Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says the planned withdrawal of the Austrian U.N. peacekeepers from the Golan Heights shows that Israel cannot rely on the U.N. for security.
“The crumbling of the U.N. force on the Golan drives home the fact that Israel cannot rely on international forces for its security,” Netanyahu said.
He said he would raise the issue with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, expected to return to the region in the coming week to try to revive talks on Palestinian statehood.
Israeli Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz said, “We are seeing now what the Austrian forces in the Golan Heights are worth. Israel cannot trust international forces, and sometimes, as it happens, their presence during crises is more burdensome than useful.”
“If there are no Austrians, there is no UNDOF. They were the core force,” an Israeli diplomatic source said.
In the Golan on Friday, Israeli firefighters put out brush fires from Thursday’s fighting. As gunfire from Syria echoed at times in the distance, Israeli and Druze farmers returned to their cherry orchards.
Along one road, two Israeli soldiers, one of them armed with an anti-tank missile, crouched on the ground, gazing in the direction of Syria.
Netanyahu said he had spoken during the weekend with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Syria, but gave no details. Moscow is Assad’s main big-power ally, whose advanced arms supplied to Damascus worry Israel.
A Russian offer to replace Austrian peacekeepers on the Golan was turned down on Friday by the United Nations since the mandate excludes permanent members of the Security Council.
The United Nations expressed appreciation for the Russian offer, made on Friday by President Vladimir Putin after Austria said it would recall its troops from the U.N. monitoring force.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, president of the Security Council this month, said after a special Council session on the UNDOF crisis that the force should remain in place, even if its numbers were temporarily reduced.
The U.N. peacekeeping department is asking the other countries in the force, the Philippines and India, if they would increase their troop contributions, and was also looking at the possibility of new countries sending troops, Lyall Grant said.
“At the same time [they are] trying to encourage the Austrians to slow down their departure from the theater and dissuade any other troop contributors from withdrawing troops,” he said. U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous had talked about increasing the force to its mandated figure of 1,250, Lyall Grant said.
One council diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Ladsous had made clear while briefing the Council behind closed doors that allowing Russian peacekeepers might be too complicated legally and he would prefer to find other troop contributors.
Fiji has said that it will send troops to replace a Croatian contingent that has already pulled out. Japanese troops have also been withdrawn because of the violence.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said his country was aware of the limitation in the document signed four decades ago, which is why Putin had said it would depend on whether countries in the region, namely Syria and Israel, and the U.N. wanted Russian troops there.
“We believe that times have changed,” Churkin told reporters, adding that it was theoretically possible to amend the protocol that bars permanent Council members from UNDOF.
“The document was signed 39 years ago at the height of [the] Cold War and the whole context of the [Arab-Israeli] war in 1973,” he said. “Now the context is completely different and UNDOF seems to be in dire straits. So we are offering … to rescue UNDOF.”
Meanwhile, attention was focused on Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s threat to open a new front against Israel in the Golan. One senior Israeli official briefed on intelligence said Nasrallah’s words seemed to be backed by action.
“Hizbullah appears to be making inroads on the Syrian-held Golan too. This would seem consistent with what Nasrallah pledged. There aren’t Hizbullah ‘boots on the ground’ there yet, but the infrastructure is being built,” said the official.
The official added that Hizbullah had much to gain from fighting on behalf of its longstanding patron, Assad. Hizbullah, he said, was acting under assurances it would be rewarded by Assad in the form of arms transfers.
Hizbullah may be bolstered by its joint victory alongside Assad’s forces against rebels in the battle in recent weeks for the Syrian town of Qusair, watched closely in Israel.
“It is our understanding that Qusair was basically a Hizbullah operation, from the planning to the handling of key weapon systems,” the official said. “Hizbullah crews were even operating Syrian T-55 and T-54 tanks there, as well as all significant artillery systems.”