UN force runs away from Israel border as al Qaeda-linked group makes gains


Rebels captured the town of Kuneitra on Israel's border with Syria last Thursday, and now control the crossing nearby.

The victory signals a change in the status quo which has existed on the border since the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

This was not the first time rebel forces managed to capture the Kuneitra area; last time they were subsequently dislodged by the Syrian army. This time, however, it seems that they have succeeded in establishing a more permanent presence.

The only crossing between Israel and Syria, serving mainly Druze residents of the Golan, will not be reopened any time soon.

One significant repercussion of the rebel victory is the rapid disintegration of the UN Disengagement Force (Undof) on the Golan.

Forty-four Fijian Undof soldiers were captured over the weekend by the al-Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, and are being held at undisclosed location.

Meanwhile, over 100 Filipino Undof soldiers succeeded in escaping from a rebel-held area across the border to Israeli territory, having held off a siege for seven hours. "We may call it the greatest escape," General Gregorio Pio Catapang told reporters in Manila.

It is unclear what role the force that has separated Israeli and Syrian armies on the Golan will fulfil from now on - and whether the participating nations will allow their soldiers to continue operating in the region.

The separation agreement between Israel and Syria, which kept the peace on the Golan for over four decades, has lost its meaning now with the Syrian army no longer in control of their side of the border. Israel has to get used to new neighbours who are less predictable and more hostile.

So far, most of the incidents on the border have been the result of misfiring. The two Israelis were wounded last week were not directly targeted, but that could change. On Sunday, a drone, most likely sent by the Syrian army to monitor the rebels, strayed across the border and was shot down by an Israeli anti-aircraft Patriot missile.

Not all the rebels are radical Islamists. Some of the groups, including the one that has taken control of the crossing, are aligned with the moderate Free Syrian Army. Israel has reinforced its forces on the Golan over the past two years, adding a new divisional headquarters and rebuilding large sections of the border fence.

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