Fraught region awaits arrival of Ireland’s UN forces
The Defence Forces will be a boost to the dangerous territory of Golan Heights
Students who are studying in Syria walk towards the Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters
Dublin’s decision to deploy a 114-strong mechanised infantry unit to the Golan buffer zone will boost at a crucial time the UN Disengagement Observer Force, based there since 1974.
Undof was established in the wake of the October 1973 war when Syria and Egypt launched a campaign to recover territory occupied by Israel in 1967. Initially, Syrian and Egyptian forces were successful but they were soon overpowered and driven back by the Israeli army.
US secretary of state Henry Kissinger brokered a ceasefire, a mutual troop pull-back and the disengagement agreement which gave birth to Undof.
1974 buffer zone
The agreement, signed on May 3rd, 1974, provided for the delineation of a buffer zone and imposed equal force limitations on both sides.
Straddling the “Purple Line” that separates the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from the rest of the Syrian Golan province, the buffer zone is 80km long and 500m-10km wide.
Undof supervises the buffer zone, monitors the Syrian and Israeli military presence in the area, intervenes in case the buffer zone is violated by either side, marks minefields, and aids the international committee of the Red Cross in its mission to maintain contact between Syrian Druze residing in the occupied Golan and their families in Syria.
Undof is assisted by officers from the Golan Group of the UN Truce Supervision Organisation, to which Ireland has dispatched personnel.
UN peacekeepers have access to both sides while there is an unofficial gate for Druze to cross for pilgrimage and education and enter Syria for marriage.
Austria, Peru, Canada and Poland contributed the first troops for the force. Until recently, Austria provided the largest contingent, with 380 troops; the Philippines were the second-largest with 342; and India the third with 93.
However, Austria and the Philippines have declared their intention to withdraw their contingents, due to the escalating civil conflict in Syria. Fiji intends to replace departed Croatian and Japanese troops and some of the Austrians. Ireland’s contribution is essential to preserve the force.
The Golan area has been caught up in fighting since last November, when the Syrian army attempted to rout rebel forces which had infiltrated the town of Quneitra and villages in the area. During these and subsequent clashes, stray mortar rounds fired from Syria have landed in the Golan Heights, prompting Israeli retaliation.
Israel has also lodged complaints that Syrian soldiers had deployed in the troop limitation zone in greater numbers than permitted and with armour, in breach of the disengagement agreement.
In March of this year, 21 Filipino peacekeepers were held briefly and released unharmed by a rebel unit called the “Martyrs of Yarmouk”, taking the name of the river that runs along the borders of Jordan, Syria and Israel.
In May, another four Filipinos were taken by the same group and used as human shields.
In early June, two UN peacekeepers from India and the Philippines were wounded by random fire when the army seized from rebel fighters the crossing in the town of Quneitra.
On Tuesday, stray mortar fire from an engagement between rebels and Syrian troops struck the Israeli side of the ceasefire line, setting brush ablaze. Later in the day, shots were fired by unidentified elements at Israeli soldiers patrolling near the line and these returned fire.