Israel continues to interact with Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights and allow them to cross the border, according to a new UN report corroborated by a VICE News team that visited the area in November, uncovering additional incidents beyond what has been described by the UN.
Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since the Six-Day War in 1967, when it captured it from Syria. In 1974, a UN peacekeeping mission, known as UNDOF, was established to police a 50-mile-long disengagement zone between the Israeli "Alpha" and Syrian "Bravo" lines. At the disengagement zone's narrowest southern points, the distance between the two lines can be less than a kilometer.
A report by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon that was delivered to the Security Council earlier this week describes several incidents that brought Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in contact with rebels. On October 27, UN peacekeepers observed IDF soldiers opening a gate and allowing two individuals to pass from the Syrian Bravo line into the Israeli Alpha side.
Israel maintains it only allows entrance to the wounded on humanitarian grounds, however the UN did not indicate that the two were injured in any way, and said they appeared to have crossed into the Israeli side under their own power.
In August of this year, rebels captured several important border crossings, effectively rendering the disengagement zone obsolete in some places. Fighting in parts of the zone has seen shells land inside Israel, and the IDF has retaliated with fire over the border. In September, Israel shot down a Syrian air force plane it claimed had veered across the Alpha line. In his report, Ban said UN personnel did not observe the plane cross into the area of separation or Israeli controlled territory, and noted that the plane crashed on the Syrian "Bravo side."
On August 28, al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra captured 45 Fijian peacekeepers and trapped 72 Filipino troops at another location. After a firefight with rebels, all the Filipino peacekeepers were able to escape. On September 11, al Nusra released the Fijians. Following the incidents, UNDOF relocated most of their personnel to Israeli-controlled territory to the west of the Alpha line.
In his report delivered this week, Ban reported that after the evacuation, UNDOF personnel "sporadically observed armed members of the opposition interacting with IDF across the ceasefire line."
Ban also reported that during the UN's retreat, peacekeepers were unable to secure all of their "assets and equipment." Left behind, those materials likely fell into the hands of the al Nusra fighters that control parts of the disengagement zone.
In November, VICE News sent a video team to the Golan Heights where they witnessed and recorded occurrences similar to those outlined by the UN. The team saw IDF soldiers treating wounded Syrian fighters along the border. Though VICE News could not confirm the affiliation of the fighters, some of the rebels being treated by Israel had long hair, a characteristic that is associated with members of the al Nusra Front.
Once the patients were stabilized, Israeli forces moved them to hospitals outside of the Golan Heights and inside Israel proper. At one hospital, VICE News spoke with a patient who identified himself as a member of the Free Syrian Army. He said that after recovering he hoped to return to fight in Syria. The Free Syrian Army is reportedly cooperating with al Nusra in parts of the Golan Heights.
Ban's report is only the latest to describe the transfer of wounded individuals from Syria to Israeli-controlled territory. In a December 2013 report, the UN said it had had observed "at least 10 wounded persons being transferred by armed members of the opposition from the Bravo side across the ceasefire line to the IDF." The reports, issued every three months, are filled with similar accounts. Some of those who cross into Israel are local shepherds and civilians fleeing shelling, but the UN's reports clearly indicate contact and coordination between the IDF and Syrian rebels.
In a June report, the UN said it witnessed "IDF on the Alpha side handing over two boxes to armed members of the opposition on the Bravo side." It remains unclear what was inside the boxes.
The Syrian government has complained about what it considers to be an Israeli attempt to coordinate against their military and run the UN out of the disengagement area. The presence of peacekeepers in the Golan Heights has long served as a reminder that the international community still considers the annexed territory part of Syria.
"Israel is most interested in having peacekeepers evacuated from the occupied Golan so as to be left without international monitoring," Syrian ambassador to the UN Bashar al Jaafari told reporters in September.
On Sunday, Syria accused Israel of bombing sites outside of Damascus, including one near the Syrian capital's international airport.
"This aggression demonstrates Israel's direct involvement in supporting terrorism in Syria along with well-known regional and Western countries to raise the morale of terrorist groups, mainly the Nusra Front," the Syrian military said in a statement published on the government press agency SANA's website.
Meanwhile, UNDORF's numbers are dwindling. In September, the Philippines withdrew their 344 peacekeepers — a full quarter of the UN's presence — from the mission. As of early November, only 929 troops from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, and the Netherlands remain.
VICE News reporters Simon Ostrovsky and Andrew Glazer contributed to this report.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @SamuelOakford