Do Palestinians need a UN protection force?
Since October 1, Israeli forces have killed upwards of 50 Palestinians, the vast majority of whom were unarmed protestors. The Israeli state has authorized soldiers to use lethal force against Palestinians who throw stones, erected additional walls in occupied Jerusalem, and arrested dozens of Palestinian children, all while Palestinian civilians and international solidarity activists continue to be harassed and violently attacked by armed Israeli settlers.
The current Israeli assault on Gaza, the West Bank, and occupied Jerusalem isn’t as deadly compared to the brutality unleashed on Gaza in 2009, 2012, and 2014. Yet, the situation is perceived by observers, including international media, to be a state of emergency, both because Israelis too have paid the price of the violence (nine Israelis killed as of October 25th) and because the world is used to seeing the occupation of the West Bank as stable and sustainable.
Some have called for an international force to be deployed in the occupied West Bank to protect Palestinians from Israeli Defense Forces and armed settlers. Thousands of people have signed petitions calling for the United States and the United Nations to support the deployment of a UN Peacekeeping force. Dianna Buttu and Nadia Hijab of the Palestinian Policy Network recently published an op-ed in The Nation, claiming, “An international protection force will ensure that lives are placed above politics.”
The current Israeli onslaught makes the idea of a UN protection force appealing to all those wishing to mitigate Palestinian suffering. However, any UN presence allowed in occupied Palestine is likely to serve U.S. and Israeli interests by prolonging the occupation and continuing to infringe on the rights of the Palestinian people.
First and foremost, given that the first principle of UN peacekeeping is the “consent of the parties,” any UN force deployed to occupied Palestine will only operate at the behest of the U.S. and Israel, making the entire conversation rather moot.
The UN has condemned the Israeli occupation as illegal and the U.S. has shielded Israel from even the most modest consequences of this judgment at every turn. Israel will not agree to any international deployment intended to end the occupation unless the U.S. forces it to. Despite Buttu and Hijab’s claim that the Palestinian solidarity movement has made inroads in the U.S., “particularly in the Democratic party,” Democratic lawmakers unanimously voiced their support of Israel even during the 2014 massacre of Gaza. If US policymakers refused to utilize the UN to reign in Israel as thousands of Palestinians were being massacred, what makes Butt and Hijab think they will utilize the UN after 50 or 60 Palestinians are killed?
The suggestion of a UN Peacekeeping force is all the more dubious once it is understood that the U.S. and Israel will not allow any force under the auspice of Palestinian autonomy. Buttu and Hijab recognize this, noting “such a protection force, if its parameters and duties are not specified, could end up cementing the Israeli occupation, including the isolated Palestinian enclaves that Israel has created.” If UN Peacekeeping forces are deployed to Palestine the Israeli occupation will simply be replaced with an international one. Palestinians may be safeguarded by UN troops but so will Israeli settlements, further entrenching Israeli colonies. The Peacekeeping force would be a supplement to the Palestinian Authority, whose main task, as a neo-colonial army, is to contain Palestinian resistance. Israel would be relieved of the burden of sustaining the occupation and would improve its international image. It would now be UN troops firing tear gas at Palestinian protesters rather than Israeli Defense Forces.
UN troops aren’t saints themselves, especially when deployed for long periods among vulnerable and confined civilians. Long-term UN missions have been associated with violations of physical integrity rights, including extrajudicial killing and sexual assault. In Kosovo, the long-term UN deployment has resulted in at least 800 cases of sexual assault and 70 murders perpetrated by UN personnel. Kosovo is admittedly the most extreme case of such abuses, but human rights violations by UN troops are far from rare.
It is conceivable that a UN Peacekeeping force will eventually be deployed to Jerusalem after the occupation, if nothing else, to ensure that various religious communities have unfettered access to their respective religious sites. However, as Buttu and Hijab observe, “a protection force must be premised on the illegality of the Israeli occupation and on the long-established principles expressed in previous UN Security Council resolutions, specifically 242 and 338.” Current U.S., Israeli rejectionism makes this proposal dead on arrival, meaning that any UN force allowed into Palestine will serve US-Israeli interests.
There is a powerful and promising alternative to an Israeli-allowed UN deployment: international solidarity activism. Full and complete Palestinian autonomy could be achieved very quickly if the U.S. cut off aid to Israel and ceased to deploy UN Security Council vetoes in Israel’s favor.
A change in U.S. policy can only be achieved with intense pressure directed at U.S. companies and institutions. Buttu and Hijab cite the UN mission to East Timor as an example of how UN action led to the end of a brutal and prolonged occupation. This is a mischaracterization. The UN was only able to administer East Timor after international outcry and domestic pressure finally led the U.S. to withdraw its support from the brutal Indonesian occupation. Rather than demonstrating the need for reactionary intervention, the recent increase in Israeli violence demonstrates the necessity of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions targeting U.S. political, institutional and corporate complicity in the occupation, and the urgency with which such actions should be pursued.