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Sinai Peacekeepers Are the Quiet Success of Camp David Accords

19 September 2007

Multinational Force and Observers offers lessons for future efforts

Washington -- The light blue helmets of United Nations peacekeepers may be known the world over, but under the dark orange berets of the Multinational Force and Observers serve soldiers from 11 nations whose quarter century of quiet success in keeping the peace along the Egyptian-Israeli border holds many lessons for future international peacekeeping missions.

As Egypt and Israel prepared to sign the March 26, 1979, Camp David Accords, they agreed that international peacekeepers would be essential for the Sinai Peninsula, site of five wars between the two nations since 1948.  They also knew that the Soviet Union and some Arab states would oppose the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force, jeopardizing the treaty before it could be concluded.

The Multinational Force and Observers’ (MFO’s) story began that day with two identical letters from President Jimmy Carter to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, underlining Washington’s commitment to helping the two nations continue to work for peace after they signed the U.S.-brokered agreement.  It included a pledge to help them form an alternative Sinai peacekeeping force if needed.

In May 1981, after nearly two years of debate, the United Nations announced that it would not provide peacekeepers for the Sinai. Egypt and Israel began negotiations and, with active U.S. support, established the MFO in 1982 as an independent international peacekeeping organization.

Headquartered in Rome, the MFO operates liaison offices in Cairo, Egypt, and Tel Aviv, Israel, and a network of 35 watchtowers, checkpoints and observation posts along a narrow strip running the length of the eastern Sinai. In total, some 1,700 international troops and a 15-member corps of U.S. civilian observers verify compliance by Egypt and Israel with security provisions outlined in the Camp David Accords.

“I think that the fundamental reason for success is that the two parties want it to succeed,” Arthur Hughes, a former State Department official who served as MFO’s director general from 1998 to 2004, told USINFO.

Hughes, now affiliated with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said that in the 25 years since MFO’s inception, the border has remained secure and no peacekeepers have been lost to hostilities.

MFO’s independence is among its strongest assets, says Hughes. Its demonstrated even-handedness and its long-standing practice of reporting all potential violations to both sides confidentially has allowed its liaisons to build confidence by helping officials resolve misunderstandings and miscommunications before they spiral out of control.

“I think that mandate and that model could be useful in other cases, and one immediately thinks about when there is eventually a treaty between Lebanon and Israel and between Syria and Israel,” Hughes said.

The United States contributes a 425-member infantry battalion to the MFO’s southern sector, as well as 235 support personnel, including doctors and specialists in land mine disposal, who help area residents safeguard their communities by removing explosives from past conflicts.

Two additional battalions from Colombia and Fiji operate in the north, and three ships from the Italian navy patrol the waters of the Sinai, ensuring freedom of navigation in the Strait of Tiran and access to the Gulf of Aqaba.

Australia, Canada, France, Hungary, New Zealand, Norway and Uruguay contribute smaller units to the MFO. These units are responsible for specialized tasks such as training, communications, engineering, air support and transportation.

In 2001, when the Bush administration considered scaling back U.S. involvement in the MFO, Egypt and Israel joined together to urge the White House to reconsider. Since 2002, the MFO’s U.S. contingent has been composed of citizen soldiers from the Army National Guard, military units controlled by governors that can be activated by the federal government for military operations.

“A typical day in the life of a soldier there is manning a remote site [around the clock] and making sure that the treaty of peace is enforced,” said Lieutenant Colonel Lee Schnell, commander of a Texas Army National Guard unit that completed its one-year tour in the Sinai desert with the MFO in January.

For National Guard troopers, Schnell said, the MFO’s dark orange beret symbolizes not only an opportunity to represent the United States’ commitment to Middle East peace, but also new training opportunities to sharpen their skills and make them more effective in their traditional duties, such as helping respond to natural disasters in the United States, supporting domestic law enforcement and homeland security efforts, and participating in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the MFO again demonstrated its effectiveness and flexibility by agreeing to Egyptian and Israeli requests to monitor the deployment of border guards along the Egyptian side of the border to reinforce security in the area and prevent infiltration of militants into Israel.

Although the MFO’s future remains closely tied to the Middle East peace process, Hughes said, the operation is likely to remain relevant for some time to come as an example for future peacekeeping operations in the region.

“In this particular situation, an independent peacekeeping operation is better able to serve the needs than a U.N. peacekeeping operation,” Hughes said. “I think the basic model has a lot of relevance and applicability to future peace operations, certainly with respect to Israel, its neighbors and the Palestinians.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah for meetings with officials from Israel and the Palestinian Authority September 18-20 to continue discussions on advancing the development of a political horizon and the two-state solution.

More information on the MFO is available on its Web site.

A transcript of Secretary Rice’s remarks en route to Jerusalem is available on the State Department Web site, as is a transcript of her remarks with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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