JERUSALEM — Israeli officials said Sunday they were watching the Syrian border in the Golan Heights area with growing concern following the reported release of four U.N. peacekeepers held by Syrian rebels for five days.
The Israeli fear is that a deteriorating security situation will prompt countries to pull out their peacekeepers, leaving no buffer between Israeli and Syrian forces.
The officials said Croatian and Japanese troops have already left and they fear Filipinos and Austrians may be next. The four peacekeepers seized last week were Filipinos.
“We want them to stay,’’ said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. “They can’t prevent the war in Syria but they have an important role to play. If they disappear, it will just be Israel facing whatever or whoever is on the other side.”
Israel is also concerned about possible pullouts by U.N. troops monitoring the Lebanese border, where Hezbollah fighters have been reasserting themselves, according to Israeli media reports.
Palmor said U.N. engagement on both frontiers is vital to monitoring international cease-fire agreements and mediating between enemy states.
U.N. officials say the border between Lebanon and Israel has remained relatively quiet of late, despite the fighting in nearby Syria.
A Syrian rebel group, the Yarmouk Martrys Brigade, said the four Filipinos had been held for their own safety amid shelling and clashes between Syrian troops and rebels fighting to oust the government of President Bashar Assad.
The group reportedly said the four had been freed at the Israel border. The four were released unharmed, according to statements by military authorities in Manila, the Filipino capital.
The Israeli military said late Sunday that the freed peacekeepers had not come into Israel and that it had no information about their whereabouts.