Camp Ziouani, Golan Heights — It started last spring when grazing sheep crossed to the Israeli side of the invisible Golan Heights disengagement border, bringing Syrian herdsman face to face with IDF soldiers on heightened alert after the Lebanon war.
The Israeli-Syrian friction then surged over the summer as a rarely seen massing of Israeli armory and troops appeared for large-scale training exercises on the Golan Heights. While politicians in Jerusalem and Damascus played a game of chicken between talk of negotiations and war, UN peacekeepers between the two militaries became unnerved by what they say was a tripling of IDF violations of the three-decade-old international disengagement agreement.
“We felt it was not good cooperation,” said Maj. Gen. Wolfgang Jilke, commander of the 1120-strong United Nations Disengagement Observer Force. “My concern was that in those situations, by incidents, by miscalculations, you can easily create a situation that can’t be controlled anymore.”
But just as reports of Israel’s daring strike into northern Syria began emerging last month, Jilke said Israeli exercises ended and tension dissipated somewhat. Troop and military hardware concentrations have thinned on the Golan (very possibly because of the Jewish New Year holidays) allowing the quietest Arab-Israeli front since the 1973 Yom Kippur to return to normal.
“The number of troops exercising has been zero,” Jilke told a group of reporters. “I hope we are facing a more quiet truce than we had in the summertime.”
To be sure, the demilitarized zone to the east of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights remains a highly sensitive area, and just two weeks ago all it took was a wild animal caught in the Israeli border fence overnight to prompt a scrambling of helicopters and the firing of mortars to illuminate the area.
The activity has the potential to scare a Syrian civilian population inside the demilitarized zone that has increased 20 fold to 100,000 over three decades — including one village of Syrian policemen.
“This doesn’t pass by the Syrian population. They realize what is going on. And this is of concern,” Jilke said. “One thing is for sure, in case there is a decision to [go to] war by which side ever, UNDOF has lost the case.”
Though he took up command of UNDOF at the beginning of the year, Jilke might be one of the most experienced observers. In the days after the 1974 Israeli-Syrian Disengagement agreement he was part of the first detachment of peacekeepers who hunkered down on the strategic plateau in tents.
Marked by the “alpha” line on the Israeli side, and the “beta” line in Syria, the demilitarized zone varies in width, stretching from the highest altitudes of the Hermon mountain rage to the depressions around the Sea of Galilee. There are 42 UN positions in and around the zone.
The truce agreement mandated mutual limits on tank, troop and artillery levels in three separate regions fanning out from the border.
Though academics say the quiet on the Golan Heights owes to a Syrian strategy of confronting Israel indirectly through proxies like Hezbollah, Scott Lasensky, an Arab Israeli expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace said UNDOF has most definitely played a critical role. “There’s no guarantee of quiet. You can’t take the 35 years of calm as reason to be complacent.”
UN peacekeepers at the base camp on the Israeli side of the demilitarized zone characterize the Syrian military activity as being limited. Paratroopers have been deployed on the strategic Hermon range and there have been Syrian exercises on a smaller scale than the Israeli’s.
While Israel has refurbished and expanded trenches, the Syrians have done renovation work by hand, the UNDOF commander said.
And yet, Syrian shepherds — who Israel now suspects as potential terrorists after the Lebanon war — still crossed the separation line into Israel’s zone some 250 times in September.
Of more worry on the Israeli side of the border is the surge in Syrian civilian population and building inside the demilitarized zone. The concern is that the new buildings could be used as cover for attacks on the Golan like Hezbollah’s secret buildup in southern Lebanon.
Peacekeepers at Camp Ziouani expressed confidence that is not the intention of the Syrian government, and insisted they had the ability to “smell” anything suspicious in the disengagement zone.
Jilke was pointed in his denial of the Israeli charges of a buildup. “We have not seen it, we have not experienced it and I cannot confirm it. This is misleading information.”
But other peacekeepers conceded that nighttime is a “black hole” for monitoring, and they lack sufficient observation equipment to say for sure whether small rockets like the Katyushas that bedeviled Israel in Lebanon aren’t being smuggled in.
Austria and Poland contribute the largest number of troops to the force, which also includes soldiers from India, Slovakia and Canada. Inside Camp Ziouani, the office bulletin board and Golan maps are marked with Japanese characters.
At UN Observation Point 51, a windswept bluff along Israel’s border with Syria, visitors are immediately shown where to take cover in case shooting breaks out or in case of a chemical attack. Photography of the surrounding areas is prohibited because of the sensitivities of militaries on either side.
There is a memorial stone for UN Cats — two cats that are honorary members of the team for catching the mice that infiltrated the lone encampment.
The outpost, which is used as a base for mobile patrols of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, looks out past embankments with Israeli tank turrets to a patrol road for the border between Israeli and Syrian sides — an imaginary line marked by red and white barrels.
The monitors are often scrambled to track Israeli soldiers who patrol the border area so any tensions with shepherds and Syrian police don’t escalate.
From the outlook, the grinding of heavy machinery can be heard laying infrastructure for a new Syrian village in the demilitarized zones. Israeli positions and Syrian buildings are often hundreds of meters apart.
The peacekeepers are “very aware” of what is going on on the other side. “There is no sense of tension in our contribution. … We go about our mission with the support” of Syrian locals, said Capt. Gavin Crouch of the Canadian Air Force.
Crouch witnessed a line of Israeli military vehicles during the summer buildup. “It was something that tourists could see.”
Reached Wednesday morning for comment on the situation on the border, an IDF spokesman said he would not be able to respond by press time.
The recent tension is uncharacteristic of the Golan Heights, which is a popular tourist draw for Israelis who see it as part and parcel of northern Israel — in stark contrast to the West Bank where most Israelis are too afraid to daytrip. Hotel proprietors have reported that occupancy rates were near full during the recent spate of Jewish holidays.
“Since ’74 we almost forgot this was an area of war,” said Jamal Shaar, owner of the Peace Restaurant in the Druze village of Majdal Shams, who blames a 50 percent drop in revenue to the tension scaring off tourists. “This is the first time it’s serious, and there could be a war.” Though Shaar said he used to see tanks on the road in the Golan, he said the situation has relaxed more.
In Neve Ativ, an Israeli settlement of ski chalets for tourists who visit the slopes on Hermon Mountain, the security guard at the Rimonim Hotel denied sensing any unusual tension during the summer months.
“What tensions with Syria are you talking about?” said Yakov Barzi. “The army is on alert … so what? Do you hear any firing?”
Back at Camp Ziouani, Jilke waxes nostalgic when asked about his three tours of duty (one during 1989-1990) on the Golan. He has seen many changes, he said, as the UN bases were built up and the region has been developed on either side with satellite infrastructure and cash machines. “Now we are in a new phase.”