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Twenty-First Century Crusades?

Prediction 14: Possible EU troop movements to Israel and/or the Middle East

International forces in Gaza?

JERUSALEM, Israel -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in talks with reporters in Paris last week, floated the idea of deploying foreign troops in the Gaza Strip.

To be sure, international peacekeepers have been part of the scene in this area for almost 60 years. First came UNTSO, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, which is still around. Then UNEF (in the Sinai), UNDOF (on the Golan), and UNIFIL in Lebanon.

Arab countries opposed the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, preventing formation of another U.N. force to observe compliance, so the United States helped create the Multinational Force and Observers. There is a Temporary International Presence in Hebron and a European Union Border Assistance Mission at the Rafah Crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinians` first president, sought international forces to strengthen his hand against the stronger power, Israel.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, the PLO Executive Committee`s secretary, told al-Jazeera TV the new idea is to deploy international forces in two places: along Gaza`s border with Egypt, since that is the Gazans` only exit to the outside world; and in the northern Gaza Strip 'to end Israeli attacks.'

'The deployment ... is being examined at an international level with the U.N. We also asked that the international forces be from Islamic countries such as Turkey, Indonesia and Qatar to reassure everyone,' he said.

Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed a UNIFIL-like force along the Gaza-Egypt border, that the Israelis call the Philadelphi Route. It would stem the arms smuggling there.

No doubt Olmert would welcome an effective force also in the northern Gaza Strip where militants have been launching rockets into Israel. However, deployment there would require a much bigger and more complicated operation, since it is a populated area.

Israelis have been suspicious of international peacekeepers since the 1950s, when mixed armistice commissions rarely blamed Palestinian attackers, who were irregular forces, but criticized the Israeli army`s reprisals. Then, in 1967, U. N. Secretary-General U Thant withdrew UNEF, just when it was needed most. Egypt massed troops in the Sinai, asked UNEF to move aside, and it did.

The Israeli attitude changed gradually as relations with the U.N. and Europe improved and world terrorism became more ominous. International peacekeepers became important elements in security arrangements as Israel withdrew from occupied territories.

Israelis were concerned that they were giving land for paper agreements, or for nothing at all. The international presence was supposed to reduce the risks it took. Israel learnt to appreciate UNDOF, which provides a buffer between it and Syria and verifies the parties comply with their security agreements.

Peacekeepers` involvement has been particularly important when the other side was a 'failed state,' such as Lebanon in 2000, or the Palestinian Authority.

Before the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, officials debated whether to pull out of the Philadelphi Route. They realized that if they left the area militants would try to smuggle more advanced and lethal weapons into Gaza. But if they stayed, the whole world would say Israel still occupies Gaza.

It withdrew. Egypt upgraded its forces there and the European Union sent monitors to keep an eye on the crossing. A more significant sign of change occurred during last year`s Lebanon war. One of the war`s aims, no less, was to prepare the ground for an international force that would take over.

Israelis realize that occupied territories are a burden. Olmert won last year`s elections promising pullbacks in the West Bank. However, attacks from Gaza and Lebanon proved it was wrong to go for unilateral disengagements.

So if unilateral withdrawals are bad options and Israel does not trust any Palestinian party to limit its military buildup, what is left? A need for a third party, suggested retired Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom of the Institute for National Security Studies.

An international force`s success would largely depend on its mandate, composition and the rival parties` readiness to keep their agreements.

Consider the mandate. One of Israel`s criticisms of UNIFIL is that it does not prevent the arms smuggling from Syria. UNIFIL commanders maintain their mandate does not extend north of the Litani River. EU BAM`s commander, Lt. Gen. Pietro Pistolese, complained at a recent conference organized by the Hebrew University and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies that the agreements on Palestinians` movement and access were done 'in haste' and that now it is 'impossible to fulfill all the provisions of the mandate.'

Experience shows that soldiers of some countries are determined to do their jobs but others are lax. Israelis blamed the Indian contingent in UNIFIL for not foiling the kidnapping of three soldiers in 2000. They praise the Spanish troops there now.

Col. Willem van Dullemen, Chief of Military Operations at the United Nations` headquarters in New York, noted there are no European peacekeeping forces in Africa. He would have liked to have them there because of their superior command, control, intelligence and logistic capabilities but the political echelons in those countries do not want to contribute troops to those missions.

The developing countries are more flexible but even they have 'restrictions and limitations,' he said.

That points to the biggest hitch in hopes to send international troops to Gaza.

Hamas, which controls the strip, warned that any foreign forces entering it would be dealt with 'as occupation forces regardless of their nationality.'

After all, if it wants to continue smuggling arms into Gaza, why agree to an international force poking around for smugglers` tunnels?

'Think of it this way,' suggested a Palestinian official who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'If you have international forces ... who see Hamas is on their terrorist list ... what are they going to go there and do? For them, every person who is a member of Hamas is a terrorist. So how are they going to install law and order? What law? What order?'

'I do not see circumstances where NATO allies would want to fight their way into Gaza,' said John Colston, NATO`s assistant secretary-general for defense policy and planning.

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