Not another international force

CAIRO, 27 August (IPS) - Since the Gaza Strip was taken over by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas in June, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has twice appealed for the deployment of an “international force” to the troubled territory. But with international contingents already deployed in hotspots from Lebanon to Afghanistan, some observers see the trend as a challenge to principles of national sovereignty.

“The phenomenon represents a return of the region to the foreign colonialism of days past, albeit in a new, internationalized form,” Abdel-Halim Kandil, political analyst and former editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama told IPS. “An international presence in the Gaza Strip would be especially dangerous because many would consider it no different than the Israeli occupation.”

Within the last five years, the Middle East and neighboring regions have seen international force deployments proliferate. Some of these have been mandated to simply keep the peace, but others have been deployed with military objectives in mind.

Following last year’s war between Israel and Shi’a resistance faction Hizballah, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) mandated with stabilizing the country’s south since 1978 was bolstered to a current strength of 15,000 troops. Shortly afterwards, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — through the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) — took command of US-led military forces in Afghanistan.

Most recently, on 31 July, the UN Security Council agreed to send 19,000 peacekeepers to Sudan’s Darfur region, where the force will join several thousand African Union (AU) troops. Dubbed the UN-AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the force is expected to arrive in Sudan within months.

But many observers in the region are quick to question the motives of such international force deployments, peacekeeping or otherwise.

“The region is gradually becoming subject to more international custodianship,” Essam al-Arian, a leading member of Egypt’s opposition Muslim Brotherhood movement told IPS. “These so-called international forces — regardless of their stated mandates — are surreptitiously used to serve the Zionist project in the Middle East, seize the region’s petroleum, and prevent the Arab peoples from democratically choosing their leaders.”

Despite a common mistrust of international intervention in local affairs, on 29 June Abbas called for an international force to be deployed to the Gaza Strip after Hamas took control in mid-June. But the idea was dismissed by virtually all other Palestinian factions as a non-starter.

The proposal came in for particularly harsh criticism by Hamas officials, who said the move would constitute “a first step towards the extirpation of the Palestinian cause.”

“Abbas has gone too far in his readiness to sacrifice Palestinian interests,” Yehia Daabisa, vice-president of the Hamas parliamentary bloc was quoted as saying in the 15 July edition of pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat. “Why doesn’t Abbas call for deployment of international forces to the West Bank — which is still under occupation — to protect the people there from daily arrests and assassinations [by the Israeli military]?”

In a statement, the Hamas military wing declared it “would not, under any circumstances” allow international forces to enter the Gaza Strip. The statement warned that such forces would be “greeted with artillery shells and missiles.”

Cairo, too, for whom the situation in neighboring Gaza remains a top security concern, ruled out the idea. According to a diplomatic source quoted in the 2 July edition of independent daily al-Masri al-Youm, Cairo is anxious to avoid alienating the various Palestinian factions “which would consider international intervention another form of occupation.”

The source went on to say that an international deployment to Gaza would “have a negative effect on [Palestinian] national unity, on the [Egypt-Gaza] border and on Egyptian national security.”

Despite such negative reactions, Abbas reiterated the proposal 10 July. “We have insisted on the necessity of deploying an international force in the Gaza Strip to guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid and to allow citizens to enter and leave freely,” Abbas said following talks with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi in Ramallah.

Many local commentators say that Abbas’ reasons for making the proposal stem from political rather than humanitarian considerations.

“Abbas simply wants an international force to protect Fatah’s interests in Gaza from Hamas,” said Kandil. “He has no need for such a force in the West Bank, where the Israeli occupation forces already perform this function.”

Besides, Kandil added, “the security situation in Gaza — under the governance of Hamas — has actually improved within the last two months.”

According to Mohamed Abu al-Hadid, political analyst and chairman of the state-owned print house Dar al-Tahrir (which publishes official daily al-Gomhouriya), it is “not in the Palestinian interest” to have an international force stationed in Gaza. “Any international deployment to the territory must come as part of a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians,” Abu al-Hadid told IPS.

Even the United States has played down the viability of sending an international force to the territory under current circumstances. “It would be difficult to find forces that would be ready and effective in going into such a clearly non-permissive environment,” US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said 14 July.

In a case of strange bedfellows, Abbas’ proposal has been endorsed by Israeli cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party. In late June, Lieberman went so far as to visit several NATO member nations in an effort to garner support for the idea.

But that Abbas’ proposal should find the support of Lieberman — whose party has openly called for expulsion of Palestinians from lands claimed by Israel — has only further damaged the PA President’s image as defender of the Palestinian cause.

“It’s just another indication that Abbas is acting according to the US-Israeli agenda in the region,” said Kandil, “and not in the interests of Palestinian statehood.”

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