As early as last June on a trip to the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell backed the idea of dispatching independent monitors to the West Bank and Gaza to report on cease-fire violations. Then, in a major address on the Middle East at the University of Louisville on Nov. 19, Powell said the United States was "ready to contribute actively" to an observer force that could eventually monitor and verify a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
Why is the seemingly innocuous matter of international observers at the top of the Palestinian agenda, and anathema to Israel? Outside observers, after all, would logically be in the interest of any party who wants to guarantee that an agreement be kept. Since it is Israel that does not trust the Palestinians to keep the cease-fire, Israel might be expected to be the first to demand international whistle-blowers.
The reason Israel objects also accounts for Arafat's enthusiasm: Experience shows that international observers will protect not the cease-fire, but Arafat's ability to violate it. The long record of international observers in the Arab-Israeli conflict is unblemished by a single example of basic fairness toward Israel, let alone protection from Arab aggression.
The discouraging record begins even before the founding of the state. On April 13, 1948, a convoy of ambulances and armored buses headed for Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Around 650 feet from the British military post that was supposed to secure the route, the convoy came under Arab attack from both sides of the road. "The soldiers [at the post]," David Ben-Gurion wrote in his autobiography, "watched the attack but did nothing." British military cars passed three times during the seven hours that the convoy, (which included Jerusalem's ranking British general) was under attack, but they did not stop to intervene or assist. Seventy-seven Jewish doctors, nurses, academics, and students were massacred that day, after top British officials had "personally guaranteed" that medical and civilian transports would be protected by the British army and police.
In the 18 years between the 1949 Armistice Agreement and the 1967 Six-Day War, there were hundreds, if not thousands of attacks against Israel. Between 1950 and 1956, these attacks came from Egyptian-held Gaza; between 1965 and 1967, Fatah attacked Israel from behind Syrian and Jordanian lines. All this despite United Nations "observers."
Abba Eban summarized Israel's situation in a UN speech. During the 1950s, he said, when UN military observers monitored the armistice lines:
The doctrine of the United Nations came to imply that Arab governments could conduct warfare and maintain belligerency against Israel while Israel could offer no response.
"Arabs could kill Israeli citizens across the border, blockade our port of Eilat, close the Suez Canal to our shipping, send armed groups into our territory for murder and havoc, and decline to carry out stipulated clauses of the armistice agreement in the complete certainty that the Security Council would not adopt even the mildest resolution of criticism ... On the other hand, there was no inhibition of resolutions criticizing Israel for retaliating against the attacks. Thus the doctrine of the United Nations came to imply that Arab governments could conduct warfare and maintain belligerency against Israel while Israel could offer no response."
In more recent times, Israel's experience with UNIFIL (the United Nations force in southern Lebanon) has been similar. UNIFIL forces acted as a sieve—letting through attacks against Israel but subjecting Israel to scrutiny for responding to those attacks. Former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold recalls the standard pattern: "Hezbollah would launch artillery attacks 50 meters away from a UNIFIL outpost, Israel would shoot back, and UNIFIL would protest against the Israeli response."
Even after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, cross-border violations continued, despite UNIFIL's continued presence. In the six months after Israel's withdrawal, Israel filed nearly 500 complaints regarding cross-border violations.
UNIFIL's neutrality and usefulness was most dramatically brought into question by the scandal surrounding the videotape made by UNIFIL soldiers shortly after the Oct. 7, 2000 kidnapping by Hezbollah of three Israeli soldiers. On June 27, 2001, senior Israeli officers reportedly asked UN Mideast Envoy Terje Larsen and UN South Lebanon representative Stephen de Mistora to see a videotape the Israelis knew existed of the cars -- disguised as UN vehicles -- that Hezbollah had used in the kidnapping. The UN officials denied the existence of the tape. But Larsen checked again with UN headquarters in New York City and found the Israelis were right. He later reportedly told Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer that he was "ashamed" at having unwittingly lied to Israel.
Serious allegations swirl around the possible complicity of UNIFIL in the kidnapping.
Even more serious allegations swirl around the possible complicity of UNIFIL in the kidnapping. Israeli officials reportedly insist that "covert contacts were held between Hezbollah and the Indian [UNIFIL contingent] before the abduction." According to this report, "dozens of soldiers ... received hundreds of thousands of dollars for collaborating in the kidnapping." These allegations remain to be proven; Indian soldiers are generally well disciplined. But the charge illustrates the kind of problem that can arise in monitoring arrangements.
According to another report, a former UN official stationed in Lebanon claims the UN destroyed evidence found in the vehicles abandoned by Hezbollah that appeared in the infamous videotape. In this case, UN officials are blamed rather than Indian soldiers. The former UN observer told a Lebanese newspaper that Israel would have "screamed for" this evidence if its existence had been known.
A UN report, released in August, blamed the directors of the Asia and Middle East divisions in the UN peacekeeping department for not informing top UN officials about the existence of the videotape. Still, the UN has repeatedly refused to hand over the original videotape, offering to show Israel only a copy with the faces of Hezbollah personnel obscured.
The idea of international observers as neutral eyes and ears has simply not been borne out in practice. Observers ostensibly have a mandate to be impartial, but they frequently do not forget the interests of the nations they represent. It is no surprise that representatives of the same nations that vote against Israel en masse in international bodies have trouble acting fairly when serving in an observer force.
In addition to whatever biases national representatives bring to the table, Israel also suffers from a structural asymmetry: the lack of plausible deniability. Israel is being attacked not by armies of sovereign nations or even by the Palestinian Authority per se, but by proxies that allow national leaders to deny responsibility. Israel, by contrast, must defend itself with its army and stand behind its actions. Israel will always be a more convenient address for international protest than murky bodies such as Hezbollah or the latest offshoot of Arafat's myriad security forces.
International observers have been more successful once peace or non-belligerence has been established. UN forces monitor both the Egyptian Sinai and the Golan Heights border with Syria. As Foreign Minister Shimon Peres recently observed, "Observers can observe once you have peace. They cannot observe a lack of peace."
The distinction between peace making and peace keeping is a vital one. Egypt has no interest in violating its demilitarization commitments in the Sinai, so Israel does not have a problem with the UN forces there. In the case of Syria, the arrangement "works" despite the lack of a Syrian-Israeli peace because Syria does not want to attack Israel over its own border, preferring instead the deniability of supporting Hezbollah's attacks from Lebanon. Where peace has not "broken out," however, the situation is far different.
In the current violent situation, Israel has no reason to allow the placement of a one-way mirror between it and the Palestinians, with a special glaze that lets through Palestinian attacks, while reflecting back Israeli responses straight into the court of world opinion.
This article was adapted from a paper written at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and originally appeared in in the April 2002 issue of MOMENT..