UN Peacekeeping Myth and Reality: Betrayal in Palestine and Its Legacy (Middle East) – 2

UN Peacekeeping Myth and Reality



In the summer of 1956, as Palestinian raids on Israeli-held territories and Israeli retaliatory attacks became increasingly frequent, the Arab-Israeli conflict took on new dimensions. President Nasser, the charismatic dictator of Egypt, nationalized the Suez Canal and imposed restrictions in the Gulf of Aqaba for Israeli shipping. The conflict threatened to grow into another full scale Arab-Israeli war with a risk of an open East-West confrontation.

While the main shareholders of the Canal-Great Britain and France-strongly supported Israel, Nasser was determined to settle accounts with her. On October 25, 1956, he concluded agreements with Syria and Jordan on forming united military command. Three days later, on October 29, Israeli forces launched three-pronged attacks toward El Arish, Ismaila, and the Mitla Pass. On October 31, working with Israel on a prearranged plan, British and French forces attacked Egyptian targets from the air and parachuted troops in the area of Port Said and at the northern end of the Canal.34 What Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the opposition in the British House of Commons, called an act of disastrous folly, produced an unprecedented shock and disbelief at the UN, from which even the British and French delegates to the UN were not free. It was in this atmosphere that the first Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly opened at 5 p.m. on November 1.

Before the Emergency Session has begun, the Canadian delegate, Lester Pearson, approached Dag Hammarskjold to suggest that a deployment of a United Nations Force might become necessary. The SG was initially skeptical, but the idea was supported by the British and French governments, under fire also from public opinion in their own countries. Ultimately, on November 4, the Assembly requested Hammarskjold to submit within 48 hours a plan for the setting up of an emergency international force to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities. He began to work on the report before lunch the next day and by 2.30 morning finished what Urquhart called “… a conceptual masterpiece in a completely new field, the blueprint for a nonviolent international military operation.”35 The first UN deployed international force was to enter Egyptian territory with consent of the Egyptian Government in order to help maintain order during and after the withdrawal of non-Egyptian forces. In Hammarskjold’s concept “The force would be more than an observer corps, but in no way a military force temporarily controlling the territory in which it was stationed… . Its functions … could cover an area extending roughly from the Suez Canal to the Armistice Demarcation Lines.”36 Hammarskjold’s recommendations were endorsed by the General Assembly and the UNTSO Chief of Staff, General E.L.M. Burns from Canada, was appointed the Chief of Command of the first United Nations Emergency Force.

The response to the UN request for national contingents to serve with UNEF was surprisingly good. Twenty-four countries offered to send troops; Hammarskjold selected ten from countries impartial to the conflict. At the outset, the new Force was 6,000 men strong but gradually reduced and stood at 3,378 men at its conclusion. It included contingents from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, India, Indonesia, Norway, Sweden, and Yugoslavia. One of the practical problems to be resolved was the identification of the troops. Fortunately, there were large quantities of American helmets readily available in Europe and spraying them blue was no problem. Thus were the Blue Helmets born.37

The unique international situation at the time of the Suez crisis made nearly everyone welcome the Blue Helmets. The Soviet Union faced serious challenges to its domination in Eastern Europe and was not eager to get actively involved in the Middle East. The United States wanted to stay out, and the British and the French governments anxiously looked for a way out of their ill-advised adventure without loosing face. Finally, Egypt knew that the UN was its only hope for averting a disastrous military defeat.

UNEF was a departure from the United Nations policy of not employing any armed personnel. Understandably, the new policy, as expressed in the guidelines for UNEF, was not free from ambiguities. The rules of engagement (ROE) of the first UN armed contingents ordered the UNEF’s soldiers not to use force except in self-defense. They were not to initiate the use of force; they could only respond to an armed attack on them, even if this meant refusing an order from the attacking party not to resist.38,39 The intention of this diplomatic, rather than military, wording was quite clear; arms were not to be used for carrying out the UNEF’s mandate.

The spirit of the guidelines was in accord with Hammarskjold’s pacifist sentiments and intentions. But it was not so to the man chosen to command the Force, the Canadian General E.L.M. Burns, who requested a strong force, containing heavy armor and fighter aircraft capable of carrying out operations of war. That request was turned down, as were his later requests for authorization to fire on infiltrators in the Gaza Strip. His argument that the Israelis had been accustomed to pushing UN military observers around and that an emergency force which could not use its weapons would be little more than a corps of observers was in vain.40 Israel never agreed to a UNEF presence at her side of the frontlines and therefore it was deployed on the Egyptian side along the Armistice Demarcation Line in Gaza and the international frontier in the Sinai Peninsula. While it was unable to eliminate infiltrations, its presence helped to avoid major clashes. The situation was different in the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Jordanian sectors. Since the establishment in 1964 of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its main group Al-Fatah, Palestinian raids and acts of sabotage against Israel became more frequent and so were the Israeli retaliatory actions.41 In early 1967, tensions between Israel and Syria were mounting and Nasser, with his army generously reequipped by the Soviets, was persuaded that a Syrian-Israeli war was imminent. For the second time in a decade, he decided that the hour of revenge by the Arab world against its Israeli enemy was near, so UNEF’s presence in the Egyptian controlled Sinai became awkward.

It was ten o’clock at night, Cairo time, in Gaza on May 16, 1967, when the Egyptian Brigadier Mokhtar handed General Rikhye, UNEF Commander, a communication signed by the Chief of Staff of the United Arab Republic (UAR), General Fawzi. It read: I gave my instructions to all UAR Armed Forces to be ready for actions against Israel, the moment it may carry out any aggressive action against any Arab country. Due to these instructions, our troops are already concentrated in Sinai on our eastern borders. For the sake of complete secure [sic] of all UN troops which install observation posts along our borders, I request that you issue your orders to withdraw all these troops immediately … 42

Brigadier Mokhtar verbally requested the immediate withdrawal of the UN units from El-Sabha and Sharm el Sheikh. Rikhye replied that he did not have the authority to withdraw on any order other than that of the UN SG. He also said that as long as UAR troops did not attempt to use force against UN personnel, there would be no clashes. But Rikhye’s own instructions to UNEF’s Yugoslav commander in Sinai issued on the same day were tantamount to authorizing surrender. Colonel Prazic was told that “they must … not be involved in any incident with the U.A.R. forces and certainly should not, under any circumstances, resort to use of force in the event they were evicted from their post.”43

His attitude was confirmed in a cable he received next day from U Thant who told him to do what he reasonably could to maintain the position of UNEF without, however, going so far as to risk an armed clash. In his memoirs Rikhye maintained
that he was determined not to withdraw from a single UNEF position, unless he was forced out of it. But this is precisely what happened. Before he received U Thant’s order for withdrawal on May 18, Egyptian troops forced UNEF’s soldiers to leave El Sabha, the camps El Kuntilla and El-Amr, Sharm el-Sheikh, and an observation post at Ras el-Nasrani.44

Neither the UN documents nor Rikhye in his memoirs mention any use of force by the Egyptian side in the process of evicting UN soldiers from their positions and it is obvious that they would, if there was any. It follows that the UN soldiers obeyed Egyptian orders before getting an instruction for withdrawal from New York.

In Egypt the circumstances of the decision on UNEF’s withdrawal were not clear. The first message to General Rikhye demanded a withdrawal from the Armistice line in Sinai but did not address the UN presence in Gaza and Egypt as such. The ambiguity continued thereafter. Neither Nasser’s adviser on foreign affaires, Dr. Mohamud Fawzi, nor members of the government were informed about that decision which Fawzi later called a gross miscalculation based on gross misinformation. It was most likely taken personally by two leaders: President Nasser and Field Marshall Amer. The latter, initially not aware of all intricacies involved, issued instructions to intercept Brigadier Mokhtar on his mission and to request him to await further communication. But it was too late and the Brigadier delivered the order to General Rikhye before any counter-order could have been issued. The attempt to alter the course of events failed.45

Urquhart rightly maintains that Egypt’s request for UNEF’s withdrawal was in accordance with the relevant agreement. He also called the very idea of a resistance to the Egyptian Army, some 80,000 strong, by the tiny, symbolic UN Force hypocritical and escapist nonsense, still remarkably prevalent in Western folklore.46 But it is improbable that the Egyptians would open fire on UNEF when confronted with a resolute opposition. Even a token opposition before the official request for the withdrawal of UNEF was submitted to U Thant on May 18 could have probably opened some space for negotiations and changed the course of events.

A few days later Nasser announced the closure of the Strait to Israeli shipping. Under the existing circumstances, the point of no return from war was reached. U Thant’s attempt to relocate UNEF into Israeli-controlled territory was promptly and flatly rejected even while Tel-Aviv tried to persuade the United Nations not to follow Nasser’s demands for withdrawal.

In the early hours of June 5, Israeli planes struck and destroyed the bulk of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. The third Arab-Israeli war had begun and was again fought in Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan Heights, on the West Bank of the
Jordan, and in Jerusalem. Again underestimated by the Arabs, Israel succeeded on all fronts and conquered new territories. The war was over in 6 days. On June 28, the Israelis announced that Jerusalem was reunited. The old conflict assumed new dimensions. The Israeli action was the first exposure of a logic, which-in contradiction to the UN Charter-attributes the right of States to use force preemptively.

In the aftermath of the Six Days’ War, U Thant and the United Nations were widely and fervently criticized for withdrawing UNEF and thus allowing the outbreak of the war.47 However, it became clear that the mere presence of the UN troops, without the backing of the SC for sufficiently punitive actions against the offending parties would deter neither the Arabs nor the Israelis from pursuing their goals by military means. It was tragically manifested during the first days of the war in the Gaza Strip when, caught in the cross fire, 15 UNEF soldiers were killed.48

No new UN mission was proposed after the withdrawal of UNEF I. Calm lasted in the Suez Canal sector until early 1969, when the fighting broke out again and continued until August 1970. It was full-fledged warfare, except that the positions of the adversaries did not move. On several occasions, the Secretary General appealed for an end to this war of attrition, but without any effect. UNTSO observers, targeted by both sides, were duly monitoring and reporting on the developments. It took United States political involvement to negotiate a cease-fire. The fighting stopped on August 7, 1970. For about 3 years.

Kurt Waldheim, appointed Secretary General of the United Nations in 1972, recalled that looking back, it seemed strange that no one had heeded the Egyptian and Syrian-declared intentions to regain the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. Golda Meir, the then Prime Minister of Israel, 1 month before the outbreak of the war told Waldheim that if only the United Nations would refrain from interfering in the affairs of the Middle East, in 2 or 3 years the Arabs would be prepared to recognize the State of Israel and to concede it the borders which it believed essential to its security.49

In 1967 the Israelis took the Egyptians by surprise, but it was now their turn to be surprised. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, ordered his army to cross the Suez Canal on October 6, 1973, celebrated as Yom Kippur by the Israelis, leaving behind UNTSO observers, two of them killed in the crossfire. The fighting on the Egyptian front soon spread to Golan Heights in Syria.

The Americans airlifted emergency supplies of arms to the Israelis, who quickly recovered from the first shock and drove back through the Canal, cutting off the Third Egyptian Army in Sinai and threatening the Port of Suez. Now, the Egyptian Ambassador to the UN, Ismail Meguid, requested that UN observers step in and stop the Israeli advance. As Sadat called for Soviet and American intervention, neither wanted to get drawn into it directly. Few days later, on October 20, King Faisal from Saudi Arabia announced oil embargo on the United States and the Netherlands. British documents declassified 30 years later revealed that the Americans seriously contemplated invading Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in response to the embargo. The conflict dimensions were changing.50

After 2 weeks of confusion, the famous rounds of Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy brought about a consensus in the SC. On October 22, it adopted resolution 338 calling for an immediate cease-fire and asking the SG to dispatch observers. It also called for an immediate beginning of the implementation of resolution 242, which requested the Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. But the cease-fire, accepted by both sides, did not work.

Following much diplomatic wrangling, the SC agreed on October 25 to deploy UNEF II. Waldheim nominated UNTSO’s Chief, the Finnish General Ensi Siilasvuo, to be UNEF’s Interim Commander. Austrians, Finns, and Swedes from the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNIFICYP) were dispatched within 24 hours. Ultimately, contingents from thirteen countries participated in UNEF II-Sweden, Austria, Finland, Australia, Ghana, Nepal, Ireland, Peru, Panama, Indonesia, Senegal, Canada, and Poland. Its maximum strength was 6,973 men; at the time of its withdrawal it was 4,031; 120 observers from UNTSO assisted the Force.

The essentials of the peacekeeping guidelines for UNEF II, written 17 years after those of UNEF I, remained unchanged. But direct responsibility for the Force was shifted from the SC and General Assembly to the UN SG, the principle of equitable geographical representation in the composition of the Force introduced, and the term of self-defense newly formulated. From now on it would include resistance to attempts by forceful means to prevent it from discharging its duties under the Security Council’s mandate. This last qualification is crucial and largely overlooked, because it gave the UN Forces a blanket authorization to use force in defense of the Security Council’s mandates. Approved by the Council on October 27, 1973, these guidelines have been considered since then as a standard for new UN operations.

The mandate of UNEF II was supervision of implementation of an immediate and complete cease-fire in positions occupied by the respective forces on October 22, prevention of the recurrence of the fighting, and cooperation with the ICRC in its humanitarian activities, cooperation with UNTSO, and supervision of the implementation of the disengagement agreements.

UNEF II was deployed in the buffer zone between the two armies. Its checkpoints, observation posts, and patrols remained until the withdrawal following an American-sponsored peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in July 1979. On November 19, 1977, President Sadat of Egypt brought to Jerusalem a totally unexpected message: peace between Arabs and Israel was possible and necessary. During his 3-day visit he addressed the Knesset where he received a standing ovation. He later visited Yad Vashem, the museum of Holocaust, where he signed the guest book with the inscription: May God guide our steps toward peace… 51

All parties to the Yom Kippur war suffered heavy losses. It was with a shock that Israelis learned that 2,676 members of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) were killed. They had not suffered such losses since the war of independence in 1948. They also lost 420 tanks and 106 aircraft. The Arab losses were even higher. The Egyptians lost 8,000 and the Syrians 3,500 men. The Arab side lost also 1,280 tanks and 454 aircraft, including 22 Iraqi planes. 52 These figures, explain in part why there has not been another all-out Israeli-Arab war. But an absence of war is not peace.

UNEF II did its job well and its deployment helped to avoid the Soviet-United States confrontation. 53 But the nonrecurrence of fighting was a result of diplomacy, of coincidence of the superpowers interests, and of Sadat’s courage. Should any of the adversaries decide to attack the other, the Force would just be overrun, as UNEF I was before and other UN Forces have been since.


Syria’s Golan Heights, occupied by Israel as a result of the 1967 Six Days’ War, are of a paramount strategic importance to both countries. Syrian guns placed there can dominate the plains of northern Israel, but Israeli tanks deployed on the Golan Heights are only 50 miles from the Syrian capital of Damascus. The Syrians, in concert with the Egyptians, attacked the Israelis on October 6, 1973. As on the Egyptian-Israeli front, the surprise Syrian assault resulted in some territorial
gains, but the Israeli counterattacks pushed the Syrians back and pursued them along the road toward of Damascus, retaking the town of Quneitra (occupied by them as a result of the Six Days’ War in 1967) on the way and occupying a salient as far as the village of Saassa. The cease-fire ordered by the SC took effect on October 24, but it did not last long. The Syrians rejected negotiations and hostilities continued, culminating in a heavy battle for Mount Hermon in April 1974, retaken by the Israelis at the cost of twelve Syrian and fifty-one Israeli soldiers killed.54

Claiming that until now the deployment of UN peacekeepers had been little more than a substitute for a political solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a confirmation of Israel’s territorial conquests, Syria’s President, Hafez el-Assad, did not want UNEF II to extend its operation into his country. 55 Eventually, he accepted UNDOF established by SC resolution 350 on May 31, 1974. It deployed immediately with contingents borrowed from UNEF II, coming initially from six countries: Austria, Canada, Finland, Iran, Peru, and Poland. Its strength grew to 1,331 men in 1991. Established for 6 months the Force remains in the field, its mandate repeatedly renewed by the SC every year since then.

The Force’s mandate is to ensure the observance of the cease-fire; to supervise the absence of military forces in the area of separation, and to oversee restriction of arms and personnel in the Syrian and Israeli areas of limitation, and to facilitate the implementation of Security Council resolution 338 which called for a political solution of the conflict.

Although UN sources report that both sides regularly restrict UNDOF’s movements, on the whole it has encountered no serious difficulties. The Force Commander invariably protests the restrictions, which apparently settles the matter for the UN. 56 Both sides appear to be satisfied with UNDOF’s presence and until a political settlement is achieved or until another war comes, it is likely to stay where it is, at their sufferance and UN cost. Thirty-two years of the UN presence in Golan Heights proved to be not long enough for politicians to find a resolution of the conflict.


Lebanon is a small country wedged between Syria and Israel, on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a conglomerate of four major communities divided by religion and clan loyalties. Maronites are Christians; its Druze, Sunni, and Shi’a are Muslims. The delicate political balance that maintained a precarious internal peace in this the multiconfessional society was challenged by the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s. In 1958 the Christian-dominated Lebanese government alleged that the United Arab Republic (Union of Egypt and Syria) was involved in gross interference in the domestic affairs of the country, infiltrating weapons and people in support of extreme opposition groups.

On Lebanon’s request, the United Nations Observation Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL) was established in June 1958, but only after a civil war broke out in May and the president of the country, Camille Chamoun, approached in vain the United States regarding possible intervention. UNOG II’s mandate was straightforward-“to ensure there is no illegal infiltration of personnel (or) supply of arms or other material across the Lebanese borders.”58 Twenty-one countries contributed
military personnel to UNOGIL. At its peak in September, the Group consisted of 214 observers, with aircraft and helicopters at their disposal. Not more than a month after UNOGIL’s deployment, U.S. marines stormed a shore in Beirut; the British joined later. The UN mission withdrew, accomplishing nothing. Merely some of UNTSO observers, a remainder of the long defunct Israeli-Lebanon Armistice Agreement, carried on.

Until the early seventies, Lebanon enjoyed calm along its borders with Israel. But as the PLO, forcibly expelled from Jordan in 1970, set up its headquarters in Southern Lebanon, the fragile balance of power among the Lebanese unraveled. A civil war broke out in April 1975 and ended, at least on paper, in October 1976 with the introduction of the Arab Deterrent Force into the country. The force, nominally under the command of the Lebanese president, was actually controlled by the Syrians. In March 1978, a PLO raid on the Haifa-Tel Aviv road took the lives of 39 Israeli civilians and left dozens wounded. In retaliation, Israeli forces entered Lebanon on March 14-15 and in a few days occupied the entire area south of the Litani River, save for the city of Tyre, a Palestinian stronghold.

As an alternative to restraining the Israelis, the United States launched the idea of introducing a peacekeeping mission. There were strong misgivings at the UN as there was no government authority in Southern Lebanon, the PLO was responsible to no one and the Israeli sponsored Christian militia under the command of Major Saad Haddad was capable of disrupting any peace process. To complicate matters further, the terrain of the area, hilly and ravenous, ideal for guerillas, was difficult for conventional forces.59

The fate of UNTSO observers illustrated conditions in the country. They had been subject to widespread harassment, obstruction of movements, and outright robbery by various armed groups and factions. Between October 1975 and February 1978, UNTSO lost 124 vehicles in stealing or hijacking. One of the UNTSO members lost five vehicles in 4 months.60

But all misgivings about launching a peacekeeping mission were pushed aside under pressure from the United States and the UK. On March 19, 1978, the SC called for strict respect of the territorial integrity of Lebanon, for a cease-fire, and for the withdrawal of the Israeli forces. It also established the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) “for the purpose of confirming the withdrawal of the Israeli forces, restoring international peace and security and assisting the government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area, the force to be composed of personnel drawn from Member States.”61 Established for a period of 6 months it is still there in 2006.

In spite of the differing circumstances of the mission and a much broader mandate, the guidelines for the force were the same as those applied to UNEF II: consent, impartiality, and self-defense. UNIFIL began its deployment with contingents transferred from UNEF II and soon reached the target of 4,000 men, later reinforced to 7,000. General Emmanuel A. Erskine of Ghana became the force’s commander. Apart from the Israelis, UNIFIL faced the main factions in Southern Lebanon, the PLO and Lebanese Christians who had their own military forces at disposal. Neither PLO and its military wing El Fatah nor the South Lebanese Army (SLA) under the command of Major Haddad controlled all armed militias present in the area. The Lebanese Army was merely a token presence, and the government in Beirut was haphazard. The IDF moved in and out of Southern Lebanon at will. None of the parties present on the ground could agree on the same definition of UNIFIL’s area of operation, so it was never properly defined.

As a result, the Force was deployed as permitted by the circumstances of the day and the disposition of the parties concerned.62

By April 1978, the Israelis had withdrawn from about half of the occupied territory and UNIFIL took over the positions evacuated by the IDF. Checkpoints, observation posts, and patrols were set up to prevent infiltration by any armed elements. But neither PLO nor Haddad’s forces were inclined to cooperate.63 In the next stage of withdrawal the Israelis vacated the territory to Haddad’s militia instead of to the UNIFIL. This led to counterattacks by the PLO and to attacks on UNIFIL by both sides. Attacks in May left 3 French soldiers dead and 14 wounded, including the commander of the French battalion. Harassment by the SLA was also common, and moreover it conducted raids into the UNIFIL area of operation, abducting people and blowing up houses belonging to suspected PLO members or sympathizers and establishing its own positions. PLO also was encroaching.64

Negotiations to remove the infringing positions did not bring any results. UNIFIL was unwelcome to anyone in arms in Southern Lebanon.

There was apparently no obstructions, harassments, or attacks on the Force disturbing enough to provoke the SC to resolutely react in defense of its own decisions and the men it had sent out into harms way. After heavy shelling of UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura by SLA, the Council satisfied itself with a resolution condemning the act. In another incident, when three Nigerian UNIFIL soldiers were killed, it took it 5 days to issue a condemnation, largely because the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Jean Kirkpatrick, opposed the resolution for 4 days long on account that it mentioned Israel in its text.65

UNIFIL was on its own, and could only muddle through, oscillating erratically between combat actions and pathetic humiliations from which even the Force’s Commander was not saved. In May 1979 Erskine faced an angry crowd of Haddad’s supporters, was manhandled, and lost his badges of rank and the Blue Beret in the process.66 Whatever was left of the credibility of UNIFIL disappeared with the general’s dignity.

Not all of the general’s troops were passive. Norwegians and Fijians were among those more assertive and had fewer problems in their areas of operations.67

But no amount of resolve of some of the national troops or even of all of them could have saved a drifting operation not equipped for its task. UNIFIL was unable to control infiltration into the area of its operation nor shelling, raiding, and other hostilities by all parties to the conflict. A steady deterioration culminated in an all-out assault by IDF ground and naval forces on Palestinian positions in July 1981. Another wave of heavy retaliatory Israeli air attacks on targets in Lebanon followed in 1982.68

When the new UNIFIL’s Commander William Callaghan met General Rafael Eitan in the morning of June 6, the Israeli Chief of Staff told him that the IDF would launch a major military operation into Lebanon within the hour and they expected not to be obstructed. Callaghan protested, instructed all his contingents to block the advancing forces, to take defensive measures, and to keep their positions unless their safety was seriously imperiled.69 As promised, the Operation Peace for Galilee started at 11.00 hours. Two IDF mechanized divisions entered UNIFIL’s area with full air and naval support and progressed along three axes into Lebanon. Only two cases of token resistance by Dutch and Nepalese soldiers were reported. Other troops apparently waved the Israelis through.70

By June 8, the UNIFIL became the first UN mission operating in a country occupied by a foreign army. The Israelis moved fast and with full force, causing a large number of casualties and massive destruction. A member of the Israeli forces invading from the sea remembered that The invasion has begun and it was surreal, like going on a pleasure-cruise… . Then
we came up from the beach on the main road, and what we saw stopped us in our tracks… . There were a great many dead… . They lay among the wreckage of their vehicles, the young and the old, the crippled and the fit, men, women and children together, never knowing what hit them… . During the night our paratroopers had helicopters in to secure the beachhead. In the pitch dark, unable to see what was coming at them, they’d poured round after round into anything that moved.71

On June 11, 1 day after the Israelis had engaged the Syrians at the outskirts of Beirut, a cease-fire was announced but the hunt for the Palestinians continued. On June 18, the Israelis entered the center of Beirut and encircled a few thousands of PLO fighters still there. The Israeli Air Force struck relentlessly, up to 4 hours without intermission. Ultimately, as a result of a deal negotiated by the special emissary of President Reagan, Philip Habib, Arafat left for Greece and the PLO completed its pull out from Beirut on September 1.

UNIFIL had been completely sidelined. The Lebanese government invited the United States, France, and Italy to send forces to stabilize the situation. It believed that these major Western powers would bring about what they were not able to get from the United Nations-the release of their country from military occupation by Israel and Syria. The multinationals duly arrived, some, like the French, on loan from UNIFIL. But they left Beirut by September 10, having accomplished nothing.

Four days later a bomb placed at his headquarters killed the Lebanese president. The next day, the IDF returned to West Beirut. A day after, the Phalangists-the Christian militia-massacred inhabitants of the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila, including women and children. The Israelis looked away and the SC protested for the record. The Lebanese decided to ask for the return of the multinational force and it came back by the end of September.72

The massacre in Sabra and Shatila shocked the world and many Israelis as well. On September 25 in Tel Aviv, 400,000 people took part in the largest demonstration ever held in Israel. An official inquiry strongly criticized Defense Minister Ariel Sharon for having allowed the Phalangists to enter the refugee camps and called him to draw personal conclusions. Sharon resigned from the post of the Minster of Defense, but remained member of the cabinet as Minister without a portfolio.73

In the following months, attacks on the Israeli occupying forces increased in Southern Lebanon as civil war in Beirut intensified between Lebanese fractions. The multinational forces were seen as a party to the conflict, and on April 18, 1983, a bomb destroyed the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. In mid-September, U.S. battleships bombarded positions of antigovernment forces around Beirut, openly taking sides. On October 23, a truck bomb exploded in a suicidal crash into a U.S. Marine barracks, killing 241 Americans while a parallel attack took the lives of 58 French servicemen. Everyone now wanted to get out of Lebanon, except UNIFIL. The SC was regularly extending its mandate, unchanged.

UNIFIL’s functioning on territory under the Israeli control brought about a radical shift in its relations to the main parties to the conflict. It recognized the right of the IDF as an occupying army and of its surrogate force SLA (when in conjunction with the Israelis) to carry on military operations. The right of the Lebanese to resist the occupation was also recognized. But on one hand UNIFIL restricted it in practice by exercising control and confiscation of arms from the local civilians and on the other, when locals did attack IDF/SLA, the Force did not intervene, except to protect its own personnel and noncombatants.74 In effect UNIFIL had violated its own mandate and became a spent and useless force.

Analyzing the UNIFIL’s future in 1991 Marianne Heiberg saw three options: withdrawal, reduction, or major reinforcement. Her arguments for withdrawal were most convincing. First-argued she-the operation is too costly. UNIFIL ties up enormous assets consuming some two-thirds of all funds for UN peacekeeping. Moreover, in many respects it has lost sense of mission, became over-bureaucratic, administratively wasteful, and inefficient to the extent that may have irreversibly undermined its military and political credibility. UNIFIL’s role in providing security and assistance to the local Lebanese population was commendable, but in light of the human catastrophes that loom in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, this role cannot be assigned a sufficiently high priority.75 Four years later, a study requested by the UN SG did offer neither alternatives to the existing concept of the mission nor changes in its composition.76

During the Operation Peace for Galilee, PLO ceased to exist as an organized presence on the territory, but tens of thousands of Palestinians remained in the Tyre pocket in official and unofficial camps. A new force appeared on the stage-Hizbollah. Having links to Iran, Hizbollah was, if anything, more secretive, militant, and fundamentalist than the PLO. It targeted all Israelis, soldiers and civilians alike, whenever and however it could.77 Lack of a political solution and impotence of UNIFIL contributed to the rise of an organization more militant, as the PLO was crippled by the Israelis.

In April 1996 Hizbollah began to increase the number and viciousness of its attacks. Towns in Galilee were repeatedly shelled and it also struck elsewhere. The Israelis struck back with a new blitzkrieg that lasted 3 weeks. Thousands of Lebanese left their homes, and more then 150 were killed. As usual, UNIFIL reported the attacks and tried to protect civilians.

On April 18, IDF shelled UNIFIL’s base at Quana, killing more than 100 Lebanese civilians seeking shelter there. The Israelis reacted to the outcry in the international media by explaining the shelling as a result of a mistake by an artillery officer who was responding to Hizbollah’s firing rockets from the vicinity of the UN base. While a UN report prepared by a Dutch general contested that claim, Israel and the United States denounced it. A spokesman for the Israel Foreign Ministry retorted: “They accuse us of cold-blooded murder, but they do not take a moral stand on what Hizbollah did.”78

Hizbollah’s choice of launching the rockets from its mobile units at the immediate proximity of the UN compound could indeed be an attempt to provoke the Israeli fire. But the UNIFIL Commander, General Stanislaw Wozniak of Poland, said: “renewed launching of rockets from the vicinity of UNIFIL’s compounds cannot be excluded.”79 It follows that, while resolving nothing, the UNIFIL’s presence might bring about more risks and suffering.

During the period from its inception in 1978 to February 28, 2006, it absorbed more than half of the fatalities suffered by all United Nations peacekeeping operations in the Middle East since 1948. The muddling through, to which it was condemned by its utterly unrealistic mandate, took the lives of 257 members of the Force, compared to the total losses of the UN Forces in the Middle East amounting of 503 personnel.80 To avoid such a costly failure the UN had either to give the mission an executive authority in Southern Lebanon, to reduce its mandate and composition to an observer mission, or to withdraw. It did neither.

In 2000, as a result of the growing domestic opposition to its ineffective presence, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Southern Lebanon, leaving the ground to the triumphant Hizbollah. On July 31, 2001, the SC decided to cut the number of troops and, after 23 years of endorsing a futile operation, asked the SG to present plans that could reconfigure the Force to an observer mission.81

Apart from proving the futility of an ill-conceived UN operations, Lebanon offered devastating arguments against deployment, outside of the UN framework, of hastily improvised multinational forces, armed with everything but a clear and
feasible political objective.


The number, size, and longevity of the UN peacekeeping operations in the Middle East made it the formative ground for shaping of the UN peacekeeping missions. Distinct patterns which emerged there were to appear at other peacekeeping
theatres in the future.

Whether at the level of the General Assembly in New York or of an observation post in Sinai, United Nations’ decisions and personnel were trampled upon at without any consequences for the offenders. The partition plan for Palestine overthrown by force, the unarmed observers sitting duck for both the Egyptians and Israelis fighting at the Suez Canal war of attrition in 1969, and the UNIFIL soldiers killed in Lebanon are cases in question. The UNEF I soldiers evicted by the Egyptians from their positions in Sinai, the Indian soldiers killed in Gaza in the Israeli assault in 1956, and UNIFIL’s positions overrun in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 are other examples of irrelevance of the UN military presence in face of determined belligerents.

Keeping up the flag became a priority in observer missions even whereupon it did not signal anything else than the organization’s impotence. The Secretariat’s decision to leave the UNTSO machinery intact after the withdrawal of Israeli
participation in the Armistice Agreement structures was later imitated by the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), continuously deployed after India withdrew her recognition in 1972.

UN engaged in three largely successful conflict containment operations, UNEF I and II and UNDOF. All of them came into being under convergence of interests of the Big Powers, which sought to avoid a direct East-West confrontation in the Middle East. But the UN withdrew UNEF I hastily under a political pressure, making the outbreak of a new war in 1963 more likely. UNDOF’s presence in the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel since 26 years illustrates in turn a paradox. An effective containment operation not followed by equally effective diplomacy takes off the urgency from a political resolution and is likely to petrify the conflict. The Israelis reached their strategic goals in Golan and the Syrians recognized having no chances for a military comeback. The UN became a guardian of that stalemate. But it is only an expression of a wider stalemate in the Arab-Israeli conflict and of the marginalization of the world body.

The uninterrupted military presence of the United Nations in Middle East did not prevent either a succession of Arab-Israeli wars or the political stalemate from continuing. The roots of the failures in the Middle East are in the betrayal of trust by an absentee United Nations in Palestine in 1947-1948. Upon leaving Jerusalem on May 14, 1948, the last Chief of the British Palestine Government, Sir Henry Gurney, put the keys to his office under the doormat.82 That bitter gesture testified both to the failure of Britain and that of the United Nations. It is far from certain that the young world organization would succeed where the British failed, but chances were not negligible, especially in Jerusalem, where an internationalization of the Holy City seemed a feasible option. The UN never recovered the keys to Palestine left by Sir Gurney and the consequences are being felt not only by the Israelis and Arabs, but by the rest of the world, still.

The next chapter shows how, without changing the tune, Hammarskjold, the same UN Secretary General who had established the first peacekeeping operation in Egypt, created an operation of a different type. Powerful outside interference, immaturity of the local leaders, and his own inconsequence deprived him from having succeed. But the Congo adventure had shown that there were alternatives to the UN’s position of bystander or pushover. Opting for such an alternative the organization annoyed almost everyone and its Secretary General lost his life.

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

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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