The going gets tough in the Golan Heights

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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The blue helmets of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) became part of the Golan Heights’ landscape for nearly four decades. It is seen as a symbol of the durability of the ceasefire, which was brokered between Israel and Syria following 1973 war. Since the force was established by U.N. Resolution 350, it was very rarely challenged in its mission of protecting the truce along the borders between the two countries.

Israel has always had prickly relations with the United Nations as a whole; even the first Israeli prime minister was dismissive of the organisation

Yossi Mekelberg

The mandate of this U.N. peacekeeping operation was routinely renewed every six months in the Security Council without much opposition. Unlike its counterpart UNIFIL along the Israeli-Lebanese border, which endured many military challenges and threats, the peacekeepers in the Golan Heights faced hardly any adversity. This started to change as the civil war approached the ceasefire border.

To avoid becoming embroiled in the Syrian civil war, which might also result in the loss of lives for the Austrian peacekeepers, the Austrian government decided to withdraw its 377 peacekeepers, more than a third of the overall UNDOP force, as a precautionary measure. Both the U.N. leadership and the Israeli government, in a rare consensus, view Austria’s decision as extremely inopportune, due to the genuine threat of the Syrian civil war spilling over into Israel. Subsequently the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon warned that the U.N. urgently needs more troops and requested the Austrians to delay their withdrawal until the end of July.

Storm in a teacup

The Austrian’s decision might look like a storm in a teacup that will end with a replacement peacekeeping force from another country, and may even highlight the need for additional troops as a result of the volatility of the current situation. However, it has far reaching implications regarding the way Israel views the role of the U.N. peacekeeping mission on its borders and their role in future peace agreements with her neighbours. More generally, it also casts doubt on the function of peace keeping missions globally. A quick glance at the history of the U.N. involvement in peace keeping operations makes, at times, for a gloomy read. Aside from sporadic successes, there have been some colossal failures such as the case with Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. Not only were U.N. troops unable to prevent major atrocities, including genocide, but some even committed murder, extortion, and sexual exploitation. Katryn Bolkovac’s must-read book The Whistleblower, later made into a Hollywood blockbuster, is an account of the of U.N. peacekeepers officials’ unspeakable involvement in human trafficking and forced prostitution in Bosnia. In many cases the failure of such missions derives from poor training and equipment, lack of a clear mandate from the international community, and low motivation and morale of the peacekeepers themselves.

A positive record

Yet, surprisingly the U.N. record for peacekeeping along the Israeli borders is more encouraging, mainly because the countries involved had an interest in keeping quiet borders. However, the real test of these missions is the dissension of a country into a state of chaos, which places the peacekeepers themselves at risk. While taking part in peacekeeping carries with it international prestige and monetary reward, especially for the poorer countries, sustaining casualties may draw unwelcome domestic criticism of politicians for sending “our boys and girls” to die on foreign soil. In the last few months it is evermore apparent that the civil war in Syria might impact the truce along the shared Golan Height’s border. This obviously made UNDOF more necessary than ever, but also heightened the risk to its members. In May four peacekeepers from the Philippines were captured by the rebels from the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade, just to be freed shortly thereafter, as was the case with a peacekeeper from New Zealand. The crossfire along the border put these soldiers under considerable threat. Even if one can sympathise with the Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann’s argument that as a neutral country they would not like to be involved in a civil war, it still makes a mockery of the idea of his country’s participation in peacekeeping. Furthermore, his argument seems invalid considering Austria’s participation in peacekeeping missions in other troublesome spots such as Kosovo, Bosnia, and Lebanon.

Israel’s reaction

No one was surprised to see Israel reacting angrily to this decision. Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s Minister for International Relations, told journalists in response to the Austrian decision, that this was “another testimony, another proof of why we cannot rest our national security on the presence of international forces.” Mr. Steinitz is a close ally of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and his remarks usually reflect those of the prime minister. Israel is particularly sensitive to this decision, considering the role of Austria in the Second World War. More importantly, the decision enhances Israel’s perception of necessary self-reliance for security, and her troublesome relations with the United Nations. The Jewish state, despite massive support from the international community, especially the United States, perceives its security doctrine must be based on the idea of it being a “stand alone” state that must rely on her own military capability and preparedness to ensure its survival.

The expulsion, for instance, of the U.N. observers, by the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, still lives in the collective memory of Israelis, as a major contributing factor for the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967. Moreover, Israel has always had prickly relations with the United Nations as a whole; even the first Israeli prime minister was dismissive of the organisation, calling it scornfully, “UM [U.N.] Shmum” to signify how insignificant he regarded the organisation and its decisions. Relations between Israel and the U.N. reached their lowest point in 1975 when the General Assembly agreed upon an ill fated resolution which equated Zionism with racism. There shared feeling in Israel that it is treated unfairly and even at times with hostility by the United Nations, a feeling that runs deep both in government and among the public, sometimes with more justification than at others. Nevertheless, one should not forget that when convenient, especially in Lebanon, Israel showed complete disregard for UNIFIL in its military excursions into its neighbour to the north, not to mention ignoring many U.N. resolutions.

Regrettably the Austrian decision has a potential impact on the long term Israeli readiness to make territorial concessions and replace her own military presence with that of international forces. Despite positive experience with such forces in the Sinai Peninsula, Hebron, and even the Golan Heights, this decision triggered an adverse reaction. There are genuine concerns among those who would like to see peace reached through a withdrawal from occupied territories, and on the other hand there is the opportunistic criticism by those who would use this as a pretext to oppose such a move, either for ideological or security reasons. A swift replacement of the gap created by the withdrawal of the Austrian peacekeepers might help to limit the long term damage.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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