Phoenix of UNDOF and Albatross of Palestine

United Nations peacekeeping forces are a controversial topic given contradictions between the UN Charter and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The UN Charter prohibits the intervention in the domestic affairs of states, guaranteeing sovereignty. R2P tenders intervention on humanitarian grounds. The decider is UN Security Council Resolutions that grant mandates. The history of UN forces in the Middle East has been to observe and to monitor agreements, but not to intervene; that is peacekeeping and not peacemaking. In favor of a UN or similar international force as a security measure for a Palestinian state is Palestinian leader Abu Mazan; yet Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has expressed doubt about the utility of such a force especially in times of tension or crises. This difference of opinion could be an obstacle to a speedy resumption of peace talks and their triumphant conclusion.

The history of UN peacekeeping is as short and as long as the State of Israel; the first UNTSO, that still exists, having been created to supervise, monitor and observe the aftermath of the War of Independence in 1948. Some UN forces have been more successful than others. For example UNEF I was disbanded on the eve of the 1967 war at Egypt’s request promoting Israel’s response “Just when the umbrella was needed, it was removed”. UNIFIL created in 1978 to confirm Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon has had its mandate adjusted twice as Israel returned to Lebanon in 1982 and 2006. The most recent debate has been over the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) created in 1974 to supervise the implementation of the Agreement of Disengagement between Israel and Syria after the Yom Kippur War.

Let it not be said that the United Nations cannot take action when it wants to, for its own survival. Less than five weeks ago UNDOF was on the verge of collapse because of the withdrawal of contributing countries after the kidnapping and wounding of some of them, as a consequence of the Syrian civil-war. Austria, Croatia and Japan dramatically withdrew their forces from UNDOF between March and June 2013 fueling speculations that UNDOF was at the point of extinction. Pundits speculated optimistically that the UN Security Council would consider the causes and not just the symptoms and address them. Clearly UNDOF was no longer suitable for the role of monitoring the Israeli-Syrian disengagement as the area of separation was controlled by Syrian opposition forces, as Israel was afflicted by collateral shelling from the civil-war, and as UNDOF forces lacked even a mandate to protect themselves. Pundits noted that the Syrian civil-war and its large scale sufferings necessitated the UN Security Council to approve a R2P Resolution and link the future of UNDOF with the civil-war.

This was not to be and instead the mandate of UNDOF was renewed for another six months until 31 December 2013 by UN Security Council Resolution 2108 (2013). It requested the Secretary-General to ensure that UNDOF had the required capacity and resources to fulfill the mandate as well as to enhance the force’s ability to do so in a safe and secure way. The Secretary-General did so observing that the situation in the Middle East was very tense and was likely to remain so, unless and until a comprehensive settlement covering all aspects of the Middle East problem was reached. Answering his call, Fiji agreed to deploy to UNDOF an infantry company of 140 personnel to replace the Croatian infantry contingent, and a transport platoon of 31 personnel to replace the Japanese transport platoon. Nepal withdrew one of its units working with UNIFIL (Lebanon) and deployed it with UNDOF, promising to replace the UNFIL contingent by September. Ireland approved up to 150 troops under its “triple lock” decision mechanism. All of these joined the troops already deployed from the Philippines and India, bringing UNDOF to its full mandate force level of 1,250 troops, 78 UNTSO military observers (Observer Group Golan), 46 international staff and 97 local civilians.

Despite UNDOF having risen from the ashes like a Phoenix, the model of UN Peacekeeping in the Middle East is still in doubt, and indeed its viability as a security measure for any Palestinian state may be an Albatross. Somewhat farcical the UNDOF continues to observe and monitor while the international community refuses to pass a R2P Resolution to address the raging Syrian civil-war. Apprehensive about this Achilles’ heel of the UN peacekeeping model Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu is emphatic that Israel cannot rely on any international body for protection in a future peace agreement with the Palestinians. UNDOF now like UNEF I in 1967 typified “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Netanyahu insists that any agreement will be based on a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish State and firm security arrangements that will be based on the IDF. On the other hand at this week’s resumed Middle East peace sojourn in Washington the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was adamant a propos a UN or similar international force.

Dr Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.