Golan Peacekeepers in Firefight With Al Nusra Front

The town of Quneitra where Al Nusra on Wednesday took control of the crossing into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

The town of Quneitra where Al Nusra on Wednesday took control of the crossing into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

Aug. 30, 2014 – UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights have been engaged in ongoing battles with armed groups including the Al Nusra Front.

Thirty-two Filipino troops were rescued by UNDOF’s Quick Reaction Force when they came under attack at Position 69 [see map] while the UN said there is an ongoing battle at position 68 which has pinned down another Filipino contingent. The UN has pulled its troops from Observation Posts 52 and 56 after firing in the vicinity.

There are no reported casualties among UN forces, the United Nations spokesperson’s office said in an email to reporters.

“UNDOF reports that armed elements also attacked UN Position 68 with mortar and heavy machine gun fire. The UN peacekeepers returned fire and prevented the attackers from entering the position. Position 68 is currently under fire, preventing the personnel from moving out,” the email from the UN spokesperson’s office said.

Forty-four Fijian peacekeepers abducted on Thursday are still being held captive by Al Nusra while some 40 more are surrounded and unable to leave their position.

“The Secretary General strongly condemns the attack today on positions of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) and the continuing detention and restrictions of movement on 84 UNDOF peacekeepers from the Fijian and Philippine Battalions by armed non-state actors, including the Al Nusra Front,” the UN said in a statement.

The attacks and detention of peacekeepers comes after months of fighting in the separation zone between armed groups and Syrian government forces as well as firing from Syria into Israel. Israel has returned fire to Syrian Army positions as it holds the government responsible for any firing from their side of the of the zone, though it is not clear if Syrian government forces are in control of their positions.

The Al Nusra Front which has teamed up with other armed groups in the area took control of the Syrian crossing with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday.

The 1,200 UN troops are deployed to observe a 1973 ceasefire between Israel and Syria and are stationed along an 80km long and between 0.5 and 10km wide separation zone which both countries agreed should be free of any military activity.

In Ban Ki-moon’s latest report to the Security Council on the UN’s Golan observer force, he wrote that several different armed groups are operating in the area and these groups possess heavy weapons and at least three tanks. A source told UN Tribune that United Nations vehicles have also been captured by the armed groups in the past few days.

The June report to the Council told of an increasingly dangerous environment for the UN peacekeepers who it said have observed black flags associated with the Islamic State in the separation zone and that in April “two members of the armed opposition displayed the severed head of a presumed Syrian armed forces officer as they passed United Nations Position 80.”

Ban’s next report to the Security Council on UNDOF is due in two weeks. The 1,200-troop mission is considered crucial because of the lack of a peace agreement between Syria and Israel but the recent escalation in attacks on peacekeepers and the abduction of the 44 Fijian troops have put its future in jeopardy with the Filipino government announcing last week that it will pull its 330 contingent at the end of September.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image Credit: “Qunaitra” by Christian Koehn. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution.

UNSC Draft on Gaza Invokes International Humanitarian Law

Palestinian Amb. Riyad Mansour Addressing the Security Council on Friday - UN Photo

Palestinian Amb. Riyad Mansour Addressing the Security Council on Friday – UN Photo

July 18, 2014 – The draft resolution that Jordan plans to circulate to Security Council members on Gaza includes a clause that explicitly refers to International Humanitarian Law.

Operative paragraph 3 of the draft textCalls upon all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in a Time of War of August 12, 1949.”

This language was absent from Resolution 1860 that ended Operation Cast Lead in 2008/09, an omission that disappointed several Council members then.

The statement that the 15-nation body agreed on July 12 also called upon parties to observe International Humanitarian Law.

A Council diplomat speaking to UN Tribune said the inclusion of language on international humanitarian law and on the protection of civilians in Saturday’s statement was significant. Council statements, while not binding, have to be agreed on by all fifteen members.

The diplomat added that at present there is no disagreement among Council members and there was consensus at Friday’s meeting in support of the Egyptian proposal for an immediate ceasefire.

The Council will meet again on Tuesday to discuss the crisis and, unless there is an end to hostilities by then, the resolution could be put to vote. If so, the ministerial committee formed by the Arab League on July 14, which is chaired by Kuwait and includes Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, would likely head to New York, at the foreign minister level, to press for adoption of the resolution. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El Araby is also a member of the ministerial committee.

International humanitarian law regulates the conduct of war and grave breaches of its rules constitute war crimes that can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court, which Palestine said it will join if Israel’s Operation Protective Edge continues.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on Friday reported that 268 Palestinians have been killed since July 7, including 193 civilians. Among those killed in the past eleven days are 59 children, representing 22 percent of all fatalities.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Israel’s Gaza Invasion Likely to Spur UN Security Council Action

Security Council Meeting on the situation in the Ukraine
July 17, 2014 – Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza will likely lead to a Security Council resolution calling for withdrawal and a ceasefire despite US wishes that a regional solution be found to the crisis.

Washington would rather see an Egyptian-mediated fix but the current military government in Cairo no longer has clout over militant groups in Gaza.

The Council issued a carefully worded non-binding statement on Saturday calling for de-escalation and a resumption of the Egyptian-brokered 2012 ceasefire agreement. The statement, whose wording was fought over by Jordan and the US, made no reference to either Israel or Hamas but specified the protection of civilians.

In the five days since the Council’s statement, the number of civilians killed has risen steadily with some 50 children now among the innocent victims.

US envoy Samantha Power, who in April solemnly vowed to defend Israeli interests at the United Nations, had been silent on Gaza up until Thursday but shortly after State Dept. spokesperson Jen Psaki said the US is “heartbroken” by the high civilian death toll in Gaza and called on Israel to do more to protect civilians, she tweeted that the civilian toll is “heartbreaking” and the US is “using all diplomatic resources to support a ceasefire.”

Less than an hour later, Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza for the first time since Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. That three-week offensive killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, including 412 children and 110 women, according to UN figures.

In response, the UNSC passed Resolution 1860 on Jan. 8, 2009 with 14 Council members supporting, none against, and the US abstaining. Fighting ended ten days after its adoption.

That lead to almost four years of relative calm until fighting erupted in late-2012, which was ended by the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire.

The Obama administration is keen to avoid a showdown at the UN where the US has used its veto 43 times, the majority of times in support of Israel – most recently in 2011 when it cast the sole no vote on a Security Council resolution condemning settlements that was co-sponsored by some 80 UN member states.

But as the body charged with the primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security, and with a large UN presence on the ground in Gaza, expect the Council to take action in the coming days.

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Photo/UN Photo

UN: 23 Civilians Killed in Gaza Since Start of Israeli Offensive

640px-Gaza_Strip_map2.svg
July 9, 2014 – Seven children were among the 23 civilians killed since the July 7 start of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge offensive in Gaza, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on Wednesday.

About 900 people have been displaced by the airstrikes that have destroyed or damaged some 150 homes, OCHA said in a situation report.

A total of 35 Palestinians have been killed since the operation began and approximately 300 people have been injured, including 71 children and 66 women, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Four Israelis, including two civilians, have been injured as a result of rocket fire from Gaza, and some property has been damaged, OCHA reported.

It also says that hospitals in Gaza are operating but are short on supplies and electricity outages are disrupting operations.

In addition, 13 schools have been damaged by the strikes.

The UN Security Council is holding an emergency meeting on Gaza at 10am ET on Thursday. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will brief the 15-nation body who are also expected to hear from the Israeli and Palestinian envoys to the UN.

Ten Countries Infected by Polio Virus as WHO Declare Emergency

Poliodrops
May 5, 2014 –  Cameroon, Pakistan and Syria pose the greatest risk for exporting the polio virus that was on the verge of eradication a couple of years ago.

The vaccine-preventable disease has already spread across the borders of these three countries with neighboring Equatorial Guinea, Afghanistan and Iraq also infected.

Declaring the situation a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organization on Monday said “the consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile States” where vaccination programs have been interrupted because of fighting.

Ethiopia, Israel, Somalia as well as Nigeria have also recorded cases of polio in the past year whereas prior to 2013 only three countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan – were considered endemic countries. The number of cases had decreased from some 350,000 in 1988 to 223 in 2012 as it seemed that the virus would join smallpox and rinderpest as the only diseases ever eradicated.

There were 417 polio cases last year, according to the Global Eradication Initiative.

Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Lebanon are at high risk of becoming infected countries due to their proximity to currently infected countries and the risk of conflict interrupting vaccination campaigns there.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Samantha Power Says No to Any Palestinian Push to Join UN Agencies

United States Permanent Representative of Briefs Press on Ukraine
April 2, 2014 – Samantha Power on Wednesday told members of the US Congress that she will firmly oppose any Palestinian bid to join UN and other international agencies and treaties.

The US envoy was speaking before the House Subcommittee that authorizes funds for UN activities on the same day that Palestine’s UN envoy, Riyad Mansour, said his country may seek to join more multilateral organizations including possibly acceding to the International Criminal Court.

“We are fighting every day — on numerous fronts — to end the bias against Israel that has long pervaded the UN system,” Power said in her testimony before the House Subcommittee on Appropriations for State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs. “This solemn commitment also extends to our firm opposition to any and all unilateral actions in the international arena, including on Palestinian statehood, that circumvent or prejudge the very outcomes that can only come about through a negotiated settlement.”

On Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced he was submitting applications to join 15 international organizations and treaties. He said the decision to do so was because Israel had not released the final batch of prisoners it agreed to release in a deal made nine months ago.

“When they violated that agreement, we were free to do whatever we feel that we need to do and what we did is legal,” Mansour said at UN headquarters in New York on Tuesday.

Palestine joined UNESCO in October 2011 in a move that was supported 107 of the organization’s member states including Security Council permanent members China, France and Russia. The United Kingdom abstained.

The US Congress immediately froze funds to the organization that supports literacy and free expression. As a result of not paying dues to UNESCO for two consecutive years, the US lost its voting rights in November last year.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

photo: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Syria Intervention Could Spell End of UN Golan Force

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August 29, 2013 – The future of the UN force monitoring the line of separation between Israel and Syria following the end of the 1973 war will be further jeopardized by threatened military intervention.

UNDOF has already been hit by the loss of troops from Austria, Croatia and Japan because of repeated attacks and abductions of blue-helmeted forces.

Departing peacekeepers are being replaced by promised contributions from Fiji and Ireland, with the initial contingent of Irish troops set to deploy Sept. 4.

But the threat of intervention is likely to lead the Irish government to delay the deployment, while a western strike inside Syria will see the UN face calls to withdraw its troops by those countries whose forces are currently deployed, leaving behind a dangerous security vacuum on the Israel-Syria border.

– Denis Fitzgerald

Photo: Austrian peacekeepers raise the UN flag on Pitulim Peak on Mt. Hermon following the withdrawal of Israeli Armed Forces, June 1974. UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata

Ireland Sending Peacekeepers to Golan

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Ireland currently has troops serving in the region with the UN force in Lebanon
(above) and with UNTSO. (photo: courtesy of Irish Dept. of Defence)

Update: The resolution to deploy 114 peacekeepers to UNDOF was approved by the Irish parliament by a vote of 95-17.

July 18, 2013 – The Irish parliament will vote Thursday on a motion to send a contingent of peacekeepers to beef up the depleted UNDOF force monitoring the line of separation between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights that was established following the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

The withdrawal of Japanese, Croatian and Austrian troops in recent months has cast doubts on the future of the mission, one of the UN’s oldest, and a proposal to send a Nordic contingent to replace the withdrawing troops has yet to come to fruition.

Fiji and Nepal have agreed to send contingents to bolster the force which currently stands at 933 troops. That figure includes Austrian troops as Vienna has agreed to gradually withdraw its 377 peacekeepers to allow time for reinforcements.

The Irish cabinet has already approved sending peacekeepers to the Golan Heights but parliamentary approval is needed for deployment, which would take place in September.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently appointed Irish Major General Michael Finn as head of the UN Truce Supervision Organization, the UN’s oldest peacekeeping mission, an unarmed force comprised of military observers that works alongside UNDOF.

– Denis Fitzgerald

Susan Rice Irked at ‘State of Palestine’ Nameplate in Security Council

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Foreign Minister Riyad Al Maliki was the first Palestinian to address the Security Council since the Nov 29 Vote Recognizing the State of Palestine (photo credit: UN Photo) 

Jan. 23, 2013 – Palestinian Foreign Minister Riayd Al Maliki addressed the Security Council’s regular monthly Mideast meeting on Wednesday sitting behind a “State of Palestine” nameplate, provoking a stern response from US envoy Susan Rice

Since the Nov 29 General Assembly vote recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state, the UN Secretariat has changed the designation of ‘Palestine’ to ‘State of Palestine,’ in line with the GA resolution.

In her remarks to the Council, Rice had this to say:

The United States does not consider UNGA resolution 67/19 as bestowing Palestinian “statehood” or recognition. Only direct negotiations to settle final status issues will lead to this outcome. Therefore, in our view, any reference to the “State of Palestine” in the United Nations, including the use of the term “State of Palestine” on the placard in the Security Council or the use of the term “State of Palestine” in the invitation to this meeting or other arrangements for participation in this meeting, do not reflect acquiescence that “Palestine” is a state. This statement of our position shall apply to Palestinian participation in meetings of United Nations Security Council or in other UN meetings, regardless of whether the United States specifically intervenes on this matter in the future.  

She also had tough words for Israel, whose envoy, Ron Prosor, told the Council – in reference to Israeli settlement plans – that “Jews have been building homes in Jerusalem since the time of King David 3,000 years ago” and that “the presence of Jewish homes in Jerusalem” is not a threat to peace.

Rice, who spoke after both Maliki and Prosor, said Israel’s current settlement plans “run counter to peace” and “would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”

Meanwhile, the Holy See (Vatican) envoy, speaking at the same meeting, suggested that the solution to the Jerusalem issue is to have the city administered by a body similar to the UN Trusteeship Council (which suspended operations in 1994 following the independence of Palau).  

Archbishop Francis Assisi Chullikatt said that the only way to guarantee freedom of religion and access to holy sites “might be to involve the United Nations in the Holy City’s safekeeping and administration in some relevant and effective capacity.”

Such a plan was originally envisioned in Resolution 181, which the General Assembly passed on Nov 29, 1947.

Denis Fitzgerald

Iceland Takes on Israel and Iran at UNGA

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Sept 29, 2012 – Saturday morning is far from top billing at the UNGA but Iceland’s Foreign Minister Össur Skarphÿinsson delivered one of the more creative speeches of the 67th General Assembly in his 9.30am slot. (photo by UN Photo)

In Skarphÿinsson’s own words:

“[T]he first letters of the themes I have broached here today – Palestine, Energy, the Arctic, Climate Change and the Economy, form the word we should all hold dearest here in this hall and towards each other, whatever our differences – P-E-A-C-E, Peace.”

Nice, though if he makes headlines it will likely be for the ‘I” part of his speech when he delivered tough messages to the Israeli and Iranian leaders.

“I listened to Mr. Netanyahu’s speech on Thursday, and I have a comment to make on behalf of the Icelandic people: Don’t bomb Iran. Don’t start another war in the Middle East. At the same time I say to President Ahmadinejad and the Iranian leadership: Don’t build a bomb. Let diplomacy work, not rabblerousing or fearmongering. Let’s work for peace together.”

When he spoke last year, he told the Assembly that the Icelandic parliament would vote to recognize Palestine as a sovereign, independent state: “I’m happy to tell you today, that we have fulfilled that promise. What’s more, not a single member of the Icelandic Parliament voted against the recognition of Palestine,” Skarphÿinsson said Saturday.

He had strong words too on the Gaza blockade saying, “I have visited Gaza and I met with fishermen who are not allowed to go fishing in the waters off Gaza – and it hurts my heart, being an old fisherman myself. I met the children of Gaza whose lives are made impossible by poverty, violence and a blockade that by others than myself has been described as an open door prison.”

And on the West Bank barrier, invoking a politician of times past, Skarphÿinsson said: “I have seen for myself how the human rights of the people of the West Bank are violated every day by a man-made barrier cutting through their roads, their lands, their lives. When I was in Qalqilya the words of a former statesman we all know rung in my head. Mr. Netanyahu – tear down this wall!”

As for the U.N. Security Council: “We must reform it, so as to make it a tool, not a hindrance, for progress in situations such as in Syria this year, or – as we saw last year – concerning the Palestinian application.”

He finished by addressing the sparsely filled GA hall: “Thank you for your beautiful silence.”

– Denis Fitzgerald 

Full text (as prepared) and video of Skarphÿinsson address.

(His strong support of Palestinians was evident too in January 2009 when he refused to meet with Israel’s Minister for Education Yael Tamir who was touring Europe to explain Tel Aviv’s version of its invasion of Gaza, according to a classified U.S. cable released by Wikileaks).