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After a Generation, UN Still Patrols Israel-Syria Border


The sign on the Israeli side of the border is large and seen plainly with the naked eye from the Syrian crossing point. Flanked by white Israeli flags with the blue Star of David, it reads: "Welcome to Israel."

Why isn't there one on the Syrian side, a clean-cut young Syrian border guard is asked.

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"This is not the border," he replies, resolutely. Referring to Syria's 1967 border with the Jewish state, he adds: "It is much farther away" - away toward the west, near the Sea of Galilee.

Nearly 30 years after Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria - in reply to regular Syrian bombardment of Israeli border villages - the tension along this narrow strip has been passed down a generation.

Syrian forces recaptured part of the Golan during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, but since 1974 a cease-fire agreement has been monitored by UN peacekeeping troops.

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) numbers just more than 1,000 peacekeeping soldiers and patrols a demilitarized north-south cease-fire line that stretches for 50 miles and varies in width from 9 miles to just 300 yards. UNDOF also inspects weapons and troops in zones up to 15 miles from the cease-fire line to ensure compliance with agreed limits.

Tension has always been high, however, to the point where even a dramatic increase in emergency supplies for a local hospital - which could be seen as anticipating military action - is noted by the other side.

UNDOF officers stress that their mission is one of "cease-fire keeping."

"My job is to keep small incidents small," says Maj. Gen. Johannes Kosters, the UN force commander from the Netherlands. Recent violations have been minimal, he says, and there are no significant troop movements on either side, despite war-like rhetoric on both sides.

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Of the Israel-Syria peace talks, General Kosters says that as long as there is "some idea that they would restart - and I believe they will, it's a must for Israel and Syria - then people will become more optimistic.

"As long as there is the prospect of peace, then the UN will stay," he said. "Troops on both sides are below the allowed ceiling, which means both sides are not interested in raising tension in this area and are solving their problems elsewhere."

Still, peace seems far away. A 1992 understanding that Israel would return the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace foundered on security details.

Though the Israeli officials say that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad rejected a land-for-peace offer last year, diplomats in Damascus, the Syrian capital counter that the Israelis demanded more extensive security guarantees than they were willing to grant the Syrians themselves.

A vivid reminder of the fighting - and why passions still run so hot - is evident in Kuneitra, the capital of Golan province, which was destroyed by Israeli forces in 1973.

Syrians here remember that Israeli troops systematically leveled their city of 53,000 over the course of 10 days with dynamite and bulldozers. The UN condemned Israel for the "deliberate destruction and devastation of the town of Quinetra as a grave breach of the Geneva Convention."

Today, Syrian families visit the ruins, picnicking among fields of rubble. "Since the peace process began, we are not 100 percent sure it will be realized or not," says Mufeed Sadrieh, a Syrian official in the empty town.

"Land for peace - this is the peace we want," he says. "We want our rights."

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