As calm has returned after seven weeks of fighting in Gaza, thousands of people from southern Israel have said goodbye to families in the north of the country who gave them a temporary home during the violence. Many left their hosts with a very real offer — to return the favor.
The border between Israel and Gaza has stayed quiet since the Aug. 26 cease-fire, but dark clouds are gathering over Israel’s northern borders. It may not be long before residents of the Galilee and the Golan are on the front lines — and looking to redeem their invites.
Revelations during the Gaza operation regarding the advanced nature of Hamas’ tunnel network into Israel have rung alarm bells about the kind of tunnels that Hezbollah may have prepared from Lebanon into Israel. And and there are serious concerns about the militant group’s huge rocket arsenal, which is many times larger than that of Hamas.
Meanwhile, the biggest development is on the border between Israel and Syria — or as it has now become in part, Israel’s border with al Qaeda. The day after the Gaza cease-fire, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al Nusra Front, took control of the only crossing between Syria and Israel — and it has since taken hilltops and villages nearby.
As soon as it conquered the crossing from the Syrian army, al Nusra further flexed its muscles, by entrapping 85 United Nations peacekeepers — 40 Filipinos and 45 Fijians. The Filipinos escaped but, as of press time the Fijians — described by the militants as protectors of the “Zionist entity” — are in captivity.
Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, is no friend of Israel. However, for four decades he has mostly kept his border with Israel quiet — preferring to spill Israeli blood using his proxy Hezbollah.
Now, Assad is engaged in a bloody civil war — which has fire straying into Israel with increasing regularity — and both sides simultaneously pose major threats towards Israel. Al Nusra, part of the Syrian opposition, suddenly has the power to wreck the calm that he has chosen to maintain on his Israel border. And his own pet terrorists in Hezbollah — who have doubled as mercenaries for him in his civil war — are well prepared to unleash attacks against Israel. It highlights the blatant error of the proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The entrenchment of al Qaeda radicals next to Israel’s border has come as President Barack Obama is recruiting allies to combat the Islamic State. Presumably, echoing this initiative, the international community is sending reinforcements for the peacekeeping force on the Israel-Syria border — to protect peacekeepers and increase their power? Wrong. In fact, there is an ongoing exodus of peacekeeping forces from the region.
In the UN Golan mission, UNDOF (the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force), there is a growing belief that when the going gets tough, the tough get going — hardly the ethos expected from intrepid peacekeepers.
The Philippines is pulling out all of its 331 troops. Manila made this announcement a week before its people were captured, saying that this group is due to return home but it won’t be sending replacements “unless the situation improves.”
Irish peacekeepers were the heroes in the escape of the Filipino troops, but Dublin too looks likely to back out of UNDOF. It is due to send new troops to replace its 130 men next month. But Irish Defense Minister Simon Coveney has suggested that this change in rotation will be frozen unless the UN conducts a “full review” of how the mission works and gives Ireland “assurances” on how it will “adapt to the new realities.”
The exodus began in January 2013. Five peacekeepers had been wounded in Damascus a few weeks previously, and Japan withdrew troops and support staff — around 45 people altogether. Shortly afterwards, Croatia, which provided almost 100 troops, withdrew them as the country’s prime minister, Zoran Milanovic, voiced concerns that they are “no longer safe.”
Then, in June 2013, the al Nusra Front captured the Israel-Syria crossing for the first time. Though it only held on to it for a short time, this prompted Austria, the biggest force in UNDOF at the time, to make its excuses and say its goodbyes a few days later. Vienna claimed that the “uncontrolled and immediate danger” to its troops had risen to an “unacceptable level.”
It isn’t only the peacekeeping countries backing down in the face of terror, but the UN itself. In March 2013, rebels held 21 Filipino peacekeepers for four days. Two weeks after their release, the UN announced that its Golan peacekeepers have “reduced their activities in response to the presence of armed groups from the Syrian conflict.” Hervé Ladsous, a senior peacekeeping official, said: “We have had to reduce somewhat the footprint of UNDOF in the Golan Heights in the area of operation.”
Until now, UNDOF has managed to cobble together the manpower to make up for quitters, but this is getting harder, and may simply become impossible. The force could soon become a shadow of its former self. Or worse, the next biannual renewal of its mandate coming up at the end of this year may simply not happen. UNDOF could vanish, and if it does, the implications for Israel’s security are troubling, including the prospect of al Nusra attempting cross-border attacks against Israel.
International forces along the Israel-Syria border need to grow and take a greater role, not shrink and hide. If jihadists succeed in driving them away, it isn’t only bad for Israeli security and, at a time when leaders of the international community are asking for Jerusalem’s trust in their negotiations with Tehran, Israeli psychology. It sends the worst possible message to the jihadists of the Islamic State about the power of terror as the world launches its offensive against them.
This is Nathan Jeffay’s inaugural “Letter From Israel” column; it will appear twice a month.