UN says troops in Golan Heights came under Syrian fire

Following attack and kidnappings, UN launches ‘very active review’ into safety of peacekeepers on Israel-Syria border

UN peacekeepers monitor the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border from an army post at Mount Bental in the Golan Heights last July (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
UN peacekeepers monitor the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border from an army post at Mount Bental in the Golan Heights last July (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

The UN will be conducting a “very active review” into the safety of its peacekeepers in the Golan Heights following a shooting on a UN post in the hours following the Saturday release of 21 peacekeepers by Syrian rebels, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters on Monday.

“Over the weekend there was an incident in which one post came under fire from two unidentified individuals,” said Nesirky, adding that no members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were hurt in the attack.

On Saturday, Syrian rebels released the 21 Filipino peacekeepers who were abducted on Wednesday, after an earlier attempt to bring them to safety failed.

Nesirky said the review had been launched because of growing insecurity over several weeks as the two-year Syrian civil war spreads.

“This is a very dangerous place to operate and it’s therefore obvious that our colleagues in peacekeeping operations would be reviewing very carefully the way that we then carry out patrols and so on, on the ground,” Nesirky said.

UNDOF, which has about 1000 peacekeepers from the Philippines, India and Austria, has already ended night patrols in the area.

Last week, eight Filipino observers abandoned their post and crossed into Israel to escape fighting between anti-regime rebels and the Syria army. The peacekeepers belonged to the same unit whose troops were abducted by rebel forces on Wednesday near the village of Jamla.

They crossed over near an Israeli army position and had first “coordinated their arrival” with the IDF, said a defense official. Israeli troops and UN personnel greeted them near one of the border gates.

Croatia recently said it was pulling its contingent out because of fears over safety, and Israel fears that other countries will follow suit.

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. 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 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.”

Since the 1974 establishment of the force, 43 troops and one civilian have died on duty.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report

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