FEATURE - Mines and brides: UN staff tread lightly on Golan


  • World
  • Tuesday, 17 Oct 2006

By Dan Williams

UNTSO OBSERVATION POST 53, Golan Heights (Reuters) - At this bunker overlooking one of the world's toughest battle grounds, there are no guns or tanks -- nothing more belligerent, in fact, than a boxing bag hung close to the observation deck. 

The vast, verdant plateau sprawls out below, frozen in the sunlight. An Israeli military patrol road is devoid of traffic. On a hillock just beyond the shimmering security fence crouch the decades-old wrecks of a Syrian cannon and armoured vehicle. 

With stasis everywhere in sight, the Golan Heights hardly seems ripe for a fresh fight. 

But tensions have run high since Israel's war this summer with Lebanon's Syrian-backed Hezbollah, stoked by Damascus hinting that it could resort to force to win back a territory lost to the Jewish state in the 1967 Middle East war. 

That complicates matters for the Golan contingent of the United Nations Truce Organisation (UNTSO), which has contained hostilities for 32 years as part of a mandate meant to enable peace, but is ever aware that it sits on a diplomatic tinderbox. 

"We have increased our observation levels during the war and since, to ensure the agreements are adhered to," said Commandant Walter Hunt, an Irish officer at one of UNTSO's six observation posts on the Israeli-run side of the Golan demilitarised zone. 

There is no real fear of either side mustering forces for a surprise attack of the kind launched by Syria in 1973. 

A strict limit on military mobilisation is enforced for 10 km on either side of the demilitarised zone, with UNTSO authorised to monitor movements for another 15 km beyond that. 

Strategic experts agree that Israel's command of the Golan, much of which is heavily mined, would make any assault by the lesser-armed Syrians easy to repel. 

Weighed against that is speculation that Damascus would opt to shake Israel's resolve through a Hezbollah-style missile barrage on its home front. 

"With the level of sophistication of weapons today, we cannot exclude any hostile action," said Francesco Manca, senior UNTSO adviser. "But overall the situation is calm and stable." 

PERILS OF PEACEKEEPING 

Manca credited UNTSO with preserving the calm through its efforts to prevent the 34-day Lebanon war spilling over into the neighbouring Golan. 

He described a "hypothetical" situation in which UNTSO observers would examine a Katyusha rocket that hit the territory and quickly report that it was fired by Hezbollah, not Syria. 

But there are limits to such intervention. 

UNTSO is only authorised to monitor conventional forces, rather than any anti-Israel covert groups that evidence suggests may be forming. 

At the height of the Lebanon war, a bomb exploded on an Israeli patrol road in the Golan, causing no damage. 

Then an obscure guerrilla group in Damascus vowed to abduct Israeli soldiers and ransom them for jailed members of the Golan Druze Arab community, which is mostly loyal to Syria. 

While little has come of those incidents, UNTSO's staff is mindful of Israeli criticism directed towards its counterpart in south Lebanon, UNIFIL, for a perceived failure to curb Hezbollah actions such as a July 12 raid that sparked the war. 

"One of our responsibilities is to keep (in check) the level of expectation. As observers, we basically report. Whenever expectation goes up to the level of preventing ... that might create a level of expectation which is unjustified," Manca said. 

Four members of UNTSO died in an Israeli air strike during the Lebanon war, making its personnel especially wary of a Golan flare-up. There are more mundane perils, such as landmines washed into the roads by rain and the reckless local drivers. 

But life for UNTSO's 153 military observers, drawn from 23 nations, is not all arms. As Israel and Syria have no formal ties, UNTSO supervises the transport of Golan apples for sale in Damascus, as well as the passage of Druze students and brides bound for new lives with husbands across the demilitarised zone. 

"These elements are indicators of normalcy," Manca said. 

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