On Hold

International Protection for the Palestinians

by Adam Hanieh | published November 28, 2000

As Florida recounts distracted the international media, Israeli tanks and helicopters continued to bombard towns and villages throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Following the bombing of a settler bus, Israel launched a massive strike on Gaza November 20, in which helicopter gunships, boats and tanks shelled Gaza City, Jabaliya, Beit Lahiya, Deir al-Balah, Khan Younis and Rafah. Over 100 Palestinians were injured as Israeli forces shot an average of one missile per minute into the areas. Meanwhile, an Israeli army sharpshooter told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz November 20 that a sharpshooter "fires for certain to kill," except in rare circumstances, when ordered to fire at stone-throwing Palestinian demonstrators.

As Israel pursues a policy of collective punishment, calls for an international peacekeeping force to protect the Palestinian population are coming from several quarters—the Palestinian Authority (PA), Arab countries, local and international NGOs, Palestinian political parties and, on November 27, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. But over the last week, the content of the demand has shifted: the discussion now focuses on unarmed international observers rather than a full-fledged protection force. The local human rights community now fears that "international protection" for the Palestinians, if implemented, will not forward the goals they had envisioned for such a force: preventing Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians, and facilitating the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Occupied Territories.

Calls for Protection

The first calls for an international force came from left organizations and Palestinian NGOs soon after the start of the al-Aqsa intifada. The PA and the Arab summit held in Cairo on October 22 also raised this demand. On November 17, Nasser al-Kidwa, the Palestinian observer at the UN, asked the Security Council to act on Yasser Arafat's request for a 2,000-strong UN protection force to be sent to the Territories by November 26. Concurrently, the Voice of Palestine -- the official PA radio station -- broadcast the PA's vision that international peacekeepers would "replace the Israeli forces, which should withdraw from our territory to the June 4, 1967 border."

The NGO community in Palestine echoed this demand with a flurry of press releases, and official representations to the UN General Assembly and Robinson, who recently visited the area. In only nine days, over 16,000 Palestinians -- professionals, students and residents of refugee camps -- signed a petition initiated by two local human rights organizations, Badil and Media Alternatives on Palestine, calling for an international protection force "as a first step [toward] the implementation of the Palestinian right to self-determination." The US, France, Britain and UN secretary-general Kofi Annan responded that any proposal for an international force must first win the approval of Israel.

From "Protection" to "Observers"

Soon thereafter, the term "observers" began to replace "protection force" in press accounts of the UN draft proposals. According to the Financial Times, this modification was put forward by France and Britain. At this point, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak himself indicated that Israel was not averse to some kind of international force. The official Palestinian media began to water down its calls for protection. An ambiguous broadcast on November 19 spoke of "2,000 military personnel, who will act as observers in the occupied Palestinian territory to provide protection and security to the Palestinian people and report periodically to the UN secretary-general." CNN reported that Egypt and Jordan were both interpreting the call for international protection as the "presence of 2,000 unarmed observers" and Israeli media said that Russia had offered to send international observers to the region.

On November 24, Amnesty International issued a press release stating support for "the deployment of human rights observers in the Occupied Territories, including areas under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority." The press release makes no mention of protection for the Palestinian people but rather talks of an "independent and impartial mechanism on the ground capable of monitoring respect for human rights by all sides on a long-term basis." Robinson's November 27 statement also limited itself to "international monitors." Palestinian activists and NGOs are deeply concerned about this significant change in the content of the demand for an international protection force.

Toward a Political Solution

Of particular concern is the lack of clearly defined goals for the proposed force. Local activists and most NGOs strongly oppose an unarmed observer force because such an entity would merely separate Israeli troops from Palestinian protesters—halting the uprising while legitimizing the current lines of demarcation between Israeli-controlled areas and encircled Palestinian population centers. Many Palestinians distrust the idea of international peacekeepers. An unarmed force has been in place in Hebron—a West Bank town where 2,000 Israeli soldiers guard a tiny enclave of 400 settlers—since 1997. The Temporary International Presence in Hebron has completely failed to prevent attacks on Palestinians by the Israeli military and settlers before and during the current uprising. A Ramallah TV station recently aired a discussion of the international force, and the majority of callers opposed it as a form of international intervention in the Palestinian struggle for independence.

Many are concerned that, despite the proclamations of leading figures, the PA will make decisions about the shape of the international force without consulting the broader community. The PA has yet to articulate exactly what it means by an "international protection force," but hints at an observer force have worried Palestinian activists. For an international force to be effective, they feel, it must be based on a recognition of Palestinians' political rights. First and foremost, an international force must clearly recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination.

NGOs and activists point to a large body of international law as a mandate for international peacekeepers in the Territories. UN resolutions 181, 194 and 242 call for Israel's withdrawal to the pre-1967 boundaries. The Fourth Geneva Convention requires occupying powers to protect civilians in the occupied area and to respect the territorial status quo -- meaning that Israel would have to dismantle settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. "This is not a request made of the UN, but rather a responsibility it must fulfill," says Khalideh Jarrar, director of the human rights organization Addameer. Activists stress that an international protection force should be of limited duration, and facilitate the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Only an armed international force could carry out such a mandate.

Lessons of East Timor

In the case of East Timor, an armed force was necessary to stop the Indonesian army's terror campaign and that of its proxy militias, to force Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor and to allow the East Timorese their right to self-determination. Western governments had accepted Indonesia's continued illegal occupation of East Timor for almost 25 years. The Australian and US governments refused to back an armed international intervention, even as the liberation movement and its supporters faced daily massacres, because it would not have the blessing of the generals in Jakarta.

But the East Timorese leadership's demand for an armed UN protection force was strongly backed by an international solidarity movement, particularly in Australia and Portugal. Due to that movement and the determined struggle of the East Timorese, Western governments eventually reversed their policy and international intervention paved the way for the Indonesian withdrawal. As illustrated by the East Timor experience, Palestinians will not win a protection force capable of fostering an end to the illegal Israeli occupation if their case is only argued behind closed UN doors.

It remains to be seen whether the Palestinian leadership and other Arab governments will embrace and defend the grassroots call for a peacekeeping force that can safeguard Palestinian self-determination. The longer the implementation of an international force remains on hold, the more Palestinians are concerned that, instead of basing their demands on the real needs of the Palestinian national movement, the PA will modify its expectations downward in the name of pragmatism.

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