On the morning of March 14, 2006, an agreement hatched by the United States and a number of European countries and which sprang from Israeli jails the killers of former minister Rehavam Ze’evi and allowed them to be incarcerated under the eye of the Palestinian Authority, evaporated like morning dew.
The Palestinians announced that Ahmed Saadat, the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Ze’evi’s killers would be released. The American and British security guards stationed in the prison and who were charged with preventing such a scenario from coming to pass made a quick getaway out of fear for their lives. Only a lightning-quick operation by the IDF led to Saadat’s reincarceration in Israel.
That same year, Israel suffered another setback, this time on the Gaza front. In the wake of the Hamas victory in the elections, dozens of European Union security personnel whose job was to monitor the organization and flow of weapons to and from the Strip fled their posts.
In the north, the IDF is even more well-versed in the mirage that has come to be known around these parts as “foreign peacekeepers.” For years, officers in the IDF Northern Command have looked on with clenched jaws as Hezbollah operatives lobbed rockets at Israel from positions that were dug in near UNIFIL posts on Lebanese soil.
IDF commanders have repeatedly complained that the presence of international forces on the ground tie their hands and limit their ability to respond, thus indirectly aiding the terrorists. This week, Maj. Gen. (res.) Ilan Biran, who commanded a division in the north in the 1980s, recalled how the political echelon denied him permission to go after terrorist cells that used U.N. posts as cover.
Even the abduction of three IDF soldiers on Mount Dov in October 2000 took place right under the nose of UNIFIL.
‘An inef’fective proposal’
The watershed moment that more than any other shaped the way decision-makers in Israel viewed the involvement of “foreign peacekeepers” in conflict (as was illustrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently, when he rejected an American proposal to incorporate NATO as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace) took place on the eve of the Six-Day War.
U Thant, the man who at the time served as secretary-general of the United Nations, hastened to yield to Egyptian demands to remove 4,000 U.N. troops that served as a buffer between the militaries of Egypt and Israel. This got the snowball rolling downhill. The Egyptians would go on to blockade the Straits of Tiran, cutting off access to Israeli shipping, and they mobilized massive ground forces into Sinai. A nerve-wracking “waiting period” ensued before war finally broke out.
At the time, Yaakov Amidror was a conscript in the 202nd Battalion of the Paratroopers that entered the Gaza Strip near Khan Yunis. He remembers a group of Indian troops clad in Sikh turbans — an outfit which was part of the U.N. peacekeeping force that withdrew from their positions on the eve of the war — marching along the rail lines in organized columns of four while the barrels of their guns are pointed downwards.
Today, three months after concluding his stint as head of the National Security Council, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amidror believes that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ proposal to John Kerry that NATO forces be stationed in Judea, Samaria, and the Jordan Valley as part of an agreement with the Palestinians is “bizarre.” Kerry, as has been made public, is not ruling out the idea.
Amidror, the former head of the Military Intelligence research division who also served as military secretary to the defense minister, doesn’t mince words when detailing his serious objections to the plan.
“When you are the one defending yourself, you are also the one who determined what is more important and what is less important for your security,” he said. “Can one seriously expect someone in Brussels to determine what is or isn’t important for our security? Can they really determine if this force will be ready to sacrifice so that Katyusha rockets aren’t fired on Tel Aviv from Ramallah?”
“Let us assume that the lives of 20 soldiers are what is needed in order to prevent rocket fire on Tel Aviv,” Amidror said. “On the other hand, a battalion of troops from Britain or Senegal is only willing to sacrifice two soldiers. After the deaths of two soldiers, they decide that the price is too steep, and it’s too dangerous. Can I then go to them and complain? This is really a terrible proposal, and an ineffective one.”
Three years ago, Amidror penned a paper for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs titled “The Risks of Foreign Peacekeeping Forces in the West Bank.” In an interview with Israel Hayom this week, Amidror stuck to his guns.
“A U.N. force or an international force would be an obstacle that would hinder Israel’s ability to defend itself,” he said. “Whether that force would be deployed under the flag of the U.N. or under NATO, as long as those troops are deployed in a situation of conflict, they will face one fundamental problem that is faced by all peacekeeping forces: the need to maintain good working relations with violent militias and terrorist organizations.”
“Generally, one can conclude that ‘peacekeeping forces’ tend to take a purely neutral position in a dispute between one side which seeks to undermine peace and security, and the other side which they are supposed to protect,” he said. “First and foremost, they will operate out of survivalist considerations.”
‘Bad international experiences’
Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science and the former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, is also adamantly opposed to Abbas’ idea.
“Israel has good reason to reject it,” he said. “A NATO force can, under certain circumstances, prevent an attack by one country on another. But such a force cannot successfully deal with terrorism. The most well-known example that proves this point is Afghanistan.”
“This is an attempt by the Palestinians to bring in NATO so that it could defend them from Israeli pre-emptive operations and retaliatory operations,” he said. “This would give them protection from Israel, but it won’t protect Israel from terrorism. It’s a baseless idea. Our experience with foreign forces is a bad one, and international precedents with peacekeepers have also not been successful.”
“In the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Bosnia, it didn’t prevent a massacre,” Avineri said. “There were horrible things that took place, when U.N. forces just stood aside and watched as the Serbs slaughtered thousands of Muslims in Bosnia. So any agreement needs to be between Israel and the Palestinians. The responsibility must be borne by these two parties. Hiding behind NATO is not the solution.”
As commander of the Gaza division, Maj. Gen. (res.) Gadi Shamni fought Palestinian terrorism in the early 2000s. He then moved on to become the head of the operations division at the General Staff. Shamni knows the terrain well, particularly from his stint as GOC Central Command.
Like Amidror, Shamni also has a perspective that is not of an exclusively military nature. He was former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s military secretary.
Shamni has a positive view of incorporating international elements that can assist the Palestinians in building up their security forces into an efficient outfit, “as was done with General Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator in the Palestinian Authority.” On the other hand, Shamni dismissed out of hand any suggestion that international forces be tasked with security or defense responsibilities.
“This is a recipe that is doomed to failure,” he said. “The worst thing that can be done is to allow the Palestinians to abdicate their responsibilities. This enables terrorism to be waged under the auspices of a foreign power, or near a foreign power. We remember how terrorists fired on us from Lebanon as they were stationed in UNIFIL posts, and how when we responded we hit foreign troops on more than one occasion.”
Beware, observers ahead
Shamni notes that in Gaza, “UNRWA, the U.N.’s refugee aid agency, has for the most part morphed into Hamas, which has taken over many of the agency’s properties: installations, vehicles, symbols, with and without their knowledge, and this has put a great deal of limitations on us.”
“Even something that can seem like a success — like U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which mandates the deployment of an armed force throughout south Lebanon — led to results that were not good,” he said. “We see how these forces aren’t really succeeding in carrying out the duties that they were tasked to do, how Hezbollah has massively re-armed itself and how active it is over there.”
“Picture a scenario where there’s an escalation in south Lebanon,” he said. “Then you will understand the kind of limitations and restrictions that the presence of such a force places on the IDF and its freedom to act.”
Shamni also recalls how “the presence of foreign observers in Hebron only exacerbated the friction between the IDF and the Palestinians.”
“The IDF is very careful in trying to avoid doing harm to observers, and this has greatly limited our ability to act,” he said. “The Palestinians exploited this. They began to get closer to us, they grew bolder, and this necessitated a fiercer response from us. We dealt with events in a less than ideal fashion.”
Perhaps this could change with NATO forces on the ground?
“NATO also doesn’t like to see its troops being killed for someone else. We saw how NATO, even in places where it supposedly had an indefinite commitment, like Afghanistan, removes its soldiers the minute the number of its casualties begins to climb. Try to look at the situation from the Palestinian perspective. Sooner or later, a NATO force would be seen by them as a new occupier. They will say, ‘These are the new crusaders’.”
“If things begin to go wrong — and we have to take into account the possibility that extremist elements like Hamas or jihadist groups will rise — then kidnappings and attacks against the foreign forces will begin,” he said. “This will automatically lead to NATO holing up their forces within their encampments.”
“At the end of the day, the responsibility needs to be on the shoulders of the Palestinians,” he said. “The only question is when. From the moment an agreement is signed, how much time will pass until the full responsibility of running their affairs goes to them? In my opinion, it will be a while regardless of how the agreement is formulated.”
“It won’t be three years, as Abbas is demanding, and it won’t be five years, as the U.S. is suggesting,” Shamni said. “Those numbers are simply detached from reality. Eight years sounds much more realistic to me, and I’m talking about it from a practical standpoint, not a political one.”
‘I trust only myself’
Like Shamni, Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, the former deputy chief of staff who also went on to head the National Security Council, was a GOC Central Command. Two weeks ago, Dayan gave a lecture before senior Military Intelligence officers. He asked them to close their eyes and imagine how the Yom Kippur War would’ve turned out if foreign forces had to defend Israel.
“You can’t expect anything from such a force, except for trouble,” Dayan told Israel Hayom. “On a fundamental level, a country doesn’t send its sons to fight in other places in the name of interests that aren’t theirs. We don’t do this either, not even in places where genocide is taking place.”
Dayan said he has yet to see an example where a foreign force effectively took on terrorism.
“Is the American force stationed in Sinai, which has turned into a terrorist haven, fighting terrorism?” Dayan asked. “Did the U.N. force do anything except for tuck tail and run once the Syrian civil war reached the Golan Heights? On the Lebanese border, I didn’t see foreign troops thwart one attempt to carry out a cross-border attack. The establishment of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron observer force was also a blunder. I was sent to Tunis to meet with Arafat. It was during that meeting that it was decided to found TIPH. It was meant to assuage Arafat after the massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein at the Cave of the Patriarchs. Ultimately, TIPH became a hindrance in fighting terrorism, albeit indirectly. Their presence was totally unnecessary.”
Dayan is especially apprehensive over the possibility that foreign forces will be stationed in the Jordan Valley.
“Can such a force run routine security operations?” he asked. “In order to establish security, you need to know the terrain, the population, the sensitivities, and, most important, you need to want it. Have the American observer forces in Sinai and the U.N. forces on the Golan fired one shot during an operation? Why would they do this in Judea and Samaria? They are supposed to provide deterrence, be the trip wire, thwart attempts at infiltration, do patrols and lookouts, be ready to intervene at a moment’s notice, and use their helicopters if need be. To do all this and more, you need an army with soldiers and an engineering corps and tanks. I put my trust only in myself, in the IDF, and in the state of Israel.”
Despite these sentiments, there are veterans of the defense and security establishments who take a positive view of involving NATO forces in a final-status deal. Brig. Gen. (res.) Dani Arditi, the former head of the national security headquarters and a onetime commander of the military unit that liaised with foreign forces, views NATO as “a trained European army whose job it is to fight when the need arises and which can spare the IDF a number of headaches.”
Arditi is not so quick to second the fundamental assumption that the IDF can do the job better. In his view, the IDF is limited militarily in operating inside any Palestinian entity, while NATO can not only use its military force but also summon its diplomatic leverage through the European Union in order to restore quiet.
“The playing field is not just military in nature, and a solely military force will only put out fires,” he said. “That’s it.”
Nonetheless, he also concedes that if the two sides have no wish to preserve any agreement, “there’s no point in any kind of peacekeeping force.”