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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Why Israel Rejects “Observers”

Filed under: Israeli Security, Palestinians
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 459 August 2001

Why Not Outside Observers?

In the midst of an already crumbling cease-fire, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell dropped what to Israeli ears was a bombshell. Standing next to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat after their June 2001 meeting in Ramallah, Powell said, “I think as we get into the confidence-building phase there will be a need for monitors and observers to…make an independent observation of what has happened.”1 Within hours, Powell punctured his own trial balloon by ruling out any mechanism opposed by Israel. Less than one month later, the observer issue was once again thrust to the fore when the G-8 foreign ministers unanimously called for dispatching “third-party monitors” to the region, as long as they were acceptable to both sides.2 Why should the seemingly innocuous matter of observers top the Palestinian agenda and be such an anathema to Israel?

Outside observers, after all, would logically be in the interest of any party that wants to guarantee that an agreement be kept. Since it is Israel that does not trust the Palestinians to keep the cease-fire, Israel might be expected to be the first to demand international whistle-blowers to help prevent violations. As Arafat asked, playing to the sense that observers should naturally be in the interests of both sides, “why does the government of Israel reject the dispatching of international observers to consolidate and protect the cease-fire?”3

Actually, a cursory glance at history will show that there is no mystery here. The reason for Israel’s objection is the same as for Arafat’s enthusiasm. Experience shows that international observers will protect not the cease-fire but Arafat’s ability to violate it. The long record of international observers in the Arab-Israeli conflict is unblemished by a single example of basic fairness toward Israel, let alone protection from Arab aggression.

The British Observe the Hadassah Convoy Massacre

The discouraging record begins even before the founding of the state. In his autobiography, David Ben-Gurion recalls when the British, then governing Palestine, took the term “observer” to extremes. On April 13, 1948, a convoy of ambulances and armored buses headed for Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Two hundred meters from the British military post that was supposed to secure the route, the convoy came under Arab attack from both sides of the road. “The soldiers [at the post],” Ben-Gurion reports, “watched the attack but did nothing.” British military cars passed three times during the seven hours that the convoy was under attack, one including Jerusalem’s ranking British general, but they did not stop to intervene or assist. Seventy-seven Jewish doctors, nurses, academics, and students were massacred that day, after top British officials had “personally guaranteed” that medical and civilian transports would be protected by the British army and police.4

UN Observers Before the Six-Day War

Under the 1949 Armistice Agreement, United Nations Military Observers (UNMOs) were deployed along the cease-fire lines with Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Each of the UNMOs reported to a Mixed Armistice Commission composed of representatives from Israel, the relevant Arab country, and the UN.

In the eighteen years before the Six-Day War changed these lines dramatically, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of attacks against Israel — from 1950 to 1956 from Egyptian-held Gaza and from 1965 to 1967 by Fatah, from behind Syrian and Jordanian lines. The UN observers would report on the terrorist attacks against Israel and on Israel’s responses. Any attempt to condemn Syria, for example, for allowing terrorist attacks would be blocked by a Soviet veto, while Israel would be subject to complaints in response to its retaliations.

Abba Eban, Israel’s first Ambassador to the United Nations, summarized Israel’s situation at the UN in the 1950s when UN military observers monitored the armistice lines and reported back to the UN Security Council:

Arabs could kill Israeli citizens across the border, blockade our port of Eilat, close the Suez Canal to our shipping, send armed groups into our territory for murder and havoc, and decline to carry out stipulated clauses of the armistice agreement in the complete certainty that the Security Council would not adopt even the mildest resolution of criticism….On the other hand, there was no inhibition to resolutions criticizing Israel for retaliating against attacks. Thus the doctrine of the United Nations came to imply that Arab governments could conduct warfare and maintain belligerency against Israel while Israel could offer no response.5

The One-Sided Response of UNIFIL

In more recent times, Israel’s experience with UNIFIL has shown that the powers of observation of such forces had become no less selective. UNIFIL (United Nations Force in southern Lebanon) was established in March 1978 pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 425. The resolution called on Israel to “immediately” withdraw its forces from Lebanon, and established UNIFIL “for the purpose of confirming the withdrawal of Israeli forces, restoring international peace and security and assisting the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area.”

Over a 23-year record that continues to this day, UNIFIL has been a classic example of how UN forces act as a sieve — letting through attacks against Israel but subjecting Israel to scrutiny for responding to those attacks. Former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold recalls the standard pattern: “Hezbullah would launch artillery attacks 50 meters away from a UNIFIL outpost, Israel would shoot back, and UNIFIL would protest against the Israeli response.”6 When Israel withdrew completely from Lebanon in May 2000, UNIFIL faced a moment of truth: would it fulfill its original mandate by “restoring international peace and security” along the border and helping the Lebanese government to restore its “effective authority”? Within the first few days after Israel’s withdrawal the answer became clear. Neither UNIFIL nor the Lebanese government deployed their forces along the border; it was Hezbullah that rushed in to fill the security vacuum.

Even after the UN-defined “Blue Line” was painstakingly demarcated and Israel spent millions relocating its positions south of the line, UNIFIL did not expand its presence along the line as expected. In the six months after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal, Israel had filed nearly 500 complaints regarding cross-border violations.7

It is particularly telling that when the United Nations decided to cut back the size of UNIFIL in early 2001, the Lebanese government did not object but Hezbullah condemned the move. Hezbullah evidently sees UNIFIL’s presence as a factor preventing the deployment of Lebanese government forces along the border, even though hastening that deployment is clearly part of UNIFIL’s mandate.8

UNIFIL’s neutrality and usefulness was most dramatically brought into question by the scandal surrounding a videotape made by UNIFIL soldiers shortly after the October 7, 2000, kidnapping by Hezbullah of three Israeli soldiers. On June 27, 2001, senior Israeli officers reportedly asked UN Mideast Envoy Terje Larsen and UN South Lebanon representative Stephen de Mistora to see a videotape the Israelis knew existed of the cars — disguised as UN vehicles — that Hezbullah had used in the kidnapping. The UN officials denied the existence of the tape. Larsen checked again with UN headquarters in New York and found that the Israelis were right. He later reportedly told Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer that he was “ashamed” at having unwittingly lied to Israel.9

In addition to the UN’s hiding the videotape from Israel, even more serious allegations swirl around the UN’s possible complicity in the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. Israeli officials reportedly insist that “covert contacts were held between Hezbullah and the Indian [UNIFIL contingent] before the abduction.” According to this report, “dozens of soldiers…received hundreds of thousands of dollars for collaborating in the kidnapping.”10 These allegations remain to be proven; Indian soldiers are generally disciplined. But the charge illustrates a problem that can emerge in monitoring arrangements.

According to another report, a former UN official stationed in Lebanon claims that the UN destroyed evidence that it found in the vehicles that were abandoned by Hezbullah that appeared in the famous videotape. In this case, UN officials are blamed rather than Indian soldiers. The former UN observer told a Lebanese newspaper that Israel would have “screamed for” this evidence if its existence had been known.11

As of this writing, an internal investigation ordered by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and conducted by Under Secretary-General Joseph Conner has just been completed, although the report has not yet been made public. Israel, for its part, has officially requested to examine the original videotape and to interview the UN soldiers stationed in the area of the kidnapping.12 The UN has repeatedly refused to hand over the original videotape, offering only to show the videotape to Israelis with the faces of Hezbullah personnel obscured.

The UN capitulation to Hezbullah demands to censor the UN videotape itself provides a window into the UN’s vision of its role. It might be understandable, for example, for the UN to maintain strict neutrality between Lebanese and Israeli government forces. In this case, however, the UN is acting as if it must protect the identities of members of a nongovernmental terrorist group directly involved in a kidnapping that the UN itself agrees is a grave violation of UN resolutions.

International Observers are Not Neutral

The picture of international observers as neutral pairs of eyes and ears has not been borne out in practice. Observers ostensibly have a mandate to be impartial, but they do not forget the interests of the nations they represent. It should be no surprise that representatives of the same nations that vote against Israel en masse in international bodies have trouble acting fairly when serving in an observer force.

Even the United States has bitter experience with the inability of international observers to stick to their mandate when it conflicts with the policies of the nations that send them. Saddam Hussein was able to whittle away the effectiveness of UNSCOM, the UN monitoring effort in Iraq, through constant pressure on the relevant capitals to hold him to a lower standard. UNSCOM’s fall was a classic case of how even the most dedicated international observers ultimately reflect the will and biases of the bodies that stand behind them, not some objective standard of fairness, or even the mandate they are sent to uphold.

In addition to whatever biases national representatives bring to the table, Israel also suffers from a structural asymmetry: the lack of plausible deniability. These days, Israel is not being attacked by armies of sovereign nations or even by the Palestinian Authority per se, but by proxies that allow national leaders to shirk responsibility. Israel, by contrast, must defend itself with its army, and stand behind its actions. Israel will always be a more convenient address for international protest than murky bodies such as Hezbullah or the latest offshoot of Arafat’s myriad security forces.

Further Examples of International Monitoring

A number of examples of allegedly successful international monitoring in the region include the UN Disengagement and Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Israeli-Syrian border and the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Egyptian Sinai. Upon closer examination, however, these cases tend to illustrate a point made recently by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, “Observers can observe once you have peace. They cannot observe a lack of peace.”

The distinction between peace-making and peace-keeping is a vital one. UNDOF “works” despite the lack of a Syrian-Israeli peace because Syria does not want to attack Israel over its own border, preferring instead the deniability of supporting Hezbullah’s attacks from Lebanon. Egypt has no interest in violating its demilitarization commitments in the Sinai, so Israel does not have a problem with the MFO there. The Syrian and Egyptian cases, in other words, are not true tests of the fairness and effectiveness of international forces because national interests, not outside forces, are really keeping the peace.

The Experience of Observers in Hebron

Since 1994, scores of observers from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Turkey, and Italy have been stationed in Hebron as part of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), with a mandate “to provide a feeling of security among the Palestinians in the city of Hebron and to contribute to the renewal of normal life.” Yet TIPH does not report to the United Nations but rather to Israel, the Palestinians, and the governments of its members. While TIPH may have at times provided a useful cover for meetings between local Israeli and Palestinian leaders, it would be difficult to argue that its presence has prevented any specific attacks against Israelis. A recent press account described TIPH’s role thus, “Here in Hebron, where outside monitors are part of the daily landscape, there are doubts that any monitoring force could deter Jewish or Palestinian militants bent on violence, or do much to suppress the pandemonium in the streets.” The same report cites a Danish member of TIPH stating, “A force to create peace would be extremely difficult….I do not believe that’s possible.”13 Another account sums up TIPH’s record: “Seven years later, the watchdog force is still there, though even with its presence, Hebron remains a cauldron.”14

TIPH has proven totally ineffective in preventing rioting Palestinian mobs from attacking Jewish soldiers and civilians for weeks on end beginning in October 2000, or preventing periodic sniper fire on Jewish homes in the city from Palestinian-controlled hilltops. It did nothing, for example, to prevent the Palestinian sniper who took aim at a children’s playground in Hebron, murdering 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass in her stroller in March 2001.

Nor is TIPH free of the accusations of bias that have plagued other international observer efforts. According to Col. (res.) Baruch Nagar, who until mid-1999 was a high-ranking Israeli officer in Hebron, “It is clear from their mandate that they are in the city to serve the Palestinians. My task was to limit the damage they cause….[TIPH was] a factor that greatly interfered. Their activities very much limited the IDF and the Jewish residents.”15 Col. Nagar’s testimony provides a fascinating window, albeit from the Israeli side, into the gap between what observers see and what they report:

In private conversations with most of the TIPH people, their tendency was to speak the truth. It was clear to them that the Palestinians were the aggressors and in conversations with us they justified the IDF actions in most incidents. But the minute that Palestinians were present at the conversation, and when they wrote their periodic reports, we came out badly. Then they spoke and wrote the opposite of what they said to us privately.16

Col. Nagar attributed the inability of the TIPH to report honestly to both personal and organizational factors. On the personal level, “The observers know that the Palestinians are violent terrorists. They see this daily and are afraid of them. On the other hand, they know that the reaction of Israel to unfair criticism will be no more than an unpleasant conversation. So they prefer to disagree with us and not with the Palestinians.” On the organizational level, Col. Nagar continued, “the TIPH has no interest in accusing the Palestinians of aggressiveness. Indeed, they are in Hebron in order to give the Palestinians a feeling of security. If it comes out that the Palestinians are causing the Israelis to feel insecure, how can they justify their mandate?”17

Even if the TIPH experience had been more positive, it is unlikely that it could be expanded without losing whatever limited benefits its presence may have brought. When observers are limited to small areas, such as Hebron, Arafat has an incentive to show the benefits of an international presence as a model to be expanded widely. But if the same model were employed on a comprehensive basis in the disputed territories, there would no longer be such a Palestinian incentive to make observers “work” — with the likely result that the negative experience so far, would be exacerbated.

Putting Observers at Risk

Generally, the deployment of international observers in areas of ongoing, unresolved conflicts contains many risks that undermine their very mission. UN observers have been kidnapped in Lebanon and Bosnia, which is likely to cause them to further compromise their impartiality and side with the force that poses the greatest threat. Evidence of Dutch and French complicity in the Srebrenica massacres of 1995 is presently under investigation. In this case, Bosnian Serb forces had taken UN hostages, threatening the lives of the UN peacekeeping contingents.18

As we have seen with UNIFIL and TIPH, the primary mission of observers under threat is self-protection. This dynamic would likely emerge in the West Bank and Gaza, where besides Fatah/Tanzim and Force-17 terrorist units, there are Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist cells who could be directed by Iran to initiate attacks, even if Arafat implemented a cease-fire at a future date.

In short, Israel’s experience with and expectations from international observer forces ranges from barely tolerable to actively harmful. There is no reason for Israel to risk the placement of a one-way mirror between it and the Palestinians, with a special glaze that lets through Palestinian attacks, while reflecting back Israeli responses straight into the court of world opinion.

What About American Observers?

Because it is well known that international observers tend to render judgments that reflect the national interests of the states that send them, some voices suggest that Israel rely on observers from its principal ally, the United States. But even in the case of American observers, conflicts of interest can arise.

One U.S.-Israeli disagreement over the assessment of violations emerged at the end of the War of Attrition. On August 8, 1970, Israel detected that Egypt had violated an American-brokered cease-fire agreement by moving SAM-2 and SAM-3 batteries up to the Suez Canal. It took three weeks before the U.S. Department of State admitted that violations had occurred.19

During Prime Minister Sharon’s July 10, 2001, meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office, Bush repeated nearly a dozen times how much “progress” had been made in the implementation of the cease-fire plan negotiated by CIA Director George Tenet.20 The administration had an interest in presenting its first Arab-Israeli diplomatic initiative in as positive a light as possible. Its diplomatic reputation was at stake and perhaps Saudi Arabian concerns about the Palestinians had been expressed to the administration. Sharon, aware of the mounting fatalities on the Israeli side, did not see the Tenet cup as half-full but rather half-empty. Both men aired their different assessments in public. Clearly, even the U.S. will have its own national interest when it is called upon to assess the situation on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that assessment could be very different from Israel’s.

As of this writing, the United States is deciding whether to propose to Israel a monitoring force composed solely of U.S. personnel. As discussed above, the deployment of U.S. monitors does not eliminate the tendency of policies from the home capital to affect the objectivity of observers in the field. U.S. observers could actually be even more problematic from Israel’s perspective, because what Israel needs from the United States is support, not neutrality. Even now, the U.S. has been refusing to clearly distinguish between Palestinian terrorist attacks and targeted Israeli actions taken in self-defense.21 The introduction of American observers into this picture would likely push the U.S. further toward a neutral stance.

Even if it were possible to set aside the problems of bias and, in the case of U.S. observers, the danger of creating a wedge between the U.S. and Israel, the more fundamental concern is one of principle: the imperative not to reward violence. At some level, the Palestinian demand for observers is interchangeable with other demands that have arisen since the post-Camp David Palestinian offensive against Israel began — such as a freeze on building in Israeli settlements. The Palestinian objective has been to receive diplomatic payment for ending, or reducing, attacks against Israel.

The Mitchell Committee report, by stipulating that a cease-fire be unconditional and precede all “confidence building measures” and negotiations, implicitly accepted the principle that the Palestinian resort to violence was not legitimate and should not be rewarded. The reverse is also true: any diplomatic benefit accrued through violence legitimates that violence and encourages the resort to violence in the future.

The July 19 G-8 Rome Foreign Ministers’ statement,22 while endorsing the Mitchell Report, blatantly violates the sequencing of that report by supporting the key Palestinian demand for international intervention (“third-party monitoring”), despite the Palestinian refusal to implement the Tenet cease-fire plan.23 The record indicates that international observers have failed at their most basic task of being a stabilizing influence in conflict situations. If international observers are introduced as a diplomatic reward for aggression, then the counterproductive nature of their role would be greatly increased.


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1. Remarks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Secretary Colin L. Powell, June 28, 2001; see full text at

2. G-8 Rome Foreign Ministers Statement on the Middle East, July 19, 2001; see full text at:

3. Herb Keinon, “Peres and Arafat Meet,” Jerusalem Post, July 1, 2001.

4. David Ben-Gurion, Israel: A Personal History (Tel Aviv: Sabra Books, 1972), p. 73. Ben-Gurion reprints this harrowing account from another book, Faithful City, by Dov Joseph. During the massacre, which lasted seven hours, a Jewish Agency liaison officer was told by British military headquarters not to send Hagana forces because the British Army had the situation in hand and would extricate the convoy.

5. Abba Eban, An Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1977), pp. 176-177.

6. Saul Singer, “Why Israel Rejects ‘Observers’,” Wall Street Journal Europe, July 3, 2001.

7. David Rudge, “The United Nations’ Role in Lebanon,” Jerusalem Post, November 27, 2000.

8. David Rudge, “UN Security Council Agrees to Cut Size of UNIFIL,” Jerusalem Post, January 31, 2001.

9. Nahum Barnea, “The UN’s Watergate,” Yediot Ahronot, July 15, 2001 (Hebrew).

10. “Hezbullah ‘Bought’ UN Soldiers for Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars,” Eli Kamir, Ma’ariv, July 12, 2001 (Hebrew).

11. Nicholas Blanford, “UN ‘Destroyed’ Evidence After Abduction of Three Israeli Troops,” Daily Star (Lebanon), July 30, 2001. See full text at

12. Full text of the July 8, 2001, letter can be found at:

13. Lee Hockstader, “In One Mideast Town, Monitors Lack Impact: Experience in Chaotic Hebron Raises Doubts About Ability of ‘Third-Party’ Observers to Slow Conflict,” Washington Post, July 23, 2001.

14. Clyde Haberman, “An Israeli Hints at Permitting U.S. Observers,” New York Times, July 21, 2001.

15. Caroline Glick, “They Will Always Favor the Palestinians,” Makor Rishon, July 27, 2001 (Hebrew).

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Srebrenica: The Dutch Sabra and Shatilla,” Jerusalem Viewpoints No. 458, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, July 15, 2001. See full text at

19. Dore Gold, “U.S. Forces on the Golan Heights and Israeli-Syrian Security Arrangements,” Memorandum No. 44, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, August 1994, p. 55.

20. An unofficial text of the Tenet plan can be found at:

21. See “The Right to Self-Defense,” Editorial, Jerusalem Post, July 5, 2001;

22. See note 2.

23. From the beginning of the “cease-fire,” the Palestinian leadership has made a distinction between attacks on Israel from areas under full Palestinian control (Area A) and suicide bombings, on one hand, and attacks against Israelis living in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, on the other. They never pledged to stop attacks on the latter category of Israelis, and such attacks have, in fact, continued unabated. On July 31, 2001, Palestinian firing on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo resumed, signaling that Palestinian forces were no longer abiding by their own declared ban on attacks from Area A. The most fundamental and open Palestinian violation of the Tenet plan has been the refusal to arrest suicide bombers and those who send them.


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Saul Singer heads the Project on U.S.-Israel Relations at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has previously served as a foreign policy advisor to U.S. Senator Connie Mack and on the staffs of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Banking Committee.