Israel demanded on Thursday that the United Nations replace the Austrian soldiers that were pulled out of a UN peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights as soon as possible.

Following the battles at Quneitra in Syria early on Thursday morning, Austria announced it was withdrawing its troops that serve in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan.

Austrians account for some 380 of the 1,100-strong UN force monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel and their departure will deal a serious blow to the mission. Israeli ambassador in Vienna Aviv Shir-On was told by the Austrian Foreign Ministry Thursday about the decision to pull out the UNDOF troops.

Shortly afterward the ministry's director general briefed his Israeli counterpart.

In response, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor said in a statement that Israel "expects the United Nations to uphold its commitment under Security Council Resolution 350 (1974), in virtue of which UNDOF has been established."

In the statement Palmor emphasized that, while Israel appreciates, "Austria's longtime contribution and commitment to peacekeeping in the Middle East, we nevertheless regret this decision and hope that it will not be conducive to further escalation in the region."

Also on Thursday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon expressed his disappointment with Austria's decision to remove its peacekeeping troops from the Golan Heights.
"The Secretary-General regrets Austria's decision to withdraw, which follows a longstanding and valuable contribution to UNDOF. The Secretary-General is approaching Member States in an effort to identify urgently new contributors or additional contributions to UNDOF. The continued presence of UNDOF in the area is essential."

A senior Foreign Ministry source in Jerusalem said Israel's UN ambassador Ron Prosor and his staff have been instructed to talk with Security Council member states' ambassadors and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's aides about replacing the Austrian force quickly, the source said. The Israeli diplomats told Ban this is a test case for the UN peacekeeping force.

The Israeli message to the UN secretary general was that this was a crucial test for the reliability of the peacekeeping force in the Golan. A Foreign Ministry source said that Ban's advisers told Israeli diplomats in New York that the secretary general intends to personally deal with the problem, and find countries that will agree to send soldiers to the take the place of the Austrian troops.