Pinoy peacekeepers risk crossfire in Israel-Syria border rift

by Rodney Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America Bureau

Posted at Nov 13 2012 11:42 AM | Updated as of Nov 14 2012 03:50 AM

WASHINGTON D.C. - About 300 Filipino peacekeepers could be caught in the crossfire if tensions between Israel and Syria escalate in the Golan Heights.

The Filipino troops are part of the 5-nation United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights, a mountainous region that Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.

In 1973, Israel agreed to return part of the territory to Syria which now forms the demilitarized zone that is controlled by the UN.

Israel has built settlements in the area where, according to reports, stray mortar shells have landed the past days. After initially responding with warning shots, Israel struck Syrian military targets on Nov. 12.

Israeli tanks stand in position overlooking a Syrian village from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights November 12, 2012. / REUTERS

A civil war is tearing Syria apart as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Bashir battle with rebels. Technically the Israel and Syria are still at war, but the Golan Heights has been largely quiet until last weekend.

There are more than 1,000 UN peacekeepers at the Golan Heights, including a battalion from the Philippines. There are also several Filipino civilians working there, including Caloocan-native Ricardo Manalo who was appointed earlier this year as chief of communications for the UNDOF.

They are there basically to keep Israeli and Syrian forces separated. They ensure that both sides respect the disengagement, including maintaining only the military equipment and forces allowed in the demilitarized zone.

The lightly-armed UNDOF was for a time, commanded by Philippine Marines Maj. Gen. Natalio Ecarma III who completed his tour of duty and relinquished command of UNDOF to Indian Maj. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha last September.

The Filipino contingent is now led by Lt. Col. Ramon Estella.

There was no comment from UNDOF but UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has expressed deep concern about the potential for escalation.

Israel has expressed concern about the deployment of Syrian tanks in the area, although they acknowledge that could be part of the Assad regime’s efforts to subdue rebels.

ABS-CBN sources familiar with the UNDOF said the Filipino troops will be unable to stop either side if they decide to fight it out in the Golan Heights.

“They will be caught in the crossfire. That is inevitable,” the sources explained. The UN has contingency plans ready if that happens, including possibly airlifting the troops out of the danger zone.