UN Forces on Israel’s Borders Confront Uncertain Future

Article Summary
Geoffrey Aronson writes from Cairo that while Egypt and Israel appear to be weathering the storm, for now, not so for Israel and Syria, with implications for UN forces tasked with keeping the peace.

CAIRO — As the foundations of Israel's relations with post-Mubarak Egypt and Assad's Syria continue to be shaken, the contrasting fortunes of the US-led Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Sinai and the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan offer a revealing window into an uncertain future.

The MFO is proving that it can adapt and remain relevant in this new, more violent and insecure environment and in the process reaffirm Egypt, Israel and the United States' continuing interest in maintaining the strategic relationship forged by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, US President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin more than three decades ago. After a series of cross-border attacks against Israel last September, Israel and Egypt quickly agreed to enable Cairo to fly regular reconnaissance missions over Sinai. For the first time since 1973, the Egyptian air force now patrols the skies over Sinai. Its planes fly out of al-Arish, from where the MFO has been tasked with certifying whether Egypt complies with the terms of the new agreement, which excludes Egyptian intelligence gathering “over the horizon,” into Israel.

The contrast with UNDOF could not be greater. Israel and Syria have never directly engaged with each other to maintain the integrity of the organization, which, as a creature of the United Nations, lacks the leadership and imprimatur provided by a committed strategic backer like the United States. Syria's ability to ensure an environment in which UNDOF can operate is eroding, resulting in an environment characterized by metastasizing local and jihadi militias arrayed against Damascus forces. Israel considers the region east of the border to be ungovernable and is preparing, without reference to Damascus, to protect its forces and settlements west of the disengagement line.

Both organizations were at the heart of a structure of relations that grew out of the results of the October 1973 (Yom Kippur) war and produced a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and a decades-long cease-fire between Syria and Israel. Both were expressions of international support for this postwar state of affairs in an era marked by military regimes in Damascus and Cairo fully in control of their respective territories, committed to and capable of assuring that international monitors had little to do other than certify the parties' continuing adherence to agreed-upon rules of the game. 

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That world is gone forever, in Egypt and in Syria. As David Satterfield, director-general of the MFO, wrote recently, “The security situation in the Sinai brings the parties and the MFO together to face conditions beyond the contemplation of the drafters of the Treaty of Peace and the 1981 Protocol establishing the MFO. The security circumstances in the Sinai today were unimaginable when the treaty and its protocol were drafted.”

As a consequence, the purpose of both organizations — and, in the case of UNDOF, its viability — are now in question. The MFO and UNDOF must struggle to remain relevant and effective. The MFO, and more broadly the peace treaty between Mohammed Morsi's Egypt and Israel, is proving able to meet the test. UNDOF, and the Israeli-Syrian agreement that enabled its creation, increasingly is not.

The origins of the MFO lie in Annex I to the 1979 Treaty of Peace between Egypt and Israel. In 1981, the treaty parties negotiated a protocol that established the MFO and defined its mission. Nothing much changed until Hamas' growing power in Gaza forced Egypt, then still under Hosni Mubarak's faltering leadership, and Israel to consider enabling Egypt to deploy military forces in Sinai in excess of the limits established by the treaty.

When Israel dismantled its settlements and withdrew its troops from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, it negotiated a new security arrangement with Egypt to bolster efforts to secure the Egyptian side of Rafah and interrupt the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Egypt deployed 750 “border guards” to secure the 14 km Philadelphi border region dividing Gaza from Egypt. A memorandum of understanding between Israel and Egypt specified the type of equipment — small arms, jeeps, no heavy armor — permitted for use by Egypt's newly deployed forces. The MOU was technically a violation of the treaty, an albeit an agreed-upon one. Neither party was interested in reopening the larger question of the terms of the peace agreement itself.

As the central authority of Mubarak's regime crumbled in early 2011, Cairo's ability to enforce basic law and order throughout Sinai disappeared. Israel and Egypt, under the pressure of events, agreed on an ad hoc basis to permit for the first time the introduction of heavily armed military forces east of the Suez Canal to restore order and the lapsed authority of the central government.

These developments transformed the situation of the MFO. The appearance of armed, informal forces, at times arrayed against the MFO and its facilities in Sinai, impaired and at times threatened the ability of the MFO to conduct basic monitoring and security and resupply efforts, not to mention performing its general mission. On Sept. 14, 2012, the perimeter defenses at the MFO headquarters were breached by a local force. Armed elements fired on and ultimately destroyed a guard tower and hurled an explosive device. The MFO forces decided not to fire on the attackers, a difficult decision that proved to be operationally as well as politically correct.

The organization was not constructed to operate in an environment where its basic needs (water, perimeter security and travel) are contested, and monitoring the treaty provisions remains difficult on two fronts. First, the MFO's ability to simply maintain itself now requires armed transport over Sinai's unsafe roads and, increasingly, air travel. Both are expensive and require changes in doctrine, training and capabilities. Second, what exactly is the MFO meant to observe in an environment now defined by extra-treaty modifications agreed upon by Israel and Egypt? The MFO was built to oversee another, more pacific era. Like UNDOF in the Golan, it was not deployed to oversee developments in a war zone.

In such an environment, the 1,000 members of UNDOF are forced to devote the bulk of their resources to force protection rather than to its stated mission of maintaining the cease-fire between Israeli and Syrian forces and supervising the implementation of the disengagement agreement, a mission that appears increasingly irrelevant.

Last year, UNDOF forces were fired upon, with two Austrians sustained serious injuries. More recently, a contingent of 21 observers from the Philippines was kidnapped and released. Canada, Japan and Croatia have withdrawn their contingents or will do so soon. European support for arming Syrian rebels will transform the status of the remaining unarmed European observers from Austria, whose departure has been mooted. So, too, for the Philippine contingent.

The contrasting fortunes of the MFO and UNDOF reflect the larger strategic relationships between Israel and its two largest and most powerful Arab neighbors. Egypt and Israel appear to be weathering the storms churned up by the Arab Spring, but not so for relations between Israel and Syria.

Geoffrey Aronson has long been active in Track II diplomatic efforts on various Middle East issues. He writes widely on regional affairs.

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Geoffrey Aronson has long been active in Track II diplomatic efforts on various Middle East issues. He writes widely on regional affairs and is the author of From Sideshow to Center Stage: US Policy Towards Egypt, 1945–1955.

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