International force would be wrong move

May 19, 2002|By Nitsan Alon and Natan Sachs

WASHINGTON - The international community can play a significant role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but a proposal for an international force to assume security responsibilities on the ground is badly flawed.

Instead of contributing to security, such a mission could inadvertently provide cover for the continuation of terrorist attacks.

The key factor for any force whose mission would be to bring calm and security to the Israeli-occupied territories is a wide base of quality intelligence and a deep understanding of the complex theater of operations.

Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation is the best means of addressing such a challenge. It worked before.

Following the terrorist attacks in February and March 1996, in which 67 Israelis were killed in 10 days, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel, alongside an international coalition that included Egypt, Jordan and the United States, confronted the Islamic terrorist organizations and brought about a relative calm that lasted more than two years. The ability of the Palestinian security forces to do the same today still exists, despite the recent Israeli military operation in the West Bank.

But a central component of the success in fighting terrorism in 1997 and 1998 was the perception among the Palestinian leadership and society that suicide bombings in Israel were harmful to Palestinian political interests.

Today, there is widespread Palestinian public support for suicide bombings - well above 80 percent, according to recent polls. To change this attitude, there must be a fundamental change in Palestinian perceptions about what can and cannot be achieved through violence. There also must exist a political environment in which Palestinian attitudes could change.

The Palestinians view the possibility of internationalizing the conflict as a significant political achievement that would be an outgrowth of the current wave of violence. Indeed, the Palestinians have an interest in promoting such a mission.

But there is a significant qualitative difference between accepting an international force on one hand and making a commitment to fight terrorism alongside that force (with all the requisite political costs) on the other. Were such a commitment made by a Palestinian leader in the current environment, it could be construed to be a betrayal of the Palestinian struggle and a threat to Palestinian national unity.

Assuming such a strategic Palestinian decision is made, what would be the point of an international force? The underlying need for an external force to assume responsibility would have been removed. Although an international force could assist in providing some sense of security for the Palestinian people, it would by no means reinforce the PA's commitment to fight terror.

In the absence of a strategic Palestinian decision to stop terrorism, an international force would face hostile armed groups fundamentally opposed to any political arrangement. These may include not only the Islamic opposition to the PA, but also the Fatah and its subsidiaries - the backbone of the PA.

The force would then face the option of doing nothing - thereby becoming as irrelevant as the U.N. force in southern Lebanon - UNIFIL - or taking swift action and itself becoming a prime target, most likely sustaining heavy casualties.

The crux of the problem, however, is operational.

While an international force likely would prevent Israel from carrying out any major counterterrorism operations, small, low-signature terrorist cells intermingled with the general Palestinian population could easily continue to operate. Notwithstanding its intentions, an international force would, in effect, provide cover for terrorism instead of preventing it.

Security is primarily dependent on a strategic Palestinian decision to act decisively against terrorism. Should the Palestinian leadership be truly committed to ending violence, an international force would be largely superfluous. In the absence of such a decision, an international force would actually have a detrimental effect on security, hindering Israeli counterterrorism efforts but not preventing terrorism itself.

Col. Nitsan Alon of the Israel Defense Forces and Natan Sachs are a visiting military fellow and research assistant, respectively, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.

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