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 370 (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
The Golan Heights 370
(photo credit: 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 notice it.
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 future nightmares.
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 from Lebanon.
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 children.
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 strength.
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 intervene.
The letter was stored in the safe for classified documents.
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 letter.
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 IDF soldiers.
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 homes.
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 personal.
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.
Most Israelis 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 us.
But if we let the fears paralyze us, we would still be in refugee camps and not enjoying life in a modern, technologically advanced country.
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 our minds.
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.
Other 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 and Turkey.
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 sitting duck.The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.