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Retired Colonel Dorcha Lee: Is there a role for international peacekeepers in Gaza?

Civilians who have survived the latest round of violence deserve better, writes Lee.

Dorcha Lee Colonel Dorcha Lee (retd) is a former Defence Forces Provost Marshal and Director of Military Police

INTERNATIONAL PEACEKEEPING FORCES could have a role to play in the resolution of the current situation in Gaza. In over 73 years of the Arab-Israeli conflict, UN peacekeepers have frequently helped to sustain ceasefires, facilitated humanitarian operations and gained time for the emergence of political solutions.

As UN forces and military observers played a large role in stabilising the situation on the Golan Heights and in Lebanon, why not also in Gaza? Moreover, the UN Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), with its HQ in Jerusalem, is still in place, and able to deploy the first teams of military observers at short notice. 

After 11 days of attacks, Egypt successfully managed to negotiate a ceasefire. However, ceasefires do not last if measures to sustain them are not put in place. Unmonitored belligerent parties will break ceasefires where it is to their advantage.

When incidents do occur, international military observers can act as impartial witnesses and can also negotiate localised ceasefires, when required. However, maintaining the current ceasefire is essential now, to avoid the heavy casualties that occurred during the 2014 conflict.

The challenges

Comparisons between 2014 and the present situation are relevant. In 2014, the conflict was provoked by the murder of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinians. On this occasion, the spark that lit the fuse was the attempted eviction of 500 Palestinians from Israeli occupied Palestinian lands and the heavy-handed follow-up action against Palestinian protesters.

In 2014, official UN figures show that at least 2,104 Palestinians died. Official Israeli sources reported 67 Israeli soldiers were killed, mainly in the ground assault into Gaza, and five civilians killed by rocket and mortar attacks.

So far, in the present conflict, 243 Palestinians are reported to have been killed in Gaza and 12 Israelis, and others, killed by rocket attacks in Israel. While the Hamas attacks have produced a small number of casualties the psychological impact among the Israeli population has been considerable.

Because of the indiscriminate nature of the rocket attacks, directed at a civilian population, Hamas commanders, however, may be guilty of war crimes. The Israelis can argue that their targets are military, even though far more Palestinian civilians were killed than Israelis.

The relatively low number of Palestinian casualties, compared to 2014, may be attributed to more accurate targeting by the Israeli Air Force and artillery batteries, to Israeli warning messages being passed to Gazan authorities and also to Hamas moving the local population back from the immediate locations of the mobile rocket launch sites. Over 75,000 people have been internally displaced.

In the case of Gaza, military observers alone would not be enough. A peacekeeping force will be necessary to address the security concerns of both Israel and Hamas and international civilian police required to handle civil issues. 

There may also be a political agenda at play. Israel wants peace and probably feels it will negotiate easier with the Palestinian Authority if Hamas is removed from the equation.  At one stage in the past, the emergence of Hamas served Israeli purposes by dividing the Palestinians. Hamas’s presence and actions greatly undermined Palestinian unity for a long period. During this period, in the eighties, Israel took advantage of Palestinian disunity to extend its settlements. 

Hamas’s objective was, and is, to end the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. This ending of the Israeli blockade will help Hamas to maintain its influence in future peace talks. The civilian population in Gaza suffered terribly due to the blockade, which, in any case, failed to stop Hamas regaining its military capabilities.

Hamas arsenal should be decommissioned and Israeli blockade lifted     

An international peacekeeping force could assist in restoring security in Gaza. It could supervise the decommissioning of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and the closing up of the tunnel complex through which the enclave was kept supplied.

In return, Israel should lift its blockade, but internationally manned checkpoints and patrols should be used to prevent the movement of arms and ammunition into Gaza.

A buffer, or disengagement, zone needs to be created and monitored. Consideration could be given to deploying a combination of an EU peacekeeping force, with UN military observers and UN Civilian Police.

Once a permanent ceasefire is in place, efforts should be intensified to seek a political solution. Peacekeeping itself will not solve the problem, but it can gain time. 

The current situation in Gaza will bring back memories of better times to many Irish UN personnel, and their families, who were stationed with the UN in the Middle East. The, long destroyed, ramshackle UN Gaza “Beach Club” and its tiny slice of a beach, was once a welcome oasis from the conflicts in the surrounding countries. 

The ever-friendly Gazans who welcomed us to their overcrowded Strip, deserve a better future.

A lasting peace can be found in Gaza if there is the political will to do so.

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Colonel Dorcha Lee (Retd) is a defence analyst and a former Deputy Chief Operations Officer of the UN Truce Supervision Organisation in Jerusalem.

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About the author:

Dorcha Lee  / Colonel Dorcha Lee (retd) is a former Defence Forces Provost Marshal and Director of Military Police

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