UNDOF (Golan Heights)
Expected Council Action
In June, the Council is expected to renew the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights for a period of six months. UNDOF was established in 1974 to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Its mandate expires on 30 June.
Key Recent Developments
On 23 May, Head of Mission and Force Commander for UNDOF Major General Jai Shanker Menon (India) briefed the Council during a meeting on peacekeeping operations. Menon spoke about various challenges facing Chapter VI peacekeeping missions. Concerning missions that conduct monitoring of peace agreements, and UNDOF specifically, he addressed challenges that arise when third party belligerents begin to shape the situation in the area of operations, and the need for missions to be flexible enough to respond to such developments. For 40 years until 2011, UNDOF operations were based on parameters agreed to by Israel and Syria. However, he said, these methods are no longer suitable. He spoke of the mission changing from a light infantry force to one with armoured protection and firepower as critical force protection measures, and stressed that due to the constantly evolving nature of peacekeeping, the UN must be agile, learn quickly, and respond accordingly, including through increasing peacekeeping budgets when necessary.
The December 2016 UNDOF report noted that the limited redeployment of UN personnel to Camp Faouar on the Bravo side represented a major achievement for the mission. The latest UNDOF mandate renewal in resolution 2330 of December 2016 welcomed the phased redeployment conditioned on favourable security and operational conditions. The security situation on the Bravo side remained unstable, though there was no direct threat to Camp Faouar.
On 23 April, Israel attacked a Syrian government military camp at Camp Faouar near Al-Quneitra in southwest Syria, close to the Golan Heights. Three fighters were killed and two others injured. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said that it had targeted the positions inside Syria after three Syrian mortars fell in the Golan two days earlier. The IDF released a statement saying that the mortars seemed to be spillover from fighting within Syria and were not a deliberate attack targeting Israel. Retaliation, however, would be consistent with Israeli policy on cross-border fire.
On 27 April, Israel shot down what it described as “a target” over the Golan Heights; the object was reportedly a drone. This occurred just after Israel was accused of launching a missile strike at a military site near the Damascus international airport; Syrian rebels reportedly said the strike hit an arms depot maintained by the Lebanese Shi’a militia Hezbollah.
On 7 May, Israeli Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz called on US President Donald Trump to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, asserting that developments in Syria emphasise the threat posed by the Iranian axis in the region and that, in his view, the US and Israel should reach an understanding concerning Syria beginning with the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the annexed territory. In a meeting with Trump on 15 February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked him to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the area. (The Golan Heights was captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed by Israel. Under international law, it is considered an occupied territory.) Council members had previously voiced their concern about this issue in consultations on 26 April 2016, following Netanyahu’s remarks that the Golan Heights would remain forever under Israeli sovereignty. In elements to the press, the Council president stressed that the status of the Golan Heights remained unchanged.
A key issue is the mission’s ability to carry out its monitoring tasks. As a result of the spillover of the Syrian civil war into UNDOF’s area of operation, most of the mission’s peacekeepers were relocated from the Bravo (Syrian) side to the Alpha (Israeli) side of the ceasefire line in September 2014. The majority of UNDOF’s 829 uniformed personnel continue to be stationed on the Israeli side, which hinders the capacity of the mission to achieve full mobility and operational capacity. Considering the security situation in the Golan, the full return of UNDOF to the Syrian side seems unlikely in the foreseeable future.
An ongoing issue for the Council is the violation of the ceasefire on numerous occasions, including the presence of Syrian heavy weapons in the area of separation monitored by UNDOF and Syrian and Israeli airstrikes. No military forces other than those of UNDOF are allowed in the area of separation.
The Council is somewhat constrained in its options for UNDOF. It was established as a Syria-based mission, and how it operates is subject to the disengagement agreement, with any changes requiring consent by Israel and Syria.
Nevertheless, in the resolution renewing UNDOF’s mandate the Council could:
- reiterate the need for all parties to exercise restraint;
- reiterate support for the incremental return of UNDOF forces, as the security situation allows, to positions and observation posts in the area of separation and the area of limitation vacated in 2014;
- urge Israel and Syria to allow the use of new technologies so UNDOF could better fulfil its observation tasks;
- urge Israel and Syria to allow the use of enhanced equipment for UNDOF’s force protection capabilities;
- urge Israel and Syria to agree to establish more UNDOF crossing points between the Alpha and Bravo sides; and
- urge Israel to allow UNDOF to establish more temporary observation posts on the Alpha side, given the mission’s limited mobility there.
There is general agreement within the Council that UNDOF contributes to stability in the region, given the absence of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. The mission’s observation role has been limited since its September 2014 relocation to the Alpha side of the ceasefire line. However, the mission’s liaison function continues to be considered important for avoiding further negative developments in the region.
Israel and Syria value UNDOF’s presence and want to see the mission return to the Bravo side. At the moment, the security situation on the Syrian side is still not conducive to full redeployment of UNDOF troops. Council members continue to support the eventual complete return of UNDOF to the Bravo side. However, they are mindful that this would require a favourable security environment, which is important for maintaining the confidence of UNDOF’s troop-contributing countries.
Council members have expressed concern regarding the fighting in the area of operations as well as the tension between Israel and Syria along the ceasefire line, which have been exacerbated by the presence of Hezbollah.
Since June 2012, Russia and the US have been the co-penholders on resolutions renewing UNDOF.
UN DOCUMENTS ON UNDOF
|Security Council Resolution|
|19 December 2016 S/RES/2330||The Council renewed the mandate of UNDOF until 30 June 2017.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|23 May 2017 S/PV.7947||This was a briefing on peacekeeping operations by force commanders.|
|7 December 2016 S/2016/1037||This was the Secretary-General’s report on UNDOF.|