Syrian 'defector' worries Israel

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The Independent Online
A MAN believed to be a Syrian defector is being secretly held in an Israeli jail after he crossed from Syria into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, causing an alert and surviving heavy Israeli gunfire.

The Syrians are understood to have called on Israel to hand the man back. However, according to well-placed military sources, Israel has so far not responded.

The government appears uncertain about how to resolve what could become a highly embarrassing diplomatic incident, at a time when peace overtures on the future of the Golan Heights have been intensifying. An official Israeli Defence Force spokesman refused to comment on the matter yesterday.

The apparent defection happened four weeks ago in unusual circumstances, but has so far been covered up. The identity of the Syrian and his reasons for crossing to Israel are being closely guarded.

The alert began when, in broad daylight, a man in civilian clothes and unarmed crossed from Syria into the United Nations buffer zone which separates Syrian and Israel forces under disengagement agreements. The defector chose to make his crossing at a nothern section of the buffer zone, near the ruined Syrian town of Kuneitra, where there is a particularly heavy UN presence.

The choice of crossing point suggests that the man wanted to be seen and gambled on being picked up by UN troops in the buffer zone.

Furthermore, in this area, the Israeli-occupied land immediately behind the buffer zone - known as Alpha 1 area - is a fire-free zone under the Israeli-Syrian disengagement. Therefore, he may also have gambled on avoiding Israeli gunfire should he not have been picked up by the UN and continued to cross on to Israeli-occupied land.

Unfortunately for the Syrian, neither gamble paid off. He was not spotted by the UN troops while he traversed the minefields and electric fences in the buffer zone, and after he crossed the fence on the Golan side of the buffer, all Israeli alarms were set off and Israelis began to fire indiscriminately into the area where they believed the suspected infiltrator might be, breaching the disengagement terms.

It is understood that at least 20 guns, including two machine-guns, fired towards him. The UN troops could only look on, unable under their rules of engagement to intervene in the shooting. The man fell to the ground but was not believed to have been hit. He was eventually dragged off by Israeli forces.

The Israelis are said to have established that the man was a defector and discovered his identity during interrogation.

The Syrians are believed to have asked for him to be handed back via the UN Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) in Damascus, but Israel is keeping him in a West Bank jail.

If the man is a genuine defector, he should, under the Geneva Conventions, be entitled to claim asylum and full human rights protections. But Israel appears to be attempting to defuse the issue, ahead of a new round of peace talks.