UN Peacekeeping Myth and Reality: Betrayal in Palestine and Its Legacy (Middle East) – 1

UN Peacekeeping Myth and Reality


In 1945 the United Nations proudly pronounced itself determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. Its Charter equipped it with an arsenal of tools needed to pursue such a lofty, almost utopian, goal. In 1947-1948 the Middle East and Palestine offered the UN the first major opportunity to employ these tools and to test the organization’s credibility. The results were negative: instead of preventing the local conflict from escalating, the UN helped to turn it into a major international conflagration. By introducing for a territory engulfed in a civil war a partition plan without the intention of enforcing it, the UN made an international war for Palestine inevitable. It also failed in bringing this war to an end, despite the deployment of several military missions in the Middle East theatre. The partition of Palestine is an ongoing process, leaving Israel without internationally recognized borders and the Palestinians without a state of their own. The Arabs and Israelis feel the consequences daily and with them the rest of the world.

This chapter sheds light on the circumstances and results of the UN military presence in the region, which became a continuous testing ground for the exercise of peacekeeping. Out of the six UN peacekeeping missions undertaken in the
region, three are ongoing.


On Friday May 14, 1948, the British High Commissioner of Palestine, General Sir Alan Cunningham, left Jerusalem without anyone in attendance but his soldiers, who left soon thereafter. Jerusalem, the cradle of Judaism and Christianity, holy
for centuries to Muslims as well, was about to change hands again. But the new master, the United Nations, was neither present on the ground nor prepared for the takeover. The organization, which accepted the responsibility for Palestine after the surrender of the mandate by the British in 1947, left the territory’s fate to be decided by the struggle between the Arab and the Jews. It was a sorry end to the hopes aroused only 30 years earlier when the first Christian army since the times of the Crusaders had arrived at the gates of Jerusalem. On December 11, 1917, another British general, the commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, Sir Edmund Allenby, promised order and equal treatment for all communities present in Jerusalem.1

Initially, both the Jews and the Arabs of Palestine looked up to the British as liberators from the Ottoman rule. But the efforts of the British Military Administration to maintain a peaceful equilibrium between the two increasingly hostile peoples did not bear fruits. Not even the most benevolent administration could have overcome the underlying ambiguities and contradictions of British policy toward the territory. Arthur Koestler described Lord Balfour’s declaration of 1917,
which promised a National Home to the Jews of Palestine, as one of the most improbable political documents of all times, because one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third. Other British politicians, rallying for Arab support in the fight against the Ottoman Empire, suggested prospects for an independent Arab Kingdom, which was to include Palestine.

The creation in April 1920 of the British Mandate for Palestine on behalf of the League of Nations and the replacement of the Military by a Civil Administration did not arrest the growing tide of conflict. During the first year of the Mandate riots broke out, Jews and Arabs were killed in a pattern that would repeat itself ad nauseam. The end of World War II in Europe only intensified the hostilities and increased the British costs of policing the territory. The main reason for this deterioration was the determined effort of thousands of survivors of the Holocaust to reach the land of the Jewish National Home and the growing impatience of Jewish organizations intent on establishing a Jewish state. The British maintained strict immigration quotas and turned overcrowded rickety ships bringing refugees away from the shores of Palestine. Upon arrival to the Promised Land people saved from Hitler’s gas chambers were sent to detention camps in Cyprus and Mauritius.

It was a bitter irony that the very power that had announced its intention to establish a Jewish Home added now to the monstrosity of Holocaust another cruelty. Terrorism by Jewish extremists intensified in response, culminating in July 1946 in the bombing of the British administration’s headquarters that was in the King David Hotel. Ninety-two people—Britons, Arabs, and Jews—died. The extremists, who included two future Israeli Prime Ministers—Menahem Begin
and Yitzhak Shamir, pursued a “blood and fire” policy to get the British out.

Unable and, perhaps, unwilling to check the increasing disintegration of its mandate, the Government of His Majesty, in the throes of a serious post-war economic crisis, criticized from all quarters for the creation of the problem and its handling, on April 2, 1947, requested the Secretary General of the United Nations to place the question of the future government for Palestine on the agenda of the General Assembly. Sir Alexander Cadogan summarized the British position
simply. “We have tried for years to solve the problem of Palestine,” he said. “Having failed so far, we now bring the question to the United Nations, in the hope that it can succeed where we have not.”2 The British washed their hands off Palestine. No one had any idea how the UN could proceed to a success, but it approached its task eagerly and vigorously.3

In the same month yet, diplomats gathered at the special session of the United Nations Assembly at a converted skating ring in Flushing Meadows, not far from New York, and appointed a Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). As a result of its work, the Committee failed to reach unanimous conclusions and two conflicting proposals emerged. The majority (seven members) recommended partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state bound together in an economic union. Jerusalem would be initially governed separately as a UN Trusteeship and its future decided later. Three members of the Committee recommended a single federal state and one abstained from voting. The principle of partition clearly prevailed in the face of fierce opposition by most Arab countries. The plan did not differ much from two earlier British proposals prepared during the Mandate.4

On November 29, 1947, at a stormy Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations the partition plan was adopted in resolution 181 by a vote of 33 to 13 with 10 abstaining, Britain among them. The majority included the United States, the Soviet Union, and the countries of Western and Eastern Europe. The walk-out of the representatives of Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen immediately followed the vote. In Jerusalem, the news from the UN was greeted with public jubilation by the Jews and hostile silence or isolated attacks on Jews by the Arabs.5

The decision on the partition plan inflamed a smoldering conflict between Palestinians Jews and Arabs. More and more people died in armed attacks and counter-attacks. The figures published by the British on January 9, 1948, showed 1,069 Arabs, 769 Jews, and 123 Britons killed in the 6 weeks following that decision, with some 50 people killed every day in Jerusalem alone. Civil unrest had become a full-scale civil war.

With signs of an imminent British withdrawal the fighting intensified. Volunteers from neighboring countries infiltrated to fight on the Arab side, but politically and strategically the Arabs were disunited. On April 5, 1948, when the Palestinian
charismatic commander Abdul Kader al-Husseini visited Damascus with a plea for arms and ammunition he was flatly refused.6 After he was killed later in the battle for the Jerusalem-Tel-Aviv highway, many of his followers left the battlefields. The Jews took Haifa and Jaffa. Arab villages, conquered by Jews, were leveled to the ground and their inhabitants expelled. Others left the land on their own. The first Palestinian exodus began. Whether it was a result of what would be now called ethnic cleansing is a subject of controversy between scholars and writers.7The General Assembly resolution on partition provided also for the establishment of a new Palestine Commission, which was supposed to take over administration from the Mandatory Power and to establish in the Jewish and Arab independent states Provincial Councils of Government that would gradually receive full responsibility for the territory. Its mandate also included the supervision of the erection of the administrative organs of central and local governments, the creation of an armed militia and the creation of an economic union between the two states—a tall order for a territory consumed by hatred and fighting.8

Lie called the members of the new Palestine Commission “five lonely pilgrims.” The representatives of Bolivia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Panama, and the Philippines met at Lake Success on January 9, 1948. The commission’s means were not proportionate to its task. Its predicament became visible when the representatives of Great Britain, the Arab Higher Committee, and the Jewish Agency were invited to join its deliberations. The British appointed Sir Alexander Cadogan and the Jews Moshe Shertok, but the Arab Higher Committee cabled Trygve Lie on January 19, 1948, that “it determined to persist in rejecting partition and in refusing recognition of the UNO resolution in this respect, therefore it was unable to accept invitation.” Later, the Higher Committee said that “… it would never submit or yield to any Power going to Palestine to enforce partition. The only way to establish partition was to wipe them out—man, woman and child” (the Committee meant the Arab population of Palestine).9

Nor were the British cooperative; they did not agree for the Commission to proceed to Palestine earlier than 2 weeks before the date of the termination of the Mandate and to progressively turn over authority to the Commission but only abruptly and completely on May 15. Only the Jews cooperated. The Jewish Agency had already indicated that it would accept partition even while claiming that the plan demanded territorial sacrifices from them.10

It became obvious that there were no chances for the Commission to discharge its mandate without enforcement. In a special report of February 16 to the SC on the problem of security in Palestine, the Commission noted that Arab interests both inside and outside Palestine were engaged in a deliberate effort to alter by violence the settlement recommended by the UN Assembly. Armed forces from surrounding Arab states had already begun infiltration of Palestine. In the view of the Commission, a basic issue of international order was involved. A dangerous and tragic precedent would have been established if force, or the threat of the use of force, was to prove an effective deterrent to the will of the United Nations. Unless an adequate non-Palestinian force was provided for keeping order after May 15, the period immediately following the termination of the Mandate would be a period of uncontrolled, widespread strife and bloodshed in Palestine, including the city of Jerusalem. Such a result would have been a catastrophic conclusion to an era of international concern for the territory.11 The representatives of five small countries stated plainly what was at stake.

The UN Secretary General dealt with the crisis with an extreme restraint and reluctance. He produced a statement for the SC referring to a sufficient degree of agreement reached earlier for the establishment of a United Nations emergency international force that would be more than adequate to cope with any Palestinian challenge. Lie stressed that the UN could not permit violence to be used against its decisions and organs and that if the moral force of the organization was not enough, physical force would have to supplement it. But that statement was never presented, because he considered submitting it hazardous and wanted to sense better the trend of the Council’s discussion and action. Not without a hint of satisfaction, he later recalled that the caution proved to be well justified. After an impressive presentation by the SC’s Chairman, Karel Lisicky of Czechoslovakia, of the dramatic Palestine Commission report on February 24, 1948, the British representative Arthur Creech Jones said that His Majesty’s Government could not promise the kind of cooperation now requested. In view of the earlier British pronouncements it was not surprising. A surprise came from the U.S. representative, Warren Austin. He now claimed that the SC could take action to maintain international peace, but lacked the power to enforce partition or any other type of political settlement.12 From now on it became clear the mericans had washed their hands off Palestine, too. Without them and without the British there was no hope anyone would act.

But on March 19, the American representative—in reverting to an earlier proposal by Australia—performed a complete reversal of the original U.S. position. The United States now believed that a temporary United Nations Trusteeship for Palestine should be established and that the partition should be suspended. Instead of embracing the American proposal as a way out of the impasse, Lie took the American reversal as a personal rebuff and did nothing to support it.13 On April 10, the Palestine Commission reported that the armed hostility of both Palestinian and non-Palestinian Arab elements, lack of cooperation by the Mandatory Power, the disintegrating security situation in Palestine, and the fact that SC did not furnish the Commission with the necessary armed assistance, made it impossible for the Commission to implement the Assembly’s resolution on the partition of the territory.

The SC repeated its call for a truce and by the resolution of April 23 established a Truce Commission, composed of the consular representatives in Jerusalem of Belgium, France, and the United States. A Spanish diplomat Pablo de Azcazarte was appointed its Secretary.

The second special session of the General Assembly on Palestine opened on April 16, and debated for a month. It refrained from taking any action and rejected the Trusteeship proposal, even after the Americans announced that they would be prepared to assign troops to enforce it. It now was the United Nations that washed its hands of Palestine. On May 14, 1948, by resolution 186, the Assembly relieved the Palestine Commission of its responsibilities and created the office of the UN Mediator for Palestine. The few diplomats who believed that the UN decisions were serious enough to be enforced disappeared from the picture. The Mediator was empowered to use his good offices with the local and community authorities in Palestine to arrange for the operation of common services necessary to the safety and well-being of the population of Palestine; assure the protection of holy places, religious buildings and sites in Palestine; and promote a peaceful adjustment of the future situation of Palestine.

The UN’s new course was a very different one from that envisaged by Brian Urquhart, then a promising young UN diplomat and an aide to Lie: In 1947 we were naively optimistic—recalled he—as to what could be done about this most complex and tragic of historical dilemmas, where two ancient people were in an equal, but deadly competition for a small, but infinitely significant piece of territory, a struggle made crucial by Hitler’s annihilation of the Jews of Europe on the one hand and the emergence of Arab nationalism on the other. British must be enabled to relinquish the Mandate for Palestine with dignity. The Jewish refugees from World War II must be allowed to settle. The Palestinians’ interests and rights must be protected… . The international community, through the United Nations, must restore peace and execute the plan. In our innocence, none of these things seemed to us impossible.14

On his arrival on May 14, 1948, to Jerusalem from Amman, Pablo de Azcazarte, the Secretary of the newly created Truce Commission, witnessed these expectations unraveling: “The High Commissioner and the Chief Secretary had left Jerusalem that morning … in this almost clandestine manner twenty hours before the official expiry of the mandate … I had always counted on the British trying to hold off as long as possible (especially in Jerusalem) the chaos, which must inevitably follow their departure… . The time had come for the plunge into unknown.”15

In fact it was not so unknown. In the void created by the British withdrawal and the UN absence, the war could only intensify and there were parties eager to quickly filling this void. At 4.40 a.m. on May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion, the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, read out a Declaration of Independence and announced the establishment of a Jewish State. In another reversal of its policy, the United States immediately recognized the Provisional Government as the de facto authority of the State of Israel. It was the personal decision of the U.S. President Harry Truman, taken against the advice of his main international policy advisers who saw in support of the Jewish case a danger to American interests in Arab countries.16 The first recognition de jure came later from the Soviet Union. On the same day in Egypt a very different announcement was drafted. When the SC met on May 15, it had on its table a blunt cable from the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, reading that “Egyptian armed forces have started to enter Palestine to establish security and order …”17 The invader presented himself in writing. But the only statement made by the SG about his role in Palestine in May 1948 was that “I have dispatched an advance party of the Commission to Jerusalem… . The conditions in that city gave me serious concern for their personal safety, and I took all possible measures to ensure that they were safely evacuated.”18

Reduced to the role of passive observer of the violent disintegration of a country, which he had called not long ago yet “the sacred trust,” the last British High Commissioner, General Cunningham, closed a chapter of history in embarking by ship to Britain on May 14, 1948. Surrendering the Mandate amid chaos and violence, the British repeated the gesture of Pilate in the same city 2,000 years ago. They knew well what they were doing. But by taking over responsibility for the Mandate, the United Nations apparently did not.

At the SC meeting in the afternoon of that day, as Arab troops crossed the frontiers, the representative of the United States did not say a word. For Lie there seemed to be a conspiracy of silence in the Council (with the exception of its Soviet member), reminiscent of the most disheartening head-in-the-sand moments of the Chamberlain appeasement era.19 It took the Council 2 weeks to adopt a resolution calling for a truce and threatening to apply sanctions to a party refusing to comply. Both Arabs and Jews accepted the demand.

Count Folke von Bernadotte, a member of the Swedish Royal Family, appointed Mediator for Palestine by the Security Council, negotiated terms of the truce and its supervision. But the truce, which took effect on June 11, had been broken by July 9 already. Renewed fighting lasted for another 8 months, interrupted by several short-lived and never strictly held cease-fires.

On the battlefield, to the surprise of many, the Jews—better organized and fighting according to strategically sound plans—stood up well to the Arab onslaught. The only real setback for Jewish forces was the surrender, after heavy fighting, of the Jewish Quarter of the Old Town of Jerusalem to the Arab Legion. The main losers of the war were Arab Palestinians, who left the country by the tens of thousands, either expelled by the Jews or desperate to escape the war. Jews had nowhere to go.

Bernadotte established his headquarters at the Greek island of Rhodes and shuttled from there in a white plane, with big “UN” letters on its wings, between the capitals of the belligerents. Military observers assisted the Mediator, all of them officers delegated on the UN request by members of the Truce Commission—Belgium, France, and the United States. They were unarmed and wore their national uniforms with white-blue armbands to mark them as UN personnel. On September 17, Bernadotte was assassinated when on his way by car to visit the Israeli military governor of Jerusalem. A French colonel, Andre-Pierre Serot, was also killed. The murder was committed by the Jewish terrorists, members of the Stern Gang. In spite of numerous arrests of suspected terrorists by Israeli authorities, the killers have never been apprehended.20 Ralph Bunche,
then the Secretary’s General Personal Representative, took over Bernadotte’s work.

During his short-lived mission, the first UN Mediator had not been impressed either by the policies or by the practices of the organization he served. Bernadotte considered the partition plan for Palestine an unfortunate decision and held the view that “The United Nations showed itself from the worst side. It was depressing to have to recognize the fact that even the most trivial decisions with regard to measures designed to lend force to its words were depending on the political calculations of the Great Powers.”21

As by 1949 the Israelis had reached most of their military objectives and the Arabs had lost their hopes for a military victory, Bunche could negotiate an armistice. By the end of July 1949, bilateral Armistice Agreements between Israel and Egypt, Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and Syria had been concluded, including establishment of demarcation lines between the belligerents. The partition of Palestine was now a fact accomplished by military force; it had nothing to do with the plan for a Federal State of Palestine adopted by the United Nations. The territory of the former British Mandate was divided between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. Israel annexed 2,555 square miles, about 50 percent more than envisaged by the partition plan; Jordan annexed 2,200 square miles; and Egypt the Gaza Strip, about 135 square miles. Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. The Palestinian Arabs were not a party to any settlements and hundreds of thousands of them left the country, leaving everything behind and joining those refugees who left during the war already.22 Israel paid for its right of existence with the lives of 6,000 of her citizens (4,000 soldiers and 2,000 civilians) and the enmity of the Arab world. The Arab losses have been probably much higher.23

The British Commander of the Arab Legion, Glubb Pasha, commented afterward: This chain of tragic events shed light on the enormous fault of the United Nations, who voted for a partition plan without providing deployment of an international force for its implementation. Should a neutral army have been introduced to Palestine in the spring of 1948, the Israelis would not undertake to occupy all of the country, the Arab States would not intervened, the Palestinian question would not concern the whole of the Middle East… . Finally, Jerusalem would remain under international control.24

The first Secretary General of the United Nations was of a different opinion. Lie maintained that “Ultimately, the Security Council did solid work to bring peace to Palestine.”25 History proved Lie wrong because the Agreements contributed to no more then few years of absence of war and 60 years after his judgment there is no peace in Palestine. Glubb Pasha’s was perhaps overoptimistic, but, most likely, deployment of a neutral international army would make a great difference. Extremists from both camps were bound to oppose it, but an all-out involvement of Arab states against the UN would be most unlikely. A measure at least of an internationalization of Jerusalem was not an unrealistic prospect because of the Jewish initial, if reluctant, support for the idea. In 1950, there were even segments of Jewish population of the ancient city who preferred an international rule in Jerusalem to that of an Israeli government.26


On August 11, 1949, the Security Council terminated the office of Mediator for Palestine and the Truce Commission became known as the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). No single resolution established the UNTSO’s mandate and its tasks were defined case by case. It was responsible for demarcating armistice lines, mediating the differences between the parties, establishing demilitarized zones, deterring an arms build-up, facilitating the exchange of prisoners, and investigating complaints of violations of the Agreements. The last task fell to the responsibility of the Mixed Armistice Commissions (MAC) working under Chairmen appointed by the United Nations. Three demilitarized zones were established; in the El Auja area on the Israeli side of the demarcation line with Egypt, near Lake Tiberias between Israel and Syria, and on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem.27

From the outset severe understaffing diminished the potential impact of the new organization. UNTSO took over the military personnel employed by the Mediator for Palestine, but their number was slashed by 95 percent, from 572 to 21. Seven Belgians, 7 Frenchmen, and 7 Americans were expected to supervise armistice agreements involving 5 countries and hundreds of miles of cease-fire lines and demilitarized zones.

The example of the Jordanian-Israeli MAC demonstrates the scale of the understaffing. Its five observers based in Jerusalem had to cover a 350-mile stretch of the demarcation lines, as well as to attend two or three weekly meetings between the local Jordanian and Israeli commanders, investigate the complaints concerning violations of the Armistice (roughly one on each day), and respond to urgent occasional calls for arrangement of a cease-fire.28

The observers lacked support from the parties involved and had to deal with growing tensions between the belligerents. There were constant obstructions of the freedom of movement of the UN observers and continuing petty harassment. The UN restricted itself to lodging protests, which were usually ignored. No party of the conflict had ever properly marked the demarcation lines on the ground, leaving space for conflicting interpretations. Moreover, the observers lacked the ability to check the cross-border infiltrations and raids from both sides.29By early 1955 commando raids on Israeli civilians by the Palestinian fedayeen supported by Egypt had become frequent and provoked Israeli retaliatory attacks. Innocent victims on both sides became a sad reality. In September 1956, Israeli forces occupied the demilitarized zone of El Auja, which was the site of MAC and prohibited the Egyptians from access to the area. For all practical purposes the Commission was dead. But it moved to Egyptian-controlled Gaza and, despite the absence of any Israeli cooperation, continued to examine complaints submitted by Egypt. 30 The Israelis could have been encouraged in the takeover by the earlier experience from Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Contrary to a signed agreement, they had never allowed the UN to take over the control of the zone and even prevented the UNTSO’s Chief of Staff from entering it.31

The Israel-Syria MAC was virtually paralyzed by complaints from both sides. By October 1966 it had registered 35,488 Israeli and 30,600 Syrian complaints. It ceased to meet regularly in 1951 and its last emergency session was held in 1960. The other two Commissions, those for Israel-Jordan and Israeli-Lebanon performed only a little better but survived until the outbreak of the 1967 Six Days’ War.

Dag Hammarskjold, who succeeded Lie, did not accept the Israeli unilateral denunciation of the Armistice Agreement with Egypt after the outbreak of the Suez Canal War in 1956 and requested UNTSO to maintain its structures. Neither did he recognize the later renunciation by Israel of the other agreements. Since these did not provide for unilateral termination, Hammarskjold’s position was legally correct. However, the continued deployment of UN military personnel in the field
despite the fact that it was not recognized by one of the parties to the conflict meant the introduction of a make-believe element into the presence of the UN in areas of armed conflagration. Flying the flag for its own sake became a priority, recognized by Hammarskjold’s successors to the detriment of the credibility of the UN ever since.

Notwithstanding full-fledged Arab-Israeli wars in 1956, 1967, and 1973, the organization established for supervision of a truce continued to function and even flourished by acquiring more personnel and deploying at new places. In the war of attrition between Egypt and Israel along the Suez Canal in 1969-1970, UNTSO observers were sitting duck not only because they were under crossfire, but because both sides deliberately targeted them.32 At present the UNTSO observers are on loan to UNIFIL in Lebanon and to UN Disengagement Observer Force on Golan Heights (UNDOF), which allows to keep up the UNTSO facades in Jerusalem, Beirut, and Damascus.

UNTSO unequivocally failed in fulfilling its function of maintaining the cease-fire lines and preventing incursions across the international frontiers; “the parties to the conflict were not prepared to cooperate with the UN observers, the demarcation lines were not clearly marked, and the observers were not equipped, politically or militarily, to deal with the type of confrontations that developed in the demilitarized zones.”33 The only tangible effect of UNTSO’s deployment was monitoring and reporting from the conflict areas done at the sacrifice of lives of 44 personnel as of February 28, 2006. UNTSO’s experience exposed the SC and the Secretariat’s powerlessness in face of deliberate obstruction of the missions and direct attacks on UN personnel. The offending parties did not suffer any consequences from their actions incompatible with their obligations as UN members and with the specific agreements concerning the mission. UNTSO also showed that it was easier to launch a mission than to wind it up.

Source: Andrzej Sitkowski, “UN Peacekeeping: Myth and Reality,” Praeger Security International, London, 2006

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


1 Response to “UN Peacekeeping Myth and Reality: Betrayal in Palestine and Its Legacy (Middle East) – 1”

  1. January 17, 2015 at 2:38 am

    Hi webmaster do you need unlimited content for
    your site ? What if you could copy content from other sites, make it unique and publish on your page – i know
    the right tool for you, just search in google:
    kisamtai’s article tool

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog Stats

  • 186,874 hits

Top Clicks

  • None
August 2011
« Jul    
Add to Technorati Favorites

%d bloggers like this: