UN sees spike in meetings between Israeli army, Syrian rebels, warns of escalation -
Israel says the meetings are held for humanitarian purposes, but the UN warns they could trigger clashes between rebels and the Syrian army
During the last seven months, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force has noted a significant escalation in contact and interactions between Israeli armed forces and rebel organizations along Israel’s border with Syria, chiefly in the area of Mt. Hermon, says a report released in recent days by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to the members of the UN Security Council.
The report expressed Guterres’ concern, for the first time, that the interactions between the Israelis and the rebel organizations could lead to escalation, causing harm to UN observers.
Published on June 8, the United Nations report describes the activity of the UN observers from March 2 to May 16. Every few days during that time, they observed meetings and contacts between the Israel Defense Forces and the rebels in the area of the border, including by the Hermon. Altogether they listed at least 16 such meetings in that time.
The meetings took place in proximity to UN outposts in the Mt. Hermon area, in the area of Quneitra and in the central Golan Heights, near moshav Yonatan.
“Relative to the previous reporting period, there has been a significant increase in interaction between Israel Defense Forces soldiers and individuals from the Bravo side, occurring on four occasions in February, three in March, eight in April and on one occasion in May,” the report stated, referring to the Syrian side of the border.
Members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) ride armored personnel carriers (APCs) in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights before crossing into Syria, August 31, 2014.Reuters
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That increase in the number of interactions between Israeli soldiers and representatives of the rebels continues a trend evident in the previous report, which had been published on March 17. That report covered the period between November 18, 2016, and March 1, 2017, and listed at least 17 interactions along the Golan border, including in the vicinity of the Hermon.
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According to both reports, UN observers saw 33 interactions between Israeli and rebel representatives over the last seven months.
In comparison, only two such meetings took place from August 30 to November 16 of last year according to UN reports, and they were only by the border, not by the Hermon.
One topic addressed in the latest report was meetings that took place in the area of the Hermon in the last three months. It stated that all such meetings happened in the vicinity of one of the IDF outposts there and all followed the same pattern: Unidentified people apparently affiliated with the rebel organizations, some of them armed, arrived at the IDF outpost accompanied by mules, and were greeted by the soldiers.
“In some instances, personnel and supplies were observed to have been transferred in both directions. On all occasions, the unknown individuals and mules returned to the Bravo side,” the report stated.
The UN secretary general clarified in the report that the nature of the interactions could not be observed.
“The Israel Defense Forces have stated that the interactions were of a humanitarian and medical nature,” the report said.
Israel contends that all the interactions with rebel representatives on the Syrian side were for humanitarian reasons, but in recent months the UN has started to view these interactions askance and began to warn they could lead to escalation. The report especially noted concern about the meetings around the Hermon, which the UN secretary-general defined as an area of strategic importance.
“Interaction between the Israel Defense Forces and unidentified individuals from the Bravo side, including in the area of Mount Hermon, has the potential to lead to clashes between armed elements and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. I reiterate my call to both parties to the Disengagement of Forces Agreement regarding the requirement to maintain stability in the area. All military activities in the area of separation conducted by any actor pose a risk to the ceasefire and to the local civilian population, in addition to the United Nations personnel on the ground,” the secretary-general wrote in the report.
The UN secretary-general’s latest report on the activities of the UN observers on the Golan Heights, as well as the three preceding reports, criticized the Syrian army for bringing heavy weapons to the area of the border, violating the disengagement agreement. The UN also criticized Israel for the same thing.
According to the last four reports, in the last year the IDF has kept one or two batteries of the Iron Dome system in the Golan, and also holds heavy 155mm cannons and rocket launchers in the area, in violation of the disengagement agreement with Syria. UNDOF has protested the violations to both sides.
On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported Israel has been secretly providing aid to Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights for years, with the goal of maintaining a buffer zone of friendly forces to keep ISIS and forces aligned with Iran at bay.