IDF on high alert in Golan Heights
As a result of intense fighting on Syrian side of plateau and abduction of UN forces, military ups readiness
As a result of the fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, the level of alert was raised on the Israeli side, an army spokesperson said Thursday, without confirming that it had been increased to the highest level.
The announcement followed several incidents in the area, including the capture and execution of 160 Syrian soldiers by the Islamic State, gruesome pictures of which appeared online Thursday, and the abduction, also Thursday, of 43 Fijian UN peacekeepers by al-Qaeda-affiliate al-Nusra Front at the Quneitra crossing with Israel, where fighting has raged this week between Syrian rebels and government forces.
Another 81 peacekeepers, from the Philippines, were trapped in the area by heavy clashes between rebels and Syrian troops, according to the UN.
Philippines military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said in a statement that Syrian rebels demanded that the Filipino troops surrender their firearms, but the soldiers refused.
“They did not surrender their firearms as they may, in turn, be held hostage themselves. This resulted in a stand-off which is still the prevailing situation at this time,” Zagala said.
On Wednesday, the Quneitra crossing was seized by rebel combatants, including members of the Nusra Front, one of the main groups fighting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad for control of the embattled country.
“Al-Nusra Front and other rebel groups took the Quneitra crossing, and heavy fighting with the Syrian army is continuing in the surrounding area,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based NGO.
Also Wednesday, at least seven mortars fired from Syria landed in the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. The IDF said it had not determined whether the mortars were fired into Israel intentionally, or were a spillover from fighting between rival factions on the Syrian side of the border.
One Israeli man was lightly wounded Wednesday after a mortar landed near him, and earlier, an IDF officer was moderately injured as a result of stray fire from fighting between rebel groups and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria.
The Israel-Syria border region has seen intermittent exchanges of fire throughout the war in Syria. Although Israel has largely attributed these incidents to stray fire from clashes in Syria, there have been attempts to target Israeli soldiers.
In one deadly incident in June, a 15-year-old was killed when the car he was riding in was targeted by an anti-tank missile fired from the Syrian side, just south of the Quneitra crossing.
In June, the UN Security Council strongly condemned the intense fighting between Syrian government and opposition fighters in the Golan Heights and demanded an end to all military activity in the area. Syrian mortars overshooting their target have repeatedly hit the Israeli-controlled Golan, and UN peacekeepers have been abducted.
Thursday’s UN statement noted that UNDOF peacekeepers who were detained by armed forces in March and May were later safely released.
As of July, UNDOF has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, the Netherlands and the Philippines.
But the Philippine government last week said it would bring home its 331 peacekeeping forces from the Golan Heights after their tour of duty ends in October, amid the deteriorating security in the region.
In June 2013, Austria said it was withdrawing its 377 UN peacekeepers from the Golan Heights. Croatia also withdrew in 2013 amid fears its troops would be targeted.