Israel Report

July 2001         

Why Israel Rejects 'Observers'

By Saul Singer, the editorials editor of, and a columnist for, the Jerusalem Post
July, 03 2001

JERUSALEM -- On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell dropped what to Israeli ears sounded like a bombshell. Standing next to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, Mr. Powell said, "I think as we get into the confidence-building phase there will be a need for monitors and observers to ... make an independent observation of what has happened."

Within hours, Mr. Powell shot down his own trial balloon by ruling out any monitoring mechanism opposed by Israel. And with yesterday's terrorist bombings in the Israeli city of Yehud, the matter of "confidence-building" may already be moot. Still, pressure for an observer force is bound to increase. The international community will wonder why Israel should so adamantly refuse what seems like a sensible measure for its own security -- unless, of course, Israel has something to hide. This, in turn, serves the propaganda purposes of the Palestinian Authority. As Mr. Arafat asked last weekend at a Lisbon meeting of the Socialist International, "Why does the government of Israel reject the dispatching of international observers to consolidate and protect the cease-fire?"

Actually, a cursory glance at history shows that the reason for Israel's objection is the same as for Mr. Arafat's enthusiasm: International observers will not protect the cease-fire, but Mr. Arafat's ability to violate it.

The long record of international observers in the Arab-Israeli conflict is unblemished by a single sustained example, when tested, of basic fairness toward Israel, let alone protection from Arab aggression.

Discouraging Record

The discouraging record begins even before the founding of the state. In his autobiography, David Ben-Gurion recalls when the British, then governing Palestine, took the term "observer" to extremes. On April 13, 1948, a convoy of ambulances and armored buses headed for Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus. Two hundred meters 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]," Ben Gurion reports, "watched the attack but did nothing." British military cars passed three times during the seven hours the convoy was under attack, one including Jerusalem's ranking British general, but did not stop to intervene or assist. Seventy-seven Jewish academics, nurses, 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.

Under the 1949 Armistice Agreement, United Nations Military Observers were deployed along the cease-fire lines with Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. In the 18 years before the Six Day War changed these lines dramatically, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of attacks against Israel -- in the 1950s from Egyptian-held Gaza and in the 1960s by Fatah, from behind Syrian and Jordanian lines. None of these attacks produced a single condemnation by the United Nations, the body that was ostensibly policing the cease-fire lines. The U.N. observers could be relied upon to complain, however, whenever Israel retaliated in response to Arab attacks.

In more recent times, U.N.IFIL, the U.N. observer force deployed in southern Lebanon while Israel fought with Hezbollah there, showed that the powers of observation of such forces had become no less selective. Former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold recalls the standard pattern: "Hezbollah would launch artillery attacks 50 meters away from a U.N.IFIL outpost, Israel would shoot back, and U.N.I.F.IL would protest against the Israeli response."

The picture of international observers as neutral pairs of eyes and ears has not been borne out in practice. Observers ostensibly have a mandate to be impartial, but they do not check the interests of the nations they represent at the door. It should not be a surprise that the same nations that vote against Israel en masse in international bodies have trouble acting fairly when serving in an observer force.

Even the United States has bitter experience with the inability of international observers to stick to their mandate when it conflicts with the policies of the nations that send them. Saddam Hussein was able to whittle away the effectiveness of U.N.SCOM, the U.N. monitoring effort in Iraq, through constant pressure on the relevant capitals to hold him to lower standard. U.N.SCOM's fall was a classic case of how even the most dedicated international observers ultimately reflect the will and biases of the bodies that stand behind them, not some objective standard of fairness, or even the mandate they are sent to uphold.

In addition to whatever biases national representatives bring to the table, Israel also suffers from a structural asymmetry: the lack of plausible deniability. These days, Israel is not being attacked by armies of sovereign nations or even by the Palestinian Authority per se, but by proxies that allow national leaders to shirk 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 Mr. Arafat's myriad security forces.

Purported Counterexamples

In response to this dismal record, a number of purported counterexamples are constantly trotted out: the U.N. Disengagement and Observer Force on the Israeli-Syrian border, the Multinational Force and Observers in the Egyptian Sinai, and Temporary International Presence in Hebron. Yet these examples illustrate a point made recently by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, "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. U.N.DOF "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. Egypt has no interest in violating its demilitarization commitments in the Sinai, so Israel does not have a problem with the MFO there.

The TIPH is the closest thing to an example of a potentially volatile situation that may have been calmed somewhat by an international presence. But the TIPH, it is important to note, does not report to the United Nations but to Israel, the Palestinians, and the governments of its members. It did not stop the Palestinian sniper who murdered 10-month-old Shalhevet Paz in her stroller in March.

In short, Israel's experience with international observer forces ranges from benign to harmful. There is no reason for Israel to risk 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.

-- From The Wall Street Journal Europe

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