Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken to Russia’s Vladimir Putin after Moscow offered to bolster the beleaguered UN peacekeeping force monitoring the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line on the Golan Heights, Netanyahu’s office said Sunday.
“We discussed issues linked to Syria where the situation is becoming more complex by the day,” Netanyahu said in remarks communicated by his office.
“We saw only last week the battles which took place next to our border on the Golan,” he said after Syrian rebels clashed with troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad for control of Quneitra in the demilitarised zone between Syria and Israel.
Quneitra is the only crossing point between Syria and the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, which was seized by the Jewish state during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.
Thursday’s clashes, in which two UN peacekeepers were lightly wounded, prompted Austria to announce it would withdraw its 377 troops from UNDOF, the UN Disengagement Observer Force headquartered at Quneitra.
The move caused great concern in Israel as it will reduce by more than a third the UNDOF force which has monitored the ceasefire line for nearly four decades.
“The disintegration of the UN force in the Golan clarifies the fact that Israel cannot base its security on international forces,” Netanyahu said.
“They can be part of the arrangements, but not the main foundation for Israel’s security,” he said, pledging to discuss the issue with US Secretary of State John Kerry who is due in the region on Tuesday for his fifth visit since February.
Putin on Friday offered to send Russian troops to bolster the depleted UNDOF.
But under the terms of the 1974 agreement which established the peacekeeping force, no troops from the permanent five members of the UN Security Council can participate.
The idea was also ruled out on Sunday by Israel’s minister for international relations.
“The idea of Putin sending Russian troops to the Golan in place of the Austrian troops in the force is not feasible,” Yuval Steinitz said at the start of the cabinet meeting, in remarks quoted by army radio.
During Thursday’s clashes, Assad’s troops moved tanks into the demilitarised zone in a bid to dislodge the rebels from Quneitra, prompting the Israeli army to reportedly send them a direct warning that it would “take action” if the tanks were not pulled out.
Details of the exchange emerged in an apparent UN document summarising details of Friday’s closed session of the UN Security Council that was published online by a blogger called Nabil Abi Saab.
“During the clashes, SAAF (the Syrian army) reinforced its presence in the area of separation with five main battle tanks and five armoured personnel carriers, moving in the direction of Quneitra. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) informed the UNDOF Force Commander that should the movement of SAAF tanks continue, the IDF would take action,” it says.
The message was passed on and in response, the Syrian army sent back a response saying “the presence of the tanks was solely for the purpose of fighting the armed members of the opposition and asked that the IDF not take action.”
The Quneitra crossing was functioning on Sunday for the shipment across the armistice line of apples grown by Syrian farmers in the Israeli-occupied zone.
An AFP correspondent on the Golan saw three trucks with Red Cross insignia take the fruit through the crossing.
Red Cross spokesman Ran Goldstein told AFP that it was the final stage of a total of 14,000 tonnes of Golan apples being sent to market in Syria.
“We started in March and today and tomorrow are supposed to be last days,” he said.
More than 18,000 Syrians, mostly Druze, an offshoot of Islam, are left from the Golan’s original population of 150,000. The vast majority of the Druze have refused to take Israeli citizenship.