Rumors of war in the north
By Ryan Jones
Earlier this week, the US government warned Americans to steer clear of Israel's northern Golan Heights. Now the United Nations is cautioning that neighboring Syria's ongoing civil war is likely to spill over the border.
"US citizens are advised to defer non-essential travel to and within the Golan Heights and to exercise an extra measure of caution," read an email sent by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to American citizens living in Israel.
The warning came after Syrian government and rebel forces engaged in a days-long battle for the border town of Quneitra, with Syrian forces entering the demilitarized buffer zone between Israel and Syria for the first time in decades.
Around the same time, Austria, which is the largest contributor of troops to the UN peacekeeping force stationed on the Golan border, announced that it was pulling its soldiers out of the region.
The peacekeepers making up the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) have been repeatedly targeted by Syrian rebels in recent months, and many have expressed their total lack of motivation to risk their lives to prevent war between Israel and its neighbors.
The Austrian troops began withdrawing on Wednesday, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened rushed negotiations with Sweden to replace the absentee peacekeepers.
In fact, Ban said, there is an urgent need to actually increase the size of the UNDOF deployment. "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," said the UN chief.
Ban wants to see the force increased to 1,250 combat-ready troops, and to significantly improve their defensive capabilities.