The UN Secretary-General’s new report raises more questions than answers about two protests that turned deadly in the Golan Heights in the past month in which people who the UN report identified as “civilians”, and “largely young unarmed Palestinians” overran Syrian, UN, and Israeli lines — in an attempt to enter an area under Israeli control.
The UN said it still did not know the exact casualty toll. The report said that the two demonstrations “resulted in an unconfirmed number of civilian casualties and put the long-held ceasefire in jeopardy”.
The statement about the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire being in jeopardy is a surprise: there are no reports of any Syrian responses to the Israeli firing on the demonstrators.
The report was prepared, as it usually is, by the UNSG in connection with the imminent renewal of the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights later this month. The UN has decided to ask for a regular six-month renewal, as has happened since 1974, and a threat to the cease-fire would be a good justification for renewal.
The report does not say that Syrian forces were in any way responsible for the organizing the protests, though it does note several times that the Syrian forces were present.
On May 15, it said, “A total of 44 civilian casualties, including four fatalities from IDF fire, were reported, but UNDOF has not been able to confirm these numbers”. In the second demonstration, it said, “Although UNDOF could not confirm the number of casualties during the 5 June events, up to 23 persons have been reported killed and many more wounded”.
The report said that it was still investigating an “incident” in which two civilians “entered Majdal Chams and demonstrated in the town centre” during the May 15 protest — and were detained by the IDF. They were returned two days later, on 17 May, “by the IDF through UNDOF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the Syrian authorities”. According to the UN report, “UNDOF is investigating the incident and both parties have agreed in principle to cooperate with UNDOF’s investigation”.
It also said it was still investigating an apparent attack by protestors, during the June 5 protest, on an UNDOF position. Stones were thrown at a UNDOF commander trying to calm the situation, several protesters climbed the walls and entered the UNDOF facility and some UNDOF military police were evacuated for their own protection.
UNSG BAN said in the report that “the serious events that occurred in UNDOF’s area of operations on 15 May and 5 June are of grave concern … I call on both parties to show restraint and refrain from provocations so as to prevent escalation of tensions along the ceasefire line”.
UNDOF has been present in the Golan since May 1974, and has a troop strength of just over 1,000 UN Peacekeepers from several countries. At the moment, some 79 military observers from the Jerusalem-based UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) working with UNDOF.
The first demonstration, on May 15, was called to commemorate the dispossession of some 750,000 Palestinians in the fighting that surrounded the creation of the State of Israel. It was the first time that the Israeli lines were breached by protesters, and the Israeli military admitted it had been surprised. The IDF then made major preparations to prevent what it called “infiltration”, and to “defend its border and protect its communities” in the three-week interval prior to the June 5 demonstration, which marked the anniversary of the June 1967 war in which Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights which it still occupies (as well as the Egyptian Sinai which Israel returned to Egypt with the conclusion of a peace treaty).
The report said that UNDOF had no prior notice of the May 15 demonstration, but that it had planned and made preparations with the Syrian and Israeli military in advance of the June 5 event.
Ahead of the June 5 protest, according to the report, “Syrian authorities provided assurance of their cooperation with and support for UNDOF. The IDF said that it would follow its rules of engagement allowing for escalating measures of deterrence, culminating with live direct fire, and that it would implement harsh measures against anyone crossing the ceasefire line and technical fence. UNDOF’s Force Commander emphasized the need to practice maximum restraint”.
The ICRC was also supposed to be in the Golan on June 5, according to the UN report.
Here is how the report described the two demonstrations:
(1) “On 15 May, a group of approximately 4,000 civilians, the vast majority Palestinian, gathered over the course of several hours at a location known as ‘the Family Shouting Place’ in the area of separation on the Bravo [Syrian] side of UNDOF’s area of operation, opposite the village of Majdal Chams in the area of limitation on the Israeli-occupied Golan (Alpha side). UNDOF had no prior notification of the demonstration. The gathering was supervised by Syrian security forces and the Syrian authorities. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) observed the demonstration from behind the IDF technical fence, which is beyond the ceasefire line on the Alpha side. At a point in the early afternoon on that same day, approximately 300 of the demonstrators suddenly moved toward the Alpha side and, despite the presence of the Syrian Police, crossed the ceasefire line, through an unmarked mine field, and broke through the IDF technical fence. The IDF, which had reinforced its presence in the area, used tear gas and fired warning shots followed by direct fire to disperse crowds at the fence. Approximately 100 of the protestors entered Majdal Chams and demonstrated in the town centre”.
(2) “On 5 June, demonstrators, mostly young unarmed Palestinians, again amassed in the vicinity of the Family Shouting Place/Majdal Chams (near UNDOF Position 16), and in the town of Quneitra (UNDOF positions 22 and 27), including at the nearby ‘Charlie Gate’, the designated official crossing point for UNDOF between the Alpha and Bravo sides. Despite the presence of Syrian security forces, protestors attempted to breach the ceasefire line in both locations. The IDF used tear gas and smoke grenades to deter the protesters, and live fire to prevent them crossing the ceasefire line. In the course of these events, several anti-tank mines exploded due to a brush fire apparently started by tear gas or smoke grenade canisters near UNDOF facilities at Charlie Gate, resulting in casualties among protesters. Syrian and Israeli fire squads and UNDOF extinguished the fire. Although UNDOF could not confirm the number of casualties during the 5 June events, up to 23 persons have been reported killed and many more wounded. UNDOF kept a distance from the confrontations but monitored the events from its positions and with armoured patrols. UNDOF’s Force Commander was engaged with IDF and Syrian authorities on the ground, both in Quneitra and the Family Shouting Place/Majdal Chams in an effort to de-escalate tensions. During the
events, three protesters scaled the walls of UNDOF Position 16 and briefly entered the facility, while other protesters threw rocks at the position. Rocks also were thrown at the Force Commander while he was trying to calm the situation. UNDOF Position 22D (an outpost of Position 22) and a nearby detachment of UNDOF Military Police were evacuated to Camp Ziouani for safety reasons. At the time of writing, UNDOF was seeking to confirm the facts and help calm a continuing volatile situation in the area”.
The report did try to answer some of the questions about what role the UN peacekeepers had played during the two demonstrations. After the demonstrators moved across the Golan on May 15, it said, “The UNDOF Force Commander was in direct contact with Syrian authorities on the spot on the Bravo side, attempting to persuade the crowd to pull back. He also crossed to the Alpha side to liaise with the IDF commander on the ground to bring about an end to the confrontation. Subsequently, the majority of the civilians that had crossed the ceasefire line returned to the Syrian side, after which they voluntarily began to leave the area”.
At one place, the report said both Israel and Syria had, as in the past, “denied [UNDOF] inspection teams access to some of their positions and imposed restrictions on the Force’s freedom of movement”.
But at two points in the report, there was specific criticism of Syria for restricting the UN peacekeepers’ movements — and linked this implicitly to the anti-government Syrian protests. It said, first, that: “Beyond such routine and temporary restrictions, beginning in late April and continuing through the time of drafting this report, Observer Group Golan (OGG) teams encountered restrictions of movement in the southern part of the area of limitation on the Bravo side, where Syrian authorities denied access, including in the vicinities of Al Asbah, Al Harrah, Nawa, Qasim, Tafas and Tasil, ostensibly for reasons of safety and security of the military observers”.
The UNSG added: “I am concerned by the increasing restrictions of movement on Observer Group Golan teams in the area of limitation on the Bravo [Syrian] side”.
But, on the very important question of minefields, the report was evasive. It made no mention of any “newly-laid” IDF minefields, despite Israeli media reports.
It did mention minefields — but did not say where they were, whose they were, or when they had been planted. Nor did it say how many of the minefields were marked (or not). It spoke only of anti-tank mines, and not of anti-personnel landmines.
The report also said: “In the area of operation, especially in the vicinity of the ceasefire line in the area of separation, mines continued to pose a threat to UNDOF personnel and local inhabitants. Owing to the long-term presence of the mines and the deterioration of their detonation systems, the threat has increased. UNDOF continued to carry out operational mine clearance and also supported two civil mine clearing projects. Coordination with other agencies is continuing in an effort to assist in increasing the level of mine awareness among the civilian population, in particular children, as well as exploring ways to assist those who have been injured by mine accidents. UNDOF is preparing to continue, along the Bravo line, the project to accurately and clearly mark portions of the lines delineating the area of separation”.