unifil pic.jpgRisk & Security 

The Price of UN Peacekeepers in Israel

By Itamar Hauser

Since 1949, Israel has been a recognized member state of the United Nations. Despite its historic presence, Israel’s relationship with the UN has not always been on the best of the terms.

Since its inception, Israel has been home to several major UN peacekeeping forces: UNTSO (United Nations Truce Supervision Organization) in East Jerusalem since 1948, UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) in South Lebanon since 1978, and UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) in the Golan Heights since 1974. But the average Israeli appears to lack a clear understanding of both these agencies’ purposes and efficacy.

“The [peacekeeping] name is a bit misleading,” Ran Gidor, director of the UN Political Affairs Department at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said. He doesn’t think “anyone still entertains any naïve hopes that any UN peacekeeping organization can actually maintain peace. What they can do is contribute to the circumstances that promote stability and make the possibility of hostilities less likely.” Dr. Chen Kertcher, lecturer at Haifa University and IDC Herzliya, noted and opposed the idea of a world without peacekeeping operations when he mentioned the well-known piece by Ed Luttwack, “Give War a Chance”, who advocated letting conflicts escalate, so that the conflicting parties exhaust (or eliminate) each other. “Clearly you can see that his examples are just failing in cases like Syria. You have no peace operation in Syria, and the conflict is just escalating.”

Though the presence of peacekeeping forces may be better than the absence of them, there are still serious problems in how they operate. Dr. Kobi Michael, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel said, “In most cases we’re talking about failure, absence of success, and in the places where you do see some sort of success, powerful countries are involved like France in Mali or in the Ivory Coast or the Australian force in East Timor.”

There are several reasons why UN peacekeeping operations can and are unsuccessful. According to Kertcher, the fact that the system is based on voluntary forces makes it quite unstable. “The ideal situation would be to establish an international army, but no one is willing because it will reflect on their state sovereignty.” And so there is no international army or even an international military intelligence service. Even though we live in an age where international cooperation is key, it seems like the nation-state’s national interest is still the main motivator for many countries.

There are other issues as well. According to Michael, in most cases, the force is not in the conflict zone long enough to understand the political situation, and often the ground operatives do not know the local languages, making them dependent on translators. There’s also a question of motivation- if it’s not your country’s war, why should you risk your life?

This last question was raised last summer, when Syrian rebels kidnapped UNDOF’s Filipino contingency. Several other countries soon announced they would not be sending troops to the unstable border zone. If countries are only willing to send troops to relatively peaceful countries, then their very purpose is called into question. However, according to Gidor, “it’s perfectly understandable for democratically elected governments to take into consideration public opinion concerns about the safety of their troops.” Moreover, several governments (the current force troops are from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, and the Netherlands) did not withdraw their troops from UNDOF even after the kidnappings.

Another challenge unique to UN peacekeeping operations is that they operate under a certain mandate, and like with any charter or legal document, a text can have many interpretations. For example, Michael explains that UNIFIL does not deliver on its mandate because it doesn’t prevent Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Lebanese terrorist organization, from rearming. Moreover “many times Israel cannot retaliate like it wants to retaliate because UNIFIL is there,” he explains. But UNIFIL’s spokesperson, Andrea Tenenti, replies that it’s not in UNIFIL’s mandate to stop Hezbollah. According to Tenenti, “Our mandate is to monitor the cessation of hostilities and to assist the Lebanese army in the South of Lebanon.”

Both Michael and Tenenti refer to UN resolution 1701, the most relevant to UNIFIL’s mandate after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. According to both, the resolution and the mandate are quite clear. But from reading it, one can see where the confusion arises. While calling for the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, Article 8 concludes with the following phrase: “so… there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese State.” The problem is that Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government and hence part of the Lebanese state so UNIFIL’s right to respond is left ambiguous.

According to Kertcher, “nowadays there are limits to what peacekeeping can achieve. It’s the second decade of the 21st century, and it’s time to reflect on peacekeeping as a method to deal with conflict. However, we still don’t have a theoretical good answer as to what to do.”

But while Israelis are some of the UN’s biggest skeptics, according to Gidor, UN agencies can help. “It’s not a secret that unfortunately as a result of the Syrian civil war, we’ve had almost daily cross-border incidents on the Israeli-Syrian border. More often than not we were able to resolve them peacefully simply because of the good offices of UNDOF, which is the only channel of communications between the Syrian regime and us. In the absence of UNDOF, any such cross-border incident would have the potential of escalating. So on the whole, it is better having them around than not having them around.”

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Itamar Hauser is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. An Israeli native, he received his masters at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and his LL.B in law and B.A. in Government from IDC Herzliya.

[Photo Courtsey of Haaretz and Wikimedia]

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