Jonathan R. Beloff
Researcher of the African Great Lakes

Rwandan Peacekeepers in Gaza? Perhaps Not the Best Idea

Recently, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote about why Rwanda should participate in a peacekeeping operation in Gaza after the recent Israel-Hamas war. (Link) Rabbi Boteach has made a name for himself in Rwanda, similar to evangelical leaders such as Rick Warren. In his article, he attempts to explain why Rwandan peacekeepers should be deployed in Gaza through the Rwandan-Israel connection that concentrates on combating genocide ideology, remembering the two countries’ shared past and their development aims. The Rabbi has received a warm welcome from President Paul Kagame and by many Rwandans. However, his recent assessment and attempt to praise Rwanda misses many points that are only noticeable when one critically analyzes why Rwanda participates in peacekeeping, and how to solve the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Sorry to say, but sending Rwandan or any other peacekeepers into the region will not solve the crisis, nor will – as he mentions – Israel retaking Gaza, but that is a debate for another time.

Rwandan soldiers are internationally known as some of the best available peacekeepers that participate in UN missions. They currently have around 5,000 troops serving abroad in South Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali, Haiti and other spots around the world. What separates the Rwandans from other peacekeeping forces is three main characteristics. The first is that they attempt to learn about the conflict in order to find a peaceful solution through reconciliation mechanisms. Since early 2014, Rwandan troops have been deployed in the Central Africa Republic trying to stabilize the current violence between the Sélékaand anti-Balaka rebel movements for the disarmament of the two rebel groups. Unlike other peacekeepers, who usually try to stay in their armored personal vehicles and military bases, Rwandan troops go into towns, villages and neighborhoods to talk to the local populations to learn and understand the true causes of the conflict and to develop mechanisms to best help bring unity and reconstruction.

How would Rwanda be able to do this in Gaza? They would be isolated from Israel as Gaza is not a neighborhood of any city or officially part of Israel. What would they do then? Chances are that they would hear from the population of Gaza about their frustrations with the lack of the two-state solution, and with the military and trade restrictions imposed by Israel (rightly or wrongly) on Gaza. Even supporters of Israel must admit that the country has made some terrible mistakes with how it handled and continues to handle the Palestinian situation. Rwandan peacekeepers are going to hear the frustrations that have resulted from these mistakes, and this will eventually have an impact on their views of Israel, especially if they have little contact with Israelis.

The second characteristic, which heavily defines Rwandan peacekeepers, is their determination to try to foster unity among the warring parties. I was privileged to recently talk with someone in the Rwanda Defense Force about the country’s peacekeeping beliefs. Trying to foster unity and reconciliation is arguably at the heart of the country’s peace-keeping mission, understandably so, when we remember that these values underpinned the creation of the Rwandan military. Notably, the first government formed after the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi Genocide integrated members of the former genocide government, specifically military troops who were not accused of involvement in the genocide. In the Central African Republic, Rwandan troops are trying to foster the unity between Muslims and Christians that has been destroyed by the recent fighting.

How exactly is Rwanda going to be able to foster unity and reconciliation between the people of Gaza and Israel? Both governments have created informal as well as formal institutions and restrictions on interactions between the two populations. It is extremely difficult for people on either side to meet and connect with the other. For all intense and purposes, Gaza is separate from Israel, unlike the West Bank where the lines are a bit more blurry. Rwandan peacekeepers do not serve to keep the peace, but to help create peace, something that the United Nations failed to do twenty years ago in Rwanda. (In a previous article, I suggested the introduction of Gacaca, a Rwandan mechanism of truth and reconciliation after the genocide, as a way to help foster understandings between Palestinians and Israelis. Link) But the Rwandan peacekeepers would not have the ability to create local peace when the two people are physically divided like they are now.

The final important characteristic of Rwandan peacekeepers is their shoot-first policy. Twenty years ago, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UMAMIR) was in Rwanda trying to implement a peace accord between the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) and the pre-genocide government of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana. The agreement was never fully implemented, because of Habyarimana’s assassination and the genocide that took the lives of one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. During the slaughter, the UN peacekeepers were paralyzed to stop the violence, as their commanders in New York City, specifically Kofi Annan, told them not to use their weapons even to protect civilians.

The Rwandan military learned from history and have sworn never to be caught making the same errors. On many occasions, given their mandate to protect civilians, Rwandan peacekeepers have used their weapons to do so. One former Rwandan peacekeeper, who served in Darfur, Sudan, remembered seeing Janjaweed fighters riding into a village. He and his colleagues saw the militia approaching and they decided to open fire at them before they could reach the village to do harm. It did not matter that the fighters had not killed or terrorized anyone yet, because once they reached the village, the civilians were going to be butchered and their houses set on fire. Rwandan peacekeepers use their weapons not only to protect themselves, but also specifically to proactively help the people they are trying to protect.

Once again, how would this desire to protect civilians help Israel as Rabbi Boteach believes it might? He says it would show the world the horrors of Hamas if they were to attack Rwandan troops, but I do not think this would happen. Hamas would not attack the Rwandan peacekeepers precisely because they would not want to draw public awareness, just like the Interahamwe, the genocide perpetrators of 1994. Perhaps the peacekeepers would make UN safe-zones truly safe by removing any Hamas elements. However, a key missing element is that Rwandan peacekeepers participate in missions that do not involve two nations fighting each other. Their missions usually focus on local fragmentations within a society that have turned violent. If Rwandan troops were stationed in Gaza as Rabbi Boteach says, would Rwandan troops then be at the borders preventing invasion of Gaza into southern Israel? I do not think so, because Israel has shown that it does not need any military assistance in the form of troops, thanks to the success of the Iron Dome that intercepted most of Hamas’ rockets. The dismantling of the tunnels might be a possible mission that the Rwandan peacekeepers would be successful at, but this characteristic is not what makes Rwandan troops unique compared to others.  They are most effective at, and are founded on a principle of, fostering peace and unity.

Rabbi Boteach has developed a close relationship with Rwanda and believes in the country’s abilities and future. He is correct to say that many within the Rwandan government want their country to be closer to Israel, because of the similar history of pogroms, genocide ideology and genocide. In addition, Rwanda wants to become like Israel in the areas of technology, information communication and healthcare. However, the Rwandan government is very pragmatic and will pursue its own interests, one of which is peacekeeping. It is not willing to move all of its peacekeepers to the conflict between two nations, with little in return and the knowledge that it will be removing its peacekeepers from societies who need help in reconstruction, unity and reconciliation, not just supervising a ceasefire. Also, Rwandan peacekeepers are going to be politically neutral, so they will criticize Israel when the nation has done something wrong and not just be blinded by their government’s relationship with the Israeli government. When both the governments of the Palestinians and Israelis are ready to come together to move past historical difference and live in peace, then Rwanda can come in to provide mechanisms and institutions for reconciliation and sustained peace.

About the Author
Jonathan R. Beloff, PhD, is a researcher focusing on the regional politics and security of the African Great Lakes composing the nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have published several academic journal articles, book chapters, book reviews and editorials on issues facing central Africa. Since 2008, my travels to the region have led me to work and consult with numerous Rwandan and international government officials. Within these periods of foreign residence, with particular reference to my multiple extended stays in Rwanda, I developed unique skills to engage and consult with a range of different foreign officials as well as Rwandan elites and policymakers in the understanding and formation of public policy.