A fierce battle last week between the Syrian army and rebels over the city of Quneitra, near the Israeli border on the Syrian Golan Heights, nearly brought Israel and Syria into open confrontation, according to a UN document leaked on Saturday by US-based blogger Nabil Abi Saab.
During the battle over Quneitra on Thursday, June 6, the Syrian army moved five tanks and five armored personnel carriers into the demilitarized zone separating Syria and Israel, in an effort to remove rebel forces that had taken over the Syrian-Israel border crossing, according to the document, dated the same day and presented to the UN Security Council by Herve Ladsous, UN under secretary general for peacekeeping operations.
In response, the IDF told UNDOF peacekeeping forces that they would “take action” should the tank movement continue, a message that UNDOF relayed to the Syrian army. The Syrian army, in turn, said that “the presence of the tanks was solely for the purpose of fighting the armed members of the opposition and asked that the IDF not take action.”
The Israeli army decided not to intervene, and the Syrians used their armor to drive the rebels from Quneitra, and then, according to Ladsous, left “four main battle tanks and three armored personnel carriers… in the area of separation, in violation of the Disengagement Agreement.”
The incident was described in Hebrew media reports as the closest the two countries have come to open conflict in the 40 years since the ceasefire agreement was signed in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The battle over Quneitra, which saw the Syrian rebels briefly take over the border crossing, resulted in an Austrian decision to withdraw its soldiers from the UN peacekeeping forces monitoring the Israeli-Syrian demilitarized zone, citing safety concerns.
During the fighting, Israel sheltered a group of civilians caught in the conflict before releasing them back into Syrian territory. According to the UN document, the IDF also “provided emergency medical treatment to a total of 16 armed members of the opposition,” who were then returned to Syria.