“Clearly it is not a situation for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,” said United Nations Under-Secretary General for Peackeeping Herve Ladsous when asked recently about the escalating humanitarian crisis in Gaza. His reasoning was because — as is always the sticking point — Palestine is not a state, and Hamas is a terrorist non-state actor.
This complication, however, is not sufficient to remove the responsibilities of the global community to take action to prevent the growing death toll in Gaza. Alongside genuine terrorists, Palestinian civilians — including children — are dying; Israeli soldiers — many of whom are, however you might feel about the justice of their cause, simply obeying orders and doing what they believe to be their duty — are dying.
It has been the official position of the United Nations since 2002 that the solution to the Palestinian/Israeli situation involves a two-state solution, and yet formal steps to bring that about have been tentative and inadequate. As always, it isn’t the terrorists who suffer, nor is it the disturbingly hateful subcultures within Israel — women, children and families bear the brunt of a political struggle they were caught up in by the mere accident of their birth.
But there is a case for peacekeepers in Gaza — and not a one-sided one. The involvement of peacekeepers would say nothing regarding the inherent justice of the Israeli or Palestinian causes. It would simply reflect the honest fact that the laws of war have not been rightly or consistently applied throughout this conflict, a problem not uncommon in asymmetric situations. The most crucial of these is the protection of civilians, who have been deliberately targeted by Hamas and disproportionately affected by Israel’s counter-attacks. In an environment where the Times of Israel can publish a piece entitled “When Genocide is Permissible“, and Gaza continues to be subjected to rocket fire, it appears clear that civilian lives are not being treated with respect and dignity.
These are the situations that the policy of international law known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) were designed for. In a recent piece in The Huffington Post, Director of the Global Centre for R2P Simon Adams explained that the R2P principle was adopted to protect people from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Whether Gaza formally constitutes any of these is up for debate, but the moral point is the same: people are dying needlessly, and we have a responsibility to defend them. Most of the responsibility for this protection falls, as Adams argues, on Hamas and Israel themselves. However, given that each is demonstrably failing in this task, someone else needs to step in.
The limited role and responsibility of these peacekeepers would be described by their purpose: the defence of civilians. Peacekeepers in Gaza would not be mandated to seek out Hamas, discover the locations of tunnels, or put an end to rocket fire, nor would they be required to expel Israel from Gaza and allow the Palestinian people the basic right of self-governance. Each of these is desirable and necessary, but neither is within the purview of a peacekeeping mission.
The first task of a peacekeeping mission would be to establish clearly defined and protected safe zones for civilians to gather. Tragically, similar steps have not been effective thus far, with a UN school serving as a safe zone being subjected to shelling. But with peacekeepers present, the ramifications of targeting safe zones would much higher; if UN peacekeepers from around the world are killed in an indiscriminate (or terrorist) attack, it will be extremely difficult for either Israel or Hamas to retain the respect of the global audience. This has been demonstrated in the fall out from the tragic MH17 incident.
The presence of peacekeepers would also mitigate the extent to which Hamas would be able to use human shields. Large collections of civilians would be protected by armed personnel conducting weapons searches, patrolling the area and genuinely creating a harbour from the storm of war. Furthermore, peacekeepers could be stationed to protect critical infrastructure, preventing these from being bases from which Hamas could launch rockets and subsequently preventing the need for Israel to destroy such facilities.
Finally, providing genuine safe zones for noncombatants actually enhances Israel’s ability to fulfil the mission it claims it has a moral and legal right to pursue: preventing Hamas’ ability to conduct attacks on Israel. It has been frequently claimed that the Israel Defence Forces take unprecedented steps to avoid civilian casualties. War is unpredictable, so it is unfair to point to the lack of pudding as a lack of proof, but if the IDF genuinely desire the protection of civilians, they ought to welcome additional steps for their protection.
My solution isn’t perfect; peacekeepers are no panacea for conflict. Peacekeepers have at times failed in their moral duties, with stories of corruption, sexual abuse and reckless use of force. They are also often ill-trained for the tasks ahead of them and, crucially, have little motivation to be there. This final point is the crucial one. Peacekeepers risk their lives to protect civilians in foreign lands far from home and they frequently aren’t willing to do so. For instance, Dutch peacekeepers were recently found guilty of handing 300 Bosnian Muslims over to genocidal Serbs, who subsequently massacred them. Gaza may indeed demand a higher standard of peacekeeper than we can reasonably expect.
Nevertheless, it seems to be that there is a case for peacekeepers in Gaza that warrants discussion. For the UN to dismiss the possibility out of hand, as the Under-Secretary did, is to continue to avoid grappling seriously with a situation the UN appears to have been designed for.
*Matthew Beard is a research associate in the Centre for Faith, Ethics & Society at the University of Notre Dame, Australia. His primary areas of research are military ethics, post-war experiences of military personnel, and applied ethics.