Thursday, June 13, 2013

 

U.N. Leader Urgently Seeks More Golan Peacekeepers

The United Nations secretary general said Wednesday that he was urgently seeking hundreds of new troops for the peacekeeping force in the disputed Golan Heights,where clashes from Syria’s civil war,cease-fire violations by both Israel and Syria,and an abrupt withdrawal of the force’s Austrian contingent are threatening four decades of relative calm.


In a report submitted to the Security Council, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon requested authorization to increase the Golan force to 1,250 soldiers, up from its present size of about 900.


He also said United Nations peacekeeping officials were looking into other ways of enhancing the force’s “self-defense capabilities.”

Mr. Ban’s report came against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Israel and Syria that reflected the reverberations of the conflict in Syria, where insurgents are fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

The fighting from that conflict has spilled into the Golan region multiple times, jeopardizing a cease-fire between Israel and Syria, formalized in 1974, that created the United Nations peacekeeping mission responsible for policing their disputed frontier.

Over the past few months, Syrian insurgents have detained Filipino members of the Golan peacekeeping force at least twice, and Israeli and Syrian forces have traded occasional artillery rounds.

On June 6, clashes between insurgents and the Syrian army forced Austrian members of the Golan peacekeeping force to vacate the Quneitra crossing, the only gateway between Israel and Syria.

Austria’s government responded by ordering its contingent of 377 soldiers home.

Their withdrawal, which began this week, has jeopardized the peacekeeping mission, known as the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or Undof.

“The situation has affected the Undof area of operation significantly,” Mr. Ban wrote in the report. “The ongoing military activities in the area of separation continue to have the potential to escalate tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic and to jeopardize the cease-fire between the two countries.”

Both Israel and Syria have expressed support for maintaining the force, but Israel has made clear that it reserves the right to use its own forces to prevent a spillover of fighting from Syria’s civil war to the Israeli side.

Mr. Ban beseeched both the Israeli and Syrian sides to respect the Golan cease-fire.

“There should be no military forces in the area of separation other than those of Undof,” he wrote.

Because of Austria’s pullout, Mr. Ban wrote, the United Nations has approached other member states “in an effort to identify urgently additional contributions and new contributors to Undof,” but his report left unclear whether any volunteers had stepped forward. President Vladimir V.

Putin of Russia offered his country’s troops as replacements for the Austrians last week, but the agreement that created Undof specifies that none of the Security Council’s five permanent members, which include Russia, can participate.

In Jerusalem on Wednesday, a senior Israeli official said that the United Nations had approached a dozen countries over the last week, but that none had yet committed any troops. The Austrians began pulling out on Tuesday, and “the haste with which they are leaving is creating some concern among the candidates,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. All the Austrian troops are expected to withdraw within six weeks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has made clear in recent days that he does not regard the United Nations force as sufficient to maintain the security of the Golan Heights.

He also has used the Quneitra crossing episode to make a broader point about Israel’s self-defense, and others in his government were even more direct in comparing the situation to Israel’s desire to retain a military presence in the Jordan Valley even if that area is part of a future Palestinian state — an idea Palestinian leaders reject.

“The crumbling of the U.N. force on the Golan Heights underscores the fact that Israel cannot depend on international forces for its security,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of a cabinet meeting on Sunday.

“They can be part of the arrangements. They cannot be the basic foundation of Israel’s security.”

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs and a close ally of Mr. Netanyahu, told reporters on Monday that retaining troops in the West Bank is “mandatory,” calling Undof “another testimony, another proof why we cannot rest our national security on the presence of international forces.”


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