the Golan Heights town of Jamla, sending shockwaves through the region. Although the men have since been released, Israel fears that the remaining contingents of the UN Disengagement Observer Force, which are stationed in the Golan, the high strategic ground that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war, might withdraw from the volatile region. In December, Japanese peacekeepers concluded their missions and returned home and earlier this month, Croatia too announced that it would withdraw some 100 peacekeepers from the area, citing fears the Syrian civil war might endanger the troops.

This week, the Austrian UNDOF troops, which have been in the Golan since 1974, took on additional responsibility previously fulfilled by the Croatian 3rd company, which has left.

Spindelegger said Tuesday that while he is not currently considering withdrawing Austria’s 371 troops from the Golan, he would periodically reassess the security situation and “not wait until Austrians, too, are being kidnapped.”

Michael Spindelegger (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Michael Spindelegger (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Spindelegger also called on the president of the UN Security Council, Vitaly Churkin, to ensure that more is being done to guarantee the peacekeepers’ safety. “That is necessary and needs to be conveyed by the UN leadership to both parties, in Syria as well as in Israel, with very clear words and prospective consequences,” the Austrian minister wrote in a letter to Churkin.

The president of the Austrian Jewish Community, Oskar Deutsch, said it was understandable that Spindelegger called on the rival Syrian parties to safeguard the UN peacekeepers but that threats directed at Jerusalem were misguided.

“What exactly did the foreign minister mean when he called on the UN leadership to demand of Israel ‘with clear words’ and under threats of consequences to guarantee the peacekeepers’ safety?” Deutsch said in a statement. “Israel respects the demilitarized zone, treats injured UN soldiers in Israeli hospitals and makes itself available as a line of communication because Syria became too dangerous for us. Israel cannot be blamed for anything having to do with the UN troops in the Golan, yet Foreign Minister Spindelegger is apparently of the opinion that he can never go wrong threatening Israel ‘with very clear words and prospective consequences.’”

In an interview with the Kurier newspaper earlier this year, Deutsch accused the Austrian political leadership of not doing enough to fight anti-Semitism. According to figures provided by the Jewish community, the number of anti-Semitic incidents doubled last year, from 71 in 2011 to 135 in 2012. “Anti-Semitism is apparently becoming acceptable again,” he said.

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