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Could an international force really protect the Palestinians?

May 28, 2021 at 10:12 am

UN HQ Jerusalem – United Nations Truce Supervision Organization [Giles Clarke/Getty images]

The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas has – despite Israeli forces sabotaging the peace with a raid on Al-Aqsa Mosque compound – held so far, officially at least. In Israeli-occupied Palestine, though, ceasefires come and go, and are usually broken by an Israeli action of some sort. The latest will eventually go the same way, with yet another Israeli military offensive in weeks, months or perhaps a year.

Given this abysmal record, therefore, it is worth asking what the point of a ceasefire is if there is no physical presence and assurance that it will be kept in place. Israel is not known for its peacekeeping skills, and its security forces are incredibly inept — or maybe unwilling — to stop illegal settler attacks on Palestinians and their land, so it is reasonable to suggest that something else is needed to protect the people of Palestine. Under international law — which means nothing to Israel and its allies — they are already supposed to be protected because they are under occupation.

That “something else” is what Turkey has suggested over the past few weeks. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed the creation of an international force to protect Palestinians when speaking to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. His call was echoed by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in an apparently ineffective emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The proposal joins a list of others put forward by Turkey, such as a commission of Muslim, Jews and Christians to govern Jerusalem as part of a “separate arrangement” distinct from the Israeli occupation authorities. In fact, under the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine, from which Israel claims its legitimacy, Jerusalem was supposed to be governed by an “international regime under UN control”. Israel ignored that part of the plan and went ahead and occupied, then annexed, Jerusalem in any case. Erdogan has also long-held the political belief that “the world is bigger than five” and has joined the calls for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to be rotated with other nations in order to have a fairer and more effective international body.

According to Cavusoglu, an “international protection mechanism” for the Palestinians should not only consist of diplomatic pressure but “also include physical protection through forming an international protection force with military and financial contributions of willing countries.” That is a vague description, prompting questions about the strategy, policies and processes of such a force, and the extent of its military mandate. We can, however, predict what it could look like based on previous international endeavours.

READ: Will Erdogan’s ‘the world is greater than 5’ help establish a new world order including Africa?

The most obvious option would be a UN peacekeeping force deployed across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and at crossings into the Gaza Strip. The existing UN peacekeeping mission in Palestine — the UN Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) — was established in 1948 and is based in Jerusalem, but it is not an armed force and serves more as a base for other operations in the region.

An armed peacekeeping force would need the consent of all parties involved and would not be able to use its arms except in self-defence. It is most unlikely that Israel would agree to such a force being deployed on what it believes, wrongly, to be its own sovereign territory; it has no incentive to do so, in any case, as the presence of foreign troops would only complicate matters for its own security forces. The Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the other factions, and the Jordanian government — which has custodianship over the holy places in Jerusalem and the West Bank — would probably agree to such a deployment. Malaysia has already stated its willingness to contribute troops to any such UN force.

A huge demonstration of tens of thousands of people marches from the Embankment to Hyde park in solidarity with the Palestinian people on May 22, 2021 in London, England. [Guy Smallman/Getty Images]

A huge demonstration of tens of thousands of people marches from the Embankment to Hyde park in solidarity with the Palestinian people on May 22, 2021 in London, England. [Guy Smallman/Getty Images]

A peacekeeping force would also need the full, unconditional backing of the permanent members of the Security Council. With each one wielding a veto, the US included, the chances of this happening are remote, especially if the council’s support for action against Israeli forces is required.

Existing and previous UN peacekeeping operations have done little to prevent breaches of international law and Israeli aggression. The UN force in South Lebanon, for example, and those in Rwanda and Bosnia, are more often lame duck bystanders and thus pitifully ineffective.

Turkey is thus likely to find the proposition blocked by a US veto, especially if Turkish troops are to be among the UN peacekeepers. It is neither a permanent member of the Security Council, nor able to counter a veto used by the US, Russia, China, France or Britain. The UN path has been tried, tested and failed. It is unlikely to be viable in the context of the Palestinians.

READ: The ‘strategic importance’ of the Abraham Accords is to protect Israeli colonialism

Another possibility is a coalition force put together by Muslim countries. Such a show of unity would be popular around the Muslim world. Politically, though, this idea is already dead in the water thanks to the normalisation deals signed with Israel by the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan last year. They joined the few Arab and Muslim-majority nations who already had relations with the occupation state. This political disunity showed itself in the varied responses by those countries to the recent Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip: some condemned it; some made weak calls for peace; and some like Morocco gave full support to Israel.

With disunity in the Arab world, it has been predicted that Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and Malaysia would be the only states that would consider joining a military alliance to protect the Palestinians. Islamabad and Kuala Lumpur expressed support for Ankara’s proposal at the OIC, and Tehran has long been open to such an idea.

However, this takes us into the realms of fantasy, because if those four nations joined forces to curb Israel’s worst excesses then the only viable options would be a direct offensive or some sort of international agreement for the protection of the Islamic sites in Jerusalem.

In the case of a military confrontation with Israel, such an alliance could have some leverage if it was not for the Western support given unconditionally to the Israelis. A direct military offensive, or even the presence of coalition forces in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, would risk attracting a military response from the West. At the very least, Israel’s allies would inflict sanctions upon coalition members that most could not afford to happen.

None of those four Muslim governments want to upset Washington, particularly Turkey and Pakistan, which in 2018 felt the weight of US displeasure in the form of an economic punishment for Ankara and the cutting of millions in aid for Islamabad. It is in the interest of both nations and their stability not to risk America’s wrath. This is especially sensitive in Turkey’s case, as any dramatic change to its current reconciliatory foreign policy would have the potential to derail the government’s Vision 2023.

READ: Do the Palestinians not have the right to defend themselves?

A model that could be used is the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), an alliance of over 40 Muslim-majority countries against terrorism in the region. Headquartered in Riyadh and commanded by Pakistan’s former army Chief of Staff Raheel Sharif, its formation in 2015 was hailed as a potential “Muslim NATO”.

After years of focusing its effort mainly and unsuccessfully tackling the Houthis in Yemen and building diplomatic relations with other armed forces, however, its critics accuse it of only being an anti-Iran coalition. The state terrorism of Israel is neither deterred nor prevented by the “counter-terrorism” coalition.

The reality is that Erdogan’s suggestion for an international peacekeeping force to protect the Palestinians sounds like a great idea, but it will require a major shift in global politics to come to fruition in any effective way. And that, as things stand in the international arena, is unlikely to happen.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.