It is the most important international peacekeeping mission anywhere in the world today. It may also be the most successful in history. After four wars in the Middle East and all the turmoil which followed, it has helped to keep the peace between Israel and Egypt for 35 years. It’s called the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) mission — and almost no one in Canada knows it exists.
The irony is that the mission performs essentially the same peacekeeping function for which the Canadian-inspired UN Emergency Force (UNEF) was created in 1956, in virtually the same place, with hundreds of Canadian Armed Forces personnel having served with the mission over the years including 70 today, and with the 1660-strong international force currently commanded by a Canadian general. At present, there are 12 nations contributing forces.
The mission was established in 1981 to help implement the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt which emerged from the Camp David accord. Its importance is hard to exaggerate. As long as Israel and Egypt continue to get along, there is no prospect of another war between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Once that has been ruled out, it’s possible finally to imagine there could be peace in the Middle East.
The MFO has been effective for two main reasons. The first is how it has organized itself for its dual mission of (a) allowing Egypt to exercise its national sovereignty over the whole of the Sinai peninsula while (b) assuring Israel that there will be no repetition of the Egyptian military buildups which have threatened Israel in the past. That’s been achieved by dividing the region into four zones, each of which is governed by its own rules for the kinds of forces allowed to be present.
- In Zone A, closest to the Suez canal, Egypt is allowed to station a division and to overfly the zone with combat and surveillance aircraft but not to base any there.
- In Zone B in the centre of the peninsula, Egypt is allowed to station up to four battalions equipped with light weapons not to exceed 4000 personnel.
- In Zone C adjacent to the Israeli border, only Egyptian police and MFO forces are allowed to be present. The zone itself is divided into northern, central and southern sectors, each with its own MFO battalion (currently Fijian, Colombian and American).
- In Zone D, a narrow strip of land lying within Israeli territory, the Israelis are allowed a limited force of four infantry battalions. The Israeli force in the zone can have armoured vehicles but not tanks or artillery.
The net effect is that Egypt is in control of its territory in Sinai, but with its military and police forces deployed in a such a way that Israel can be confident it will not again have to face a surprise attack.
The other reason for the MFO’s success is that it is not a United Nations operation. This had not been the intent at the outset, but in light of Soviet obstructionism, European ambivalence, and Arab opposition, a UN operation appeared impractical.
As it turns out, the benefits have been many. Unlike many UN peacekeeping forces, the MFO was deployed with a clear mandate to implement a signed peace agreement. This meant it has had the full cooperation of both Israel and Egypt. Israel had not trusted the UN since 1967, when Egypt unilaterally ordered UNEF forces out of the Sinai “effective immediately” and the UN complied. In addition, the United States, having brokered the peace treaty, was committed to its success and provided the political, financial and military support required to make it so. Not being a UN mission, the MFO was not subject to the Security Council and the political winds which buffet it, nor accountable to the UN bureaucracy with its short attention span and long lead times for decisions.
The downside is that MFO force members do not wear blue berets and therefore do not, by some logic or other, “count” as peacekeepers. So the myth persists that Canada is a peacekeeping deadbeat. It’s time that canard was put to rest. They know better in the Sinai.
The featured image is a photo of a section of the Israel-Egypt border fence north of Eilat.