My Word: Soldiers versus peacekeepers
Most Israelis have come to think of the Golan as a version of Tuscany, a place to relax, sip wines, and enjoy nature.
The Golan Heights Photo: Seth J. Frantzman
It might be tatty and faded, but I keep a souvenir of my military service tacked
to my office wall. Most of the time, I’m so used to it being there that I barely
This week, however, it jumped out at me. For me, memories are
made of this – a piece of paper printed with the words: “This is to certify that
Liat Collins has been fired at by the Syrians whilst on duty and is hereby
admitted as a member of ‘The Order of the Sitting Duck.’” Distant memories, and
The document was printed by (and for) United Nations
peacekeepers and I acquired a copy when I served in the IDF Liaison to the UN
Forces in the North. I earned it even though I wasn’t a member of their ranks.
Like many Israelis living or serving on the border in the period leading up to
the First Lebanon War in 1982, I occasionally had to dodge missiles launched
Kiryat Shmona was the Sderot of its time. There was a
reason the campaign was originally called Operation Peace for Galilee. And the
missiles, primitive by today’s standards, weren’t the only danger. Terrorist
infiltrations were also common. Nobody wants to be put on the map with the word
“massacre” next to their location: The Avivim School Bus Massacre, the Ma’alot
Massacre, the Kiryat Shmona Massacre, the Coastal Road Massacre... a brutal,
partial list of attacks in the 1970s in which many of the victims were
While I have questioned the way the war was conducted, unlike
friends who lived in Tel Aviv and the center of the country at the time, I
understood why Lebanon I took place.
My certificate merits a mention in
the context of the increasing tension on the northern border. Last week’s
kidnapping of 21 UNDOF soldiers serving in Syria brought it to mind. The UN
soldiers – there to monitor the 1974, post-Yom Kippur War, Disengagement Line –
might be armed with a self deprecating sense of humor, but that is not enough to
ensure their safety, or ours.
Then, as now, they felt like they were
sitting ducks, easy targets for Syria and its proxies.
Today, they are
lame ducks when facing both Assad’s regime and the rebel forces. This does not
bode well for the world in which global jihad is gaining
Another memory was triggered by the incident. One of the last
jobs I had before I was demobbed was to type a letter telling UNIFIL soldiers
that the IDF would be passing through their zone and asking them not to
The letter was stored in the safe for classified
The war didn’t break out on my watch. It commenced two months
after I’d finished my service. The signs of coming conflict were evident,
however, by the spring of ’82.
Some IDF soldiers – and UN peacekeepers –
placed informal bets on when it would start.
A not-so-humble corporal, I
pointed out to much higher ranks that if we were politely asking the UN to
refrain from action as we passed through, it was obvious that the terrorists
would be able to cross the UN-held areas without hindrance, without even giving
the UNIFIL soldiers the courtesy of a nicely phrased, neatly typed
The message, and meaning, of both that warning and the
sitting-duck certificate have played on my mind occasionally during the
intervening years – usually when someone suggests that Israel hands the Golan
Heights to Syria and places an international peacekeeping force there instead of
With all due respect, we saw once more this month that
unarmed peacekeeping troops are particularly vulnerable.
When push comes
to shove and then spills into armed conflict, foreign soldiers are not going to
risk their lives to protect Israeli citizens – on any border – in the same way
that IDF soldiers will be prepared to protect their families and
Israel is a very small country.
It seems to be getting
smaller all the time. The threats are very real – and for Israeli soldiers, very
THE 21 UN peacekeepers captured a week ago were apparently held
by a rebel group calling itself The Martyrs of Yarmouk, possibly a reference to
the victims of Syrian regime air strikes on the mainly Palestinian Yarmouk
refugee camp near Damascus.
A massacre of Palestinians by Syrians barely
penetrates Western consciousness.
Even before the abduction of the UNDOF
peacekeepers, Israel was quietly working on contingency plans in the event of a
UN withdrawal from the Syrian front. During the two years of the civil war, the
struggle has grown closer and closer to the Golan and the border with Israel – a
border that has been peaceful in the past partly because Syria used Lebanon as
its launching ground. As much as Damascus considers the Golan occupied by
Israel, it feels that Lebanon, too, is Syrian territory.
have come to think of the Golan as a local version of Tuscany – a place to
relax, sip excellent wines, enjoy nature and perhaps take the opportunity to
visit ancient Jewish sites, such as Gamla, “The Masada of the North”; the
defense establishment, meanwhile, is well aware of the dangers lurking just over
the newly erected fence. Probably the average citizen, too, realizes that the
rebel forces – including many Islamist splinter factions – are waiting only for
the final collapse of Assad’s regime before turning their attention on
But if we let the fears paralyze us, we would still be in refugee
camps and not enjoying life in a modern, technologically advanced
We don’t entirely forget – that certificate is still on my wall,
after all – but we are able most of the time to push the threats to the back of
It is, however, a sad irony that the Palestinians in Syria, in
Egypt, Gaza and Lebanon, pass on their refugee status and poverty from
generation to generation – pawns in a power play within the Arab world – with
the generous financial help of the UN.
In the short term, the situation
does not look good. Having radical Islamists literally on the border does not
evoke a sense of peace and security.
Nonetheless, there are those who
manage to see some light when taking a long-term strategic view. Former Military
Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, director of the Institute for National Security
Studies, told Channel 2’s Meet the Press program on March 9 that he believes the
axis of terror between Tehran, Damascus and Beirut will significantly weaken if
Syria no longer serves as a bridge between Iran and Hezbollah.
analysts are more concerned that the huge flow of refugees from Syria to
neighboring countries – some seven million – will destabilize Jordan and Lebanon
and have widespread ramifications regarding, for example, Kurdish rebels in Iraq
Given this very real refugee problem – a humanitarian crisis
as well as a future strategic time bomb – there is something incongruous about
the visit by US President Barack Obama next week and the world obsession with
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as serious as it might be. It should be
evident by now that it is not Israel that is turning the moderate world into a
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem