Border Control / A UN Force? Depends When You Ask

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Israel is suddenly eager for an international force in the Gaza Strip. This idea came up a little more than two years ago, when quiet had been restored in the north and unrest had returned to the south. Government bureaucrats played around with the idea of applying United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 in the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was asked for his opinion of the initiative at a November 2006 meeting with European ambassadors, at the Herzliya home of their Finnish counterpart.

Olmert said that Israel opposed having a multinational force modeled on the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon supervising the truce in the Gaza Strip. He explained that such forces are not effective in complex areas like Gaza. In addition, Olmert warned the diplomats that if Israel were to have a hand in bringing European forces into Gaza, "You would curse us."

Not two weeks went by and Olmert was again asked about the matter. This time, his response was much more positive. In an interview with an Italian television channel, Olmert was asked about the offer by then-Italian foreign minister Massimo d'Alema to contribute troops to an international force in the Gaza Strip under the auspices of the UN, just as it had sent soldiers to UNIFIL in Lebanon.

"If Italy is prepared for its army to act daily against terror by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror organizations active in Gaza, this could be very interesting news. I am prepared to examine this," he said. Expressing concern about the boys from Europe, Olmert continued, "Are you prepared to sacrifice your soldiers? Are you prepared to expose members of your nation to the risk to which we expose our nation, due to a lack of choice?"

Right at that time, Meretz faction head MK Zahava Gal-On convened a group of international law experts, political scientists and Middle East scholars and with their help prepared "An Action Plan for Exiting the Territories." The plan proposed that sovereignty over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip be given first to a caretaker government backed by a multinational force, and supervised by the Quartet.

The force would enter territories evacuated by the Israel Defense Forces and would serve as a barrier between Palestinians and Israelis. It would be given responsibility for rehabilitating the Palestinian Authority civil infrastructure. The force would receive a three- to five-year mandate via a Security Council resolution. During that time, the sides would hold talks on a permanent status solution.

In May 2007, when the situation in the south was deteriorating, Gal-On refined the plan and recruited fellow faction member MK Avshalom Vilan to her side. The revised plan proposed that the Arab League would take initial responsibility for the Gaza Strip, as negotiations began based on the March 2002 Arab peace plan. After that, Gilad Shalit would be released in return for Palestinian prisoners, and a cease-fire would be declared.

In the final stage, the Security Council would authorize the Quartet to station a multinational force along the Philadelphi Route to prevent smuggling and on the border with Israel to prevent shooting at southern communities. The force would also be responsible for security coordination between Israel and the Palestinians and would supervise the cease-fire.

Gal-On and Vilan presented the plan to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and to foreign diplomats. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni read the plan and said, "Every morning I wake up and examine all the options concerning Gaza." As is well known, her final option was to go to war in Gaza, without an agreement.

The two found out what Olmert's attitude was when visiting Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah. Abbas told them that the idea had come up in one of his meetings with the prime minister. He related that after they had agreed that this was an "interesting" idea, Olmert said it wasn't practical, since it would "drive [Yisrael Beiteinu MK Avigdor] Lieberman out of his mind."

Nothing new in Gaza

On November 1, 1956, the third day of the Sinai Campaign, the 11th Infantry Brigade (the Yiftah Brigade) stood at the gates of Gaza. The brigade commander, Assaf Simhoni, wrote a note called "Battle Page Number 2," and distributed it to the soldiers and commanders: "Gaza - a living organ of the state of Israel that has been torn from it. A fist brandished at the state, a base for the Egyptians' murderous emissaries, a center of infiltrators, a constant threat to our security. And across from it - Nahal Oz, Be'eri, Kissufim, Niri'im - a chain of flourishing locales facing a hostile border ...

"Fighters! Tonight we will burst through and inundate the enemy's strongholds until we rip out Gaza's gates and bolts. As veterans of battle we shall take with us the best of our battle heritage, its military skill and the iron desire to strike at the enemy and vanquish him. We shall address him with our military and human stature. Fighters! Strike at the enemy! Strike at him repeatedly! Until he is defeated by the swords of the fighters of this brigade. Onward to battle and victory!"

In that operation, which took place from July-December 1971, IDF soldiers under the command of GOC Southern Command Ariel [Arik] Sharon killed 742 Palestinians. The force imposed a curfew on refugee camps in order to carry out house-to-house searches, uprooted trees, demolished many houses and expelled their inhabitants in order to create secure access routes. Several high-raking officers expressed their reservations about Sharon's modus operandi, and even sent investigators into the Gaza Strip to investigate Palestinian deaths. Sharon's Web page states that the action brought "quiet and tranquility to the area for many years, with minimal harm to the civilian population."

And what has happened since then to this tranquil civilian population? In 1956, during the Sinai Campaign, there were approximately 300,000 Gazans. In 1971 there were more than half a million inhabitants. Now, at the beginning of 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, the population of Gaza stands at about 1.5 million. If this population growth rate continues (4.5 percent annually), by 2015 there will be 2 million people in Gaza: about 5,300 people per square kilometer, as compared to about 300 per square kilometer in Israel.