Breakdown in peacekeeping force threatens Israel-Syria ceasefire, Ban says

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Syrian civil war and a breakdown in the peacekeeping force between Syria and Israel could threaten the 40-year-old ceasefire between the two countries, the United Nations head said in a report.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for adding troops and enhancing the self-defense capabilities of the 1,000-member U.N. Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights.

“The ongoing military activities in the area of separation continue to have the potential to escalate tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic and to jeopardize the ceasefire between the two countries,” Ban said in a report to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.

The self-defense enhancements include more armored cars and body armor, as well as a cut in patrols and the closure of some observer positions, according to the French news agency AFP.

The recommendations came the same day that Austria began the withdrawal of its 380 soldiers from the force and from the Golan.

Last week, Austria said it was pulling its soldiers after fighting between government and rebel forces in Syria’s two-year civil war placed them in danger.

Croatia withdrew from the peacekeeping force earlier in the year due to similar fears.

Soldiers from the Philippines and India remain on the force. However, on Tuesday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he also is considering pulling out his 342 soldiers. Several Philippine troops have been abducted and then released by Syrian rebels in recent weeks.

Fiji is sending nearly 200 troops this month, to replace the Croatian and Japanese troops who were pulled from the region. Fiji has offered to send additional troops if necessary, AFP reported.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported late Wednesday, citing an unnamed “senior Israeli official,” that Ban is negotiating with Sweden the possibility of setting up a Scandinavian force to replace the Austrian soldiers. According to Haaretz, the force would include troops from Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark.

The head of the peacekeeping force told an Austrian newspaper on Wednesday that he did not have enough time from Austria’s announcement to the withdrawal to find replacements.

The U.N. force has been stationed on the Golan since 1974, in the wake of a cease-fire agreement signed after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

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