JERUSALEM: Israel is prepared to open its side of the crossing point with Syria following the return of UN peacekeepers to the Golan Heights following a four-year absence, the army said.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman “authorized the reopening of the Alpha gate of the Quneitra crossing between Israel and Syria, allowing the UN to resume activity via the crossing pending Syria’s reopening their side,” it said in a statement Saturday.
The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) resumed its patrols in the area of the crossing point in August, after withdrawing in 2014 when Al-Qaeda-linked rebels overran the area, three years into Syria’s devastating civil war.
The return of UNDOF was made possible after Syrian government forces, backed by Russia, recaptured territory near the Golan, driving out rebel groups from a “de-escalation zone” agreed by Jordan, Russia and the United States.
Quneitra crossing is “an operational crossing for UNDOF in the implementation of its mandate,” according to Nick Birnback, a spokesman for UN Peacekeeping in New York.
UNDOF is working to “complete the rehabilitation of the Quneitra crossing” which is expected to be reopened soon, Birnback said in an email on Friday.
Israel seized much of the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move not recognized by the international community.
Established in 1974, UNDOF monitors a cease-fire line separating Israeli-occupied parts of the Golan Heights from Syria.
The Quneitra crossing was used by Druze living on the Israeli side traveling to Syria for higher education or weddings. Druze farmers also exported apples to Syria through Quneitra.
At a tour of the Israeli side of the crossing on Thursday, Lieberman said that once Quneitra was open, authorities would have to “consider each possibility (for the crossing’s use) according to the security situation.”
“We’re in different times now,” he said.
Israel was “ready to open the crossing as it had been in the past,” Lieberman told journalists accompanying him at the site.
“The ball is now in the Syrians’ court.”
Syria’s transport ministry also said Saturday its main border crossing with Jordan would reopen to trade next month for the first time in three years, although Amman said consultations were still ongoing.
Syrian government troops retook the Syrian side of the crossing in July under a deal with rebel fighters brokered by Moscow.
It had been sealed completely since rebels overran it in April 2015, choking off one of the most important trade routes for the government.